Sam McClain, a runaway at 15, sings to help those living on the street
New Hampshire-based soul singer "Mighty" Sam McClain left home at age 13 when his abusive stepfather began hitting him with a hammer. He stayed with relatives near where he grew up in Monroe, La., but by the time he was 15, McClain had hit the streets for good.
"It was a blessing because I didn't want to pick no cotton and plough no mule, so my stepfather did me a favor," McClain, 64, says now. "I crawled out my window and didn't look back."
Sporadic success as a singer - cutting records, playing gigs at Harlem's hallowed Apollo Theater, tours of Europe later in his life - intermingled with decades of hardship, broken marriages, business deals that left him broke, and repeated bouts of homelessness.
"One minute I'm at the Apollo Theater with Gladys Knight, Jackie Wilson, and the next thing I know I was back on the streets," says McClain. "The first time I saw a man eating out of a garbage can, I thought, 'How the hell can you eat out of a garbage can?' Until one day, I woke up, and there I was, and let me tell you, I was glad to find something to eat. I learned how. You get hungry."
Despite those tough times, McClain laughs easily these days and often with a big, boisterous cackle. He's both awestruck and amused by what he calls "God's plan" for a poor Louisiana kid who started out singing gospel hymns in church. He never could have guessed that some five decades later, he would duet with multiplatinum rocker Jon Bon Jovi on "Show Me the Way," a song McClain wrote about his homeless experiences.
"I was so humbled by that," McClain says of Bon Jovi's interest. "That was part of God's plan. I'm sure Jon Bon Jovi didn't plan that - that he said, 'I'm gonna get with this old blues singer from Louisiana.' "
The track is just one of many star-studded numbers on a new album called "Give US Your Poor," out now on Appleseed Recordings, with benefits going to UMass-Boston's Give US Your Poor Campaign to End Homelessness organization. The disc features contributions by, among others, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Bonnie Raitt, Keb' Mo', and Natalie Merchant, as well as New England luminaries such as McClain, veteran bluesman Weepin' Willie Robinson (who was staying at the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans when Appleseed Recordings found him), pop-rockers Buffalo Tom, and a handful of homeless musicians who lent their talents to the project.
Several artists, including Merchant, McClain, Buffalo Tom, and Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis, co-headline a benefit show titled "The Give US Your Poor Concert for Boston's Homeless" tonight at the Strand Theater, which is also celebrating its grand reopening. (Go to www.giveusyourpoor.org for more information.) Attendees are asked to bring a donation of children's socks, underwear, and pajamas between sizes 0 and 16. The first 200 donors will receive a free copy of the CD.
"When people rise up, it's really inspiring," says John McGah, founder and executive director of the Give US Your Poor Campaign to End Homelessness at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "The whole idea of our work is to break down the disconnection between homeless people and people that are housed. We're trying to dispel myths and show that solutions do exist. It's easy to hide the problem or explain [homelessness] as, 'They're all lazy, they're all mentally ill,' or, 'It's too bad, but they choose to be homeless.' I hear that a lot."
According to a 2001 study by the US Conference of Mayors, 40 percent of those who homeless are families. Shelters turn away 37 percent of the individuals seeking a place to stay because of overcrowding, and when it comes to families, that number jumps to 52 percent. Furthermore, more than 40 percent of Boston's homeless population is employed, according to Boston's Emergency Shelter Commission.
"Life brings changes and some people are more affected than others, especially poor people that don't have money and can't ride it out," McClain says. "Everybody who goes through this, they're not bad people. You got whole families out there, man. Some of 'em have jobs, and they're still sleeping outdoors. Some of 'em have two jobs, and they're sleeping outdoors."
"Ain't nothing here that we got going on that we can't fix - it's just a matter of where our priorities are," McClain says. "We were put here to take care and love each other. We are one family - God's family in this one little room we call the planet Earth. But we turn our back and don't even speak to each other."
The stigmas and stereotypes that plague a population often forgotten or ignored took a heavy toll on McClain. At one point, living on Nashville's streets and driven to despair, he considered killing himself.
"Nobody cared about me, and I didn't see one face that I could call, not one person who wanted to hear me say, 'I'm hungry, I need some help,' " McClain recalls. "That was one of the loneliest times I've ever felt. I was ready to walk into the river and say, 'I don't want to live like this,' and God spoke up and said, 'No, you got me' . . . It didn't make no sense to me, but God said, 'I died for you, so what you're going through ain't nothing. So get up and let's go.' "
McClain, who now lives with his wife in New Hampshire (where he moved in 1993) and even has his own tour bus, remembers those hard years as if they were only yesterday. His hardships and homelessness, he says, have strengthened him.
"I know who I am, I know where I come from, and I know where I'm going," he says. "I'm just glad to be here to be able to talk about it."