Are you familiar with the song “Patches” by Clarence Carter? If not there’s a link later in this paragraph for you to follow, but before you do let me issue a “Mascara Warning”, even if you don’t wear mascara. “Patches” is right up there with “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro as a song that is likely to make a grown man, or a grown woman, cry, so make sure that you’re in a suitable environment. Is this an appropriate time and place if the song makes you blub? If so, here’s the studio version. (And when I played it just now the next song played on YouTube was “Honey”, so be careful.) When you’ve heard it (or, if you prefer, while you’re listening) take a look at the following paragraphs for a few facts, stories, and the reason why the song is on my mind.
“Patches” was a #2 hit here in the UK in 1970. In the States it reached #4 in the Billboard chart and #1 in its competitor, Cashbox. Clarence Carter was married five times, and at the time “Patches” was recorded his wife was Candi Staton (pronounced Stay-tun, not Statt-en) who also reached #2 in the UK later in the 1970s, with “Young hearts run free”. Both songs are well worth a place in my list of the best singles to be “Stuck at 2” but neither of them made the countdown in the BBC list that I referred to in this piece.
Many years ago, somewhere that is not attributable, on some radio programme (probably on BBC Radio 2), I heard a story about how “Patches” was recorded. As I recall, Carter didn’t think much of the song when he first heard it and although he agreed to record it he hadn’t learnt the words by the time the session was booked. For most of us this wouldn’t matter, we could read them while singing, but Carter is blind and there was no way to transcribe the lyrics easily for him in the recording studio. Instead, someone read out the words to him through headphones, prompting him before each line. He would hear the line “I was born and raised in Alabama” and sing it back, then “on a farm way back up in the woods”, sing that line, and so on.
This story has come to mind repeatedly over the last year while testing different versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, speech recognition and transcription software made by a company called Nuance, which I mentioned in this earlier piece about Voice Recognition. The people I was dealing with use Dragon for two main reasons: accessibility issues (brought about either by degenerative diseases or by RSI and carpal-tunnel type injuries) or to transcribe audio recordings. Most audio recordings of people speaking in their normal voices cannot be interpreted easily by software, but by listening to a recording through headphones and simultaneously repeating the words more clearly you can get a reasonably accurate transcription. Or maybe you can’t. It all depends on how much audio you can hear and repeat back accurately, and on your accent. I can usually repeat back entire sentences without difficulty. Sometimes, if asked a complicated or poorly-phrased question, it’s useful to repeat the whole question back verbatim rather than try to answer it. It helps to clarify things
When working with people who re-dictate audio recordings I tell them the story of how “Patches” was recorded and use Clarence Carter’s words to test whether the software works. I’ll do it now, using that trick of pressing the Fn key twice on this Mac Book Pro to begin dictation. “I was born and raised in Alabama, on a farm way back up in the woods. I was so raggedy folks used to call me patches, you know papa used to tease me about it because deep down inside he was hurt because he done all he could.“ Not bad. I might amend the word “papa” to “poppa” and change “he done” to “he’d done” but otherwise it’s accurate. Or at least, it’s an accurate transcription of what I think the words are. A quick check on some lyrics sites tells me that they could be: “I was born and raised down in Alabama / On a farm way back up in the woods / I was so ragged the folks used to call me Patches / Papa used to tease me about it / ’Course deep down inside he was hurt / ’Cause he’d done all he could”.
Finally, as this live recording of the song shows, Carter did eventually learn the words. He introduces the performance with some chat about the year 1970 and his five marriages, and he gets through every verse and chorus without bursting into tears. Maybe you will too, and maybe that earlier “Mascara Warning” was unnecessary.