So most folks are going to recognize Billy Vera as the guy responsible for the sappy hit ballad 'At This Moment' ... That's unfortunate since Vera's actually a mega talented guy who's written quality material for a slew of outside artists. Also, as a recording act on his own, he's recorded material far better than 'At This Moment'. Vera's also known as a rock historian, having prepared liner notes for many releases.
By the mid-1960s Vera had carved out a reputation as a capable New York-based songwriter, having placed material with a wide range of acts including Barbara Lewis and Rick Nelson. Interested in taking a stab at a recording career on his own, he approached Atlantic's Jerry Wexler with a proposal to record material with Nona Hendryx (then a member of Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles). Vera and Hendryx reportedly recorded several tracks, including the original version of 'Storybook Children', but Bluebelles management nixed the collaboration out of fear it would lead to a breakup of the group. Wexler subsequently suggested former Drunkard Singers member Judy Clay and the song was re-recorded using the original backing traps.
A decent sized pop and soul hit, the single performed well enough for Atlantic to green light a supporting album - 1967's cleverly-titled "Storybook Children". From a marketing standpoint, in this day and age the album cover looks positively sedate, but that certainly wasn't the case in 1967. In an era when record labels were still reluctant to feature photos of black acts on album covers for fear of losing sales, Atlantic's decision to go ahead and record an interracial act, let alone slap a photo of the act on the album cover was a truly groundbreaking move (and probably helped explain in part why the LP wasn't a major seller). Still, from a marketing point there was probably a good business case for releasing the album given the buying public's mid-1960s fascination with male-female recording acts, That said, I have to be honest and tell you the Vera-Clay partnership simply didn't come close to the charms exuded by competitors such as Marvin Gaye and his various female partners. I'm not sure most of the set was even as good as Brenda and Herb, Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, or even Edwin Starr and Blinky (okay, it was at least as good as the latter). The fact of the matter is the pair simply didn't have a great deal of chemistry and for the most part their voices didn't mesh particularly well. Mind you, Vera and Clay both had great voices, but with the possible exceptions of '' and '' their collaborations came off as sharp and somewhat disjointed with Clay simply overpowering Vera - check out the one-sided outcome on a track like 'Soul Man'. Clay effortlessly leaves Vera in her dust. In fact one of the album highlights was essentially a Clay solo effort - the Vera-penned 'Good Morning Blues'. The other glaring problem came in the form of material. Clearly rushed into the studio, producers Chip Taylor and Ted Daryll simply didn't have enough time to come up with a top-notch list of tunes are were forced to patch together a mixture of their own material (the title track), Vera-penned tracks (Good Morning Blues' and 'Really Together' didn't even feature Clay), and popular soul and pop hits. The end result was an album with a somewhat stitched together, haphazard feel.
- I'm sure lots of folks will disagree, but I've always found 'Storybook Children' to be overly saccharine and cloying. The song's social message of tolerance (Vera's always claimed it was just about adultery), was certainly admirable, but buried under a hideously over-orchestrated arrangement (blame Ray Ellis), the results just left me cold. The buying public obviously disagreed ... rating: *** stars
- Shown on the track listing with the title 'Just Across the Line', but actually known as 'Country Girl - City Man' was a far better effort. Built on a Stax-styled country-soul melody, this one had everything needed for a good single, including the Clay-Vera chemistry that was absent from the title track. Easy to see why this was tapped as a follow-on single. rating: **** stars
- The ballad 'Let It Be Me' was a good example of the underlying problems with their partnership. Vera and Clay sounded fine on their own, but the joint harmony vocals came off as sharp and not particularly melodic. rating: ** stars
- While I'd love to say something nice about their cover of the Stax classic 'Soul Man', their version was essentially a rote cover - to my ears it literally sounded like a note-for-note copy. rating: ** stars
- Penned and sung solo by Vera, the dark and brooding ballad 'Good Morning Blues' showcased a surprising side of Vera - namely his voice at its deepest and darkest - his performance was tough enough to take paint off of a surface. Easily one of the album highlights and probably his best performance on the set. rating: **** stars
- Bobby Womack's 'We're In Love' was such a great song you'd have to work hard to mess it up and while the Clay-Vera cover was quite good, it provided another example of how one sided the skills match-up was. Once again Clay simply crushed Vera without putting in much of an effort on her part. rating: *** stars
- Another big, heavily orchestrated ballad, 'When Do We Go' underscored how poorly Clay and Vera's voices worked together, but since they took alternate versus, this was one that almost worked ... Certainly one of Daryll and Taylor's prettier tunes and the bass player turned in a killer performance. rating: *** stars
- While they exhibits good taste in covering Sam Cooke's 'Bring It On Home To Me', both Clay and Vera were drown by the backing singers ... forgettable performance. rating: ** stars
- Opening up with an extremely lame Vera vamp, the duo's cover of 'Do Right Woman - Do Right Man' simply never recovered. rating: ** stars
- Another Vera solo effort, 'Really Together' was probably the album's biggest surprise - a blazing slice of blue-eyed soul. Say what you will about Vera's voice, but on this one he was simply great and the only complaint is that the song was way too short. rating: **** stars
- Yeah, the lyric was over-complicated, but the country-soul ballad 'Ever Since' was the album's best collaboration. Perhaps because the two didn't sound like they were pushing it (Clay sounded particularly relaxed), this one really cooked and one have made a dandy single. Yeah, the harpsichord arrangement won me over from the opening chords ... rating: **** stars
- 'So Good (To Be Together)' ended the album with a pretty, but thoroughly pedestrian county-soul ballad. Every time I hear this one, within a couple of minutes I've forgotten everything about it. rating: ** stars
As mentioned above, the album was tapped for a pair of follow-on singles:
- 1968's 'Country Girl - City Man' b/w 'So Good to Be Together' (Atlantic catalog number 45-2480) # 36 pop; # 41 R&B- 1968's 'When Do We Go' b/w 'Ever Since' (Atlantic catalog number 45-2515)
Certainly not a perfect effort, but worth checking out (and you can still find cheap copies).
"Storybook Children" track listing:
1.) Storybook Children (Chip Taylor - Billy Vera) - 3:00
2.) Just Across the Line (aka Country Girl - City Man) (Chip Taylor - Ted Daryll) - 2:24
3.) Let It Be Me (Mann Curtis - Gilbert Becaud - Pierre Delance) - 2:54
4.) Soul Man (Isaac Hayes - David Porter) - 2;30
5.) Good Morning Blues (Billy Vera) - 2:57
5.) We're In Love (Bobby Womack) - 2:28
1.) When Do We Go (Ted Darryl - Chip Taylor) - 2:45
2.) Bring It On Home To Me (Sam Cooke) - 1:59
3.) Do Right Woman - Do Right Man (Dan Penn - Chips Moman) - 3:40
4.) Really Together (Billy Vera) - 1:45
5.) Ever Since (Billy Vera - Chip Taylor) - 3:00
6.) So Good (To Be Together) (Billy Vera - Chip Taylor) - 2:43
Unfortunately, whatever momentum the pair had was lost when Stax and Atlantic ended their distribution deal in mid-1968. Even though material had been recorded for a projected follow-on, Clay was legally bound to Stax which tried to pair her with William Bell.
In an interesting postscript to the story, Atlantic and Stax set aside their differences long enough to finance some additional Clay-Vera recording sessions with saw the release of one last 45:
- 1969's 'Tell It Like It Is' b/w 'Reaching for the Moon' (Atlantic catalog number 45-2654)
Having retired from secular music and focused her attention on family, Clay died in a September 2001 car accident.