Marcia Clifton was the drummer of Memphis' first and only all-girl late '70s punk band, The Klitz. Formed in 1978, The Klitz were comprised of Marcia's sister Gail Elise Clifton (vocals, keys), Lesa Aldridge (vocals, guitar) and Amy Gassner (bass). The group was mentored by Lesa Aldridge's boyfriend Alex Chilton and by legendary producer Jim Dickinson.
The Klitz raised hell in late '70s Memphis, crashing shows and occasionally getting the plug pulled. Klitz sets consisted of originals and Chilton-inspired material from the period, including "Hook or Crook" and Chilton favorites "Death Cab for Cutie" and "I've Had It." A highpoint for the band came in the summer of '79 when they opened up for The Cramps in Memphis and New York. The Klitz dissolved when Lesa Aldridge moved to New Jersey in 1980. Marcia Clifton drummed briefly for Aldridge's post-Klitz band, Missy and the Men (late '80), before effectively retiring from music.
Although they recorded a number of times, The Klitz never released a record during their '78-'80 run. While there were a few independent labels in town (Power Play and Barbarian Records), Memphis didn't have a Dangerhouse and with the demise of STAX in late 1975, the local recording industry was in rough shape.
For decades, The Klitz remained a footnote in Memphis music history. Nevertheless, they were important—the Klitz predated and inspired the venerable Panther Burns and if punk was about lowering standards (as Ross Johnson asserts), the Klitz did just that—visually stunning, they were equal parts Shaggs and Panther Burns. Given the proper time and opportunity, The Klitz likely would've done great things. For fans of Midtown Memphis punk — think 'Like Flies on Sherbert', 'Behind the Magnolia Curtain' and Stranded in Canton — the group is essential.
Recently, Marcia Clifton has been drumming with the reformed Klitz; the group played the 2014 Memphis release party for Holly George-Warren's Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction. Marcia's currently collaborating with husband Hans Faulhaber and Ross Johnson in various projects. In 2014 Spacecase Records released the first archival tracks by the Klitz, 'Sounds of Memphis '78'. 'Live at the Well', a collection of live Klitz tracks from the late '70s, will be available later this year.
TB: Were you born in Florida like your sister (and future Klitz vocalist) Gail Elise Clifton? Marcia: Nope. I'm a native Memphian.
TB: Your father was in the army, correct? Marcia: He was in the Navy for a couple of years. I do have a lot of music-related memories associated with my parents. They liked Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Elvis. My mother bought us our first Beatles records. Our neighbor was Bill Black.
TB: I know Bill Black didn't live a long life. Was he still living next to you when you were a child? Marcia: Yes. He lived right across the street from us in the early '60s. We lived in a Memphis neighborhood that gets maligned a lot — the Frayser neighborhood. But there were a lot of cool people who lived in Frayser. Bill Black, of course, and folks who owned nice restaurants. It was an upper-middle class neighborhood, if such a thing existed in Frayser. Sam the Sham lived nearby, as did Sivad.
TB: Did you ever see Sam the Sham driving around in his hearse? Marcia: I did not.
TB: What were you listening to before punk hit? Marcia: I had more eclectic tastes. I listened to a lot of my mother's records. Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson.
Occasionally, people would want to impress Alex (Chilton). He was so great about listening to all kinds of music. I remember feeling embarrassed by my tastes. I was still listening to Motown in the early '70s. When Alex started coming around he said, "That's cool you have all of these different records." I always felt good about that. People were into Southern Rock at the time, but I wasn't.
TB: Did you meet Alex through Lesa (Aldridge)? Marcia: Gail (Marcia's sister) might have met Alex first. She was kind of doing her own thing. I met Alex through Karen Hampton. Karen is John Hampton's ex-wife. Karen's the girl in the famous Eggleston photograph with Lesa.
TB: They Needed to Talk. Marcia: Right. She met Alex first. That would've been around 1972. I'm not entirely sure of the timeline, but I think Lesa moved back to Memphis in '73. The first time I met Alex was when Karen and Alex came over to my house after an Iggy Pop concert. That was around '73. We kind of knew that Alex was cool. He had been in the Box Tops. But he was just a regular guy. We were living the theme song to That '70s Show, "In the Street." I just didn't know it at the time.
TB: You and Lesa had started playing together before the formation of the Klitz, right? Marcia: Correct. Lesa was my best friend. She was going with Alex. Before we got the band together, Lesa directed me in a play. Lesa was a dance choreographer. Alex would come to the plays we'd do. He was an artistic inspiration to us even before we started the Klitz. He was the one who really got us going, but Lesa and I were always creating together.
TB: Would you say he pushed you into forming a group? Marcia: Absolutely. Because I was a dancer. Alex told me, "You can play the drums, Marcia. If you can dance, you can play the drums." That stuck with me. I'd just dance the beat on the drums. Alex always encouraged me. Others would say, "You're untrained. You don't know what you're doing." But Alex would say, "Just keep doing what you're doing." Richard Rosebrough always encouraged me too.
TB: Was it Bernard Patrick (of "My Rival" fame) and Richard (Rosebrough) who got you started on drums? Marcia: Pretty much. Alex got it going. Bernard and I were kind of romantically involved and he was a drummer too. He encouraged me, but not as much as Richard and Alex. Bernard was more of a perfectionist: "Tune your drums. Hold the beat down." I just liked dancing. Dancing on the drums (laughs).
TB: You have a very idiosyncratic style. Ross (Johnson) and I love your playing. Although you had some formal coaching, you were doing your own thing. Marcia: Thanks. Yeah, I figure if you can count you can be a drummer.
TB: So when did you and Lesa start playing together? Did this predate punk rock? Marcia: We started playing together during the 'Sister Lovers'-era, sometime around '75, so that predated punk. But it wasn't until '77 or '78 that we said, "Okay, here come the Klitz." Looking back on it, you can see how the band developed. But at the time we were just young adults hanging out.
TB: The Klitz were likely the first punk band in Memphis. Your sister (Gail Elise) had The Malverns. Marcia: Right. With Ross.
TB: And (future Panther Burn) Eric Hill. But they never left the garage. Marcia: A lot of people say that we were the first Memphis punk band. I think a lot of it had to do with the name.
TB: True. But you predated the Panther Burns by a good seven or eight months. Marcia: We did.
TB: Punk rock in Memphis in the late '70s was different from the scenes in Los Angeles and New York. It was more of a deconstructivist handling of roots music. Marcia: It was more of a deconstructivist thing.
During the early days of the punk scene, Gail was hanging out with the East Memphis crowd, groups like the Scruffs. Lesa, who later married Tommy (Hoehn), was a bridesmaid at Tommy's wedding. They were both heavily into the Memphis power-pop scene. I was sort of on the outside of that scene. Lesa got really into Alex during the 'Sister Lovers' period. I wasn't around as much then. I was hanging out with a different crowd, like my girlfriend Beth (Hudson) who was at that WLYX radio show with Lesa and Alex.
TB: Oh, yeah. That one's legendary. Marcia: Right. Lesa and Beth were my two best friends. Memphis is such a small town. Everything overlaps.
Sometime around 1975, we went to see Ray Davies and the Kinks. My boyfriend (Bernard Patrick) had gotten sick, so Beth and I had invited Alex to take his place. We had a copy of Big Star's 'Radio City' with us. This could never happen again — Beth stormed the stage at the Kinks concert and gave Ray Davies 'Radio City'. She said, "I'm sitting with Alex Chilton. You've got to have his record." That was cool. It was before the Klitz formed and was sort of the darker days of Lesa and Alex's relationship. I was a little too thin-skinned for that scene.
TB: One of the earliest Klitz shows (in 1978) was with Tommy Hoehn. It was a record release show for 'Losing You to Sleep'. Memphis was wide open. Tommy's records were all pretty pristine. The Klitz were a wild bunch. Marcia: Yeah. We were all friends. Our first gig was at the Midtown Saloon. The Tommy Hoehn gig was at the Ritz. We sort of crashed the gig, but it was recorded by John Hampton. In the days that followed, we would go to Ardent and listen to the tape. It was hot! The guys at Ardent liked it but said we should change our name. Another gig we crashed was the Strings and Things Battle of the Bands at the Overton Park Shell. We stormed the stage. Those Southern rockers didn't know what to think. It seems like we always crashed gigs. We crashed another party that Alex knew about. It was an upscale artsy Halloween party that Keith Sykes was playing. Alex talked them into letting us play a few songs. They pulled the plug on us that night. Alex got a big kick out of that. He loved the controversy. We all did.
TB: Do you recall how long the Klitz were a three-piece (Gail Elise Clifton, vocals and keys; Lesa Aldridge, guitar and vocals; Marcia Clifton, drums) before Amy Gassner joined in on bass? Marcia: Not long. Maybe three or four months. Amy had moved back to Memphis in the summer of '78. Amy and I had gone to high school together. Gail had sort of joined up with us and got on board with what Lesa, Alex and I had been doing. We knew we had to get Amy in on it. We were hanging out at Lesa's apartment a lot. I remember when we named ourselves the Klitz. It was like we finally had an identity.
We started practicing at my mother's boyfriend's boathouse; my parents got divorced when I was young. My first drum set belonged to my mother's boyfriend. It was a nice Slingerland kit from the '40s.
TB: How did audiences react to you? Marcia: It was ridiculous that we had the name that we did (laughs). Everyone was curious about us because of Alex and Lesa. They both got us a lot of attention. Everyone knew who Alex was. Lesa was (William) Eggleston's cousin. They were part of the cool Midtown art scene.
TB: Before the Panther Burns formed, do you recall some of the bands you shared bills with? Marcia: The Randy Band, Neon Wheels and the Panther Burns later on. We generally shared bills with The Randy Band and the Panther Burns.
TB: I saw a flyer for a show you played with Teenie Hodges and Hi Rhythm. Marcia: That was fabulous! The "We Survived the '70s" night. That bill was incredible. Mud Boy and the Neutrons, Teenie and Roland Robinson. One time Lesa and I jammed with Roland Robinson at Barry Shankman's studio (BR Toad). I was on drums, Lesa was on guitar and Roland was on bass. I wish I knew where those tapes were.
TB: You mentioned Bill Eggleston earlier. Would you see him around at shows or anything? Marcia: Those were crazy times. Eggleston would show up to parties we were at before the Klitz even—like back when we were in high school. It might have been just because he was Lesa's cousin. I remember one Halloween party, he showed up with a video camera. No one had one back then. We're talking 1973.
TB: The one he used to film Stranded in Canton with? Marcia: Yeah. When I first watched the film, I tried to see if any of the footage from that Halloween party made it in. Eggleston would just show up at random places.
TB: Was the 'Sounds of Memphis' session (1978) the first time you had entered a recording studio? Marcia: Actually, Gail and I had made a record as children. TB: Really? Marcia: Yeah. At Phillips. Stan Kesler was the engineer.
TB: That's incredible. How old were you? Marcia: Nine or ten. My mother and her boyfriend knew the art directors for the album. They weren't in charge of the music; they were just doing the layout and photography. They were looking for young girls to place on the cover. They found me, my sister and another young girl who lived in the same apartment building. We took the photograph and then they asked, "Hey, do you want to sing on this record?" We said, "Sure!" It was a Christmas record. There was narration and we'd say little lines and sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" totally off key. Who knew ten years later we'd be in the same studio when Alex was cutting 'Like Flies on Sherbert'?
TB: The Sounds of Memphis session was with Sam the Sham and Alex, correct? Marcia: Right. That was the first time we entered the studio as the Klitz. Irvin Salky set that up. He was the go-to lawyer for musicians. Irvin represented Phineas Newborn and Furry Lewis. He knew everybody. Hopefully I'm telling the story correctly, but Alex called Irvin up and said, "Hey, I want to take the Klitz into the studio." Irvin called Sounds of Memphis and Sam the Sham answered. Irvin said, "I have this all-girl band who wants to record. They're named the Klitz. Can they stop by?" Sam replied, "Great name. Can they get over here in ten minutes?" It was like ten in the morning on a Wednesday. It was such an off-time for a recording session.
Although we weren't there very long, everything seemed to go in slow motion. Everything was first take for the most part. I remember walking out of the studio with the recording tape. Anytime we could play it for someone we would.
TB: Alex's monetary success was pretty much gone by the time of 'Like Flies on Sherbert'. What was working with him like during that period? What was your take on his disposition? Marcia: During the Klitz? Like in '78? TB: Yeah. Marcia: I feel like the darker times were in '76 and '77. Like I said earlier, that's when I was doing something else. I wasn't there for the 'Sister Lovers' period. To me, that was the darkest period. "Big Black Car" is about as dark and disconnected as it gets. The Klitz and the Panther Burns period was better for everyone. I don't personally feel like the punk times were dark. We felt like we were breaking the mold.
TB: It's pure speculation on my part, but releasing 'Like Flies on Sherbert' on Peabody, forming the Panther Burns and working with the Klitz—it seemed like Alex had accepted that the die was cast on his career being noncommercial. Marcia: Absolutely. He enjoyed working with the Cramps too. Things were getting better.
TB: The Cramps coming through Memphis (to record 'Gravest Hits') was a big deal. Marcia: It was huge. Bryan (Gregory) stayed at Gail's apartment. We all hung out. We opened for the Cramps in Memphis and New York.
TB: Did Jim Dickinson start taking over for Alex in '79? Marcia: He did. Lesa went off to Bangkok; her mother was living over there. That's when Alex wrote "Bangkok." When Lesa came back from Thailand, that's when Jim Blake and Jim Dickinson started working with us. Lesa and Alex had kind of broken up. Blake and Dickinson would take us over to Barry Shankman's studio, BR Toad. Dickinson became much more involved. That's around the time we did that TV special — Captain Memphis Meets the Klitz.
TB: Had you met Dickinson before he started working with the Klitz? Marcia: No. The first time I met him was when he started working with us.
TB: What do you recall about Dickinson? Marcia: He was very mysterious. Very enigmatic. You never knew what he was going to say next. Jim was great for a sound bite. He had a very keen insight into things.
TB: Jim Dickinson really helped you out. The Klitz started getting name checked in Rolling Stone magazine.
Marcia: That's right. That all happened because of Jim.
TB: Was there ever talk of releasing a record or signing with one of the major independent labels? I had heard that Miles Copeland was around. Of course, Jim Blake had Barbarian Records. Marcia: Miles Copeland was around. He came to see us play. I think we weren't polished enough for him. A short time later the Go-Go's came out and I went, "Oh, so that's what they were looking for." There's a part in Captain Memphis Meets the Klitz where Dickinson says, "If the Klitz stay together, we'll hear them progress on every record just like the Beatles." I wish we had stayed together.
TB: Did Miles Copeland pay for you guys to travel to New York? Marcia: I really can't recall. Miles came down to Memphis to hear us play at the Orpheum with the Cramps (summer of '79). Afterwards, we went up to New York and opened for the Cramps again. I don't recall much about Miles' involvement other than him coming to hear us play.
We went back to New York after the Cramps gig to play the premiere party for Lorne Michaels' Mondo Video. Our girlfriend Elizabeth Johnson set that one up.
TB: In between the two trips to New York, Amy (Gassner) left the band. Marcia: Yeah. Something happened between her and Lesa. There's always been a lot of drama. I think we had invited Amy to go back with us to New York, but she didn't go.
TB: It was pretty surreal that Sarah Fulcher joined the Klitz briefly (1980) as a bassist. She had previously toured as a background singer with the Grateful Dead and had cut one of those great, obscure early '70s Memphis blues records. Marcia: That all had to do with being in Midtown Memphis. I don't know how else to describe it. We were all at the same place at the same time.
TB: Ross Johnson remains convinced that had The Klitz stayed together, Rough Trade would have picked you up alongside the Panther Burns. Marcia: What can I say? I guess we just thought, "Okay, we've done the band for three or four years now. Let's just stop pretending and be grownups now." Looking back on it, I wish we had toured. We only played in Memphis and New York; we did one show at the Hoka in Oxford, Mississippi. Our home base was The Well (in Memphis), which eventually became the Antenna Club. I remember we played a show at the Naval Base (in Millington — a Memphis suburb). I think the Scruffs might have set that one up.
TB: The Klitz's demise (1980) was precipitated by Lesa moving to New Jersey, right? Marcia: That was part of it. We didn't do any Klitz shows after she left. Lesa and I did record together in New York with one of her boyfriends. Bernard (Patrick) was there too because we were dating. We came back to Memphis and played a show. That was around 1980.
TB: These weren't any of the tracks that appeared on the Lesa Aldridge Barbarian Records EP, correct? Marcia: No. We recorded in New York after Lesa's 7" came out. Lesa was calling the band Missy and the Men. Lesa and Alex had broken up and she was dating Chris Gage at the time. They wrote some cute songs together. This was before Lesa hooked up with Tommy (Hoehn).
TB: The Klitz fell victim to the Memphis black hole of recording. Marcia: It was also before MTV. It was a transitional period. It was sort of sad. A lot of stuff was recorded that's never been released. I've heard the singles Dickinson ("Rumble") and Lesa cut (for Barbarian) sell for over two hundred dollars.
TB: Sometimes more. I heard only a couple hundred copies of each were pressed up. Marcia: Wow! Luckily I have one of each. Tom Foster was amazing. The artwork he did for Lesa's single—with the doll cutout—is incredible. You have to wonder if Blake was intentionally creating collector's items or if he just didn't have the money for production.
TB: All of those Barbarian records sell for good money. Most of the Peabody records do too. I've never seen the Cybil Shepherd one. Marcia: Cybil was great. We used to party with her.
TB: After playing with Lesa in '81, did you effectively quit playing music? Marcia: More or less. I went back to college. I worked in an art museum. When my husband (Hans Faulhaber) and I got married, we started recording together. He built a little studio. He's recorded Ross (Johnson) and Jeff (Evans).
TB: Your sister and Lesa got the Klitz going again in the mid '00s. And now you're playing with the band again. Marcia: Right. When Gail and Lesa started the Klitz up again, it just wasn't a good time for me. My son was four. My daughter was twelve. I didn't have the time needed. It's been fun playing with Klitz again. I can set time aside. We've gotten better and it's been a lot of fun. I've also been playing with Ross Johnson on occasion too.
Barbarian Records related info on Termboard.
Captain Memphis Meets The Klitz on youtube.
Klitz @ The Hitone 2014 on youtube.
The Klitz on facebook.
Spacecase Records is here.
Read Ryan's interview with Gail Elise Clifton here.
Photos courtesy of Gail Elise Clifton and Marcia Clifton
Interview by Ryan Leach, 2016.To read other TB interviews, go here.