Though born with a limp, from which he derived his (by today’s standards somewhat insensitive) stage name, he actually started his career as a tap-dancer. Lofton went from tap-dancing to playing boogie-woogie piano and moved from Tennessee to perform in Chicago, Illinois.
His performances underline the value of enthusiasm and rhythm, sometimes at the expense of technical accuracy – if you listen to ‘Mis Taken Blues’ for example, you’ll hear a few minor slips but somehow in Clarence’s case, in my view anyway it does little or nothing to detract from the overall performance, he has a rough, ready and completely original delivery. Described (below) as a ‘bass voice’ I have to say he never sounded very ‘bass’ to me, he has a tenor, verging on high tenor voice with a clean and expressive tone.
The strong and rhythmic trademark of Lofton’s performances was his energetic stage-presence, where he danced and whistled in addition to singing. The following description of a Lofton performance was written by a guy called William Russell:
“No one can complain of Clarence’s lack of variety or versatility. When he really gets going he’s a three-ring circus. During one number, he plays, sings, whistles a chorus, and snaps his fingers with the technique of a Spanish dancer to give further percussive accompaniment to his blues. At times he turns sideways, almost with his back to the piano as he keeps pounding away at the keyboard and stomping his feet, meanwhile continuing to sing and shout at his audience or his drummer. Suddenly in the middle of a number he jumps up, his hands clasped in front of him, and walks around the piano stool, and then, unexpectedly, out booms a vocal break in a bass voice from somewhere. One second later, he has turned and is back at the keyboard, both hands flying at lightning- like pace. His actions and facial expressions are as intensely dramatic and exciting as his music.”
With his distinctive ‘gung ho’ performance style, Lofton found himself a mainstay in his genre. His first recording was with Big Bill Broonzy for Vocalion Records. He later went on to own the Big Apple nightclub in Chicago and continued to record well into the late 1940s, when he retired.
His nickname – seen by modern audiences as a tad insensitive, to say the least, was not seen as inappropriate at the time, which is why I’ve used this picture – he was actually marketed by the record company as ‘Cripple Clarence Lofton’. Although he suffered a birth defect in his leg that made him walk with a pronounced limp, it certainly didn’t stop him from becoming an excellent tap dancer, his original ticket into show business. As far as I can discover he didn’t seem to resent the name. He quickly developed a stage act that consisted of pounding out the boogie-woogie on the piano while standing up, dancing, whistling, and vocalizing.
Lofton’s technique – or some might say the lack of it – stemmed from a tent show background and those listening to his earliest and most energetic recordings will readily attest that hitting every note or making every chord change precisely were not exactly top of his ‘to do’ list. As I allude to above, I don’t think his performances were ever supposed to be a demonstration of a super-accurate precision technique, I think they should be seen as holistic presentations by a distinctive and original artist.
Clarence Lofton remained on the scene, recording for the Gennett, Vocalion, Solo Art, Riverside, Session, and Pax labels. When the public appetite for boogie-woogie subsided for a time starting in the late ’40s, Lofton went into early retirement, staying around Chicago.
Clarence passed away on January 9, 1957 (aged 69)