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Mighty Sam McClain, 72; R&B singer who soared in later years

Mighty Sam McClain began recording again in the 1980s and moved to New England in the early 1990s.
Mighty Sam McClain began recording again in the 1980s and moved to New England in the early 1990s.RODNEY CURTIS for the boston GLOBE/file 1995

Addressing his audience with an ease born of performing more than 65 years, Mighty Sam McClain thanked the crowd for attending the Blues Masters at the Crossroads 2014 Concert last year and added: “Now I’m going to talk about a little love and pain, because you know it’s a package deal. You don’t get one without the other, baby. It’s a package affair.”

Then he began to sing the wistful “Why Do We Have to Say Goodbye,” one of his favorite songs.

En route to settling in New Hampshire and launching a midlife series of well-received recordings and bookings, the soulful singer from Louisiana had said his share of goodbyes. Before moving north, he bid farewell to friends and siblings, to Southern cities that offered early brushes with success, to musicians with whom he honed his performances, and to a childhood home that had turned abusive.

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Through it all, even when he had to scrounge for food in garbage cans, there was music and faith, which for Mr. McClain went hand in hand. “Without my faith in God, I wouldn’t be sittin’ here today,” he told the Globe in 1995, in the office of his former home in Epping, N.H., a room packed with vinyl records, CDs, tapes, and posters of his album covers and concerts.

Mr. McClain, who released numerous albums and was known earlier in his career for a stirring cover of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” died June 15 in a New Hampshire nursing facility of complications from a stroke. He was 72 and lived in Newmarket, N.H.

“He did not believe in genres. He accepted and made music as music,” said his wife, Sandra. “When he came up north, he got settled into a sideline, in the blues category. He said always ‘I sing blues, and you people give me the blues, but I’m a singer.’ ”

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In interviews, Mr. McClain recalled singing “On the Battlefield for My Lord” as a 5-year-old in his mother’s church gospel group. “The very first thing I can think of that I love about music was acceptance. I felt accepted,” he said in an interview for the Crossroads concert that is posted on YouTube. When he sang in church that day, “those people shouted and applauded for me,” he said, adding that “I knew I wanted more of this. I was hooked.”

Reviewing a 1989 performance Mr. McClain gave at the Village Gate in New York City, Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times that he “plunged immediately into songs of pain-wracked romance and distant hope, pleading for release and redemption with the dramatic timing of classic blues.”

“His face working, his voice moving from plushness to desperate rasps, Mr. McClain carried listeners through repentance, anger, uncertainty, and loneliness,” Pareles wrote. “Even a warhorse like ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ was convincing in its misery as Mr. McClain sang, ‘I just don’t know what to do.’ ”

The songs Mr. McClain sang formed a narrative each time he took the stage, his wife said.

“His set was established as a story. It had to go from beginning to end, which is one of the reasons he refused to do two sets,” she said. “It took a great deal of emotion. The emotion you hear is what he had to generate. He had to recall the pain, the hurt, and sometimes the fun. He had to recall that so people could feel it the way he did.”

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Born in Monroe, La., Mr. McClain was one of 13 siblings. He was 2 when his parents separated and he never knew his father. His mother married four times, he said in a 1998 interview posted online at www.soulexpress.net.

Because his mother only wanted him to sing gospel music, “I was sneaking around my mama’s back and singing the blues,” he said in the Soul Express interview. “But it’s strange how life leads you in a cycle. Now I’m kinda incorporating gospel into my music.”

At 13, he moved out when a stepfather was abusive, and later he spoke in interviews about living with relatives, particularly his grandmother. He lost touch with his siblings after his mother died more than a decade ago, his wife said.

By 16, Mr. McClain was lead singing with the band of guitarist Little Melvin Underwood, playing dates around Monroe. Gigs with other musicians brought him to Shreveport, La., Texas, Las Vegas, and Florida, where he stayed for a decade. Along the way a club owner billed Mr. McClain as “Mighty Sam” on a poster, and the name caught on.

In the mid-1960s, a producer brought him to perform at the Apollo Theater in New York. “I wasn’t ready for it, but that’s what happened,” Mr. McClain told the Globe in 1995. He also recorded his version of “Sweet Dreams,” which was on the charts for a while.

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After that, his career slipped away and he spent years picking up jobs and singing engagements when they were available, though just as often he was on the streets, rifling through garbage cans for discarded food.

“I’ve had to do a lot of humbling things that I thought I’d never have to do,” he said in the 1995 interview, adding that at one point he considered ending his life.

In New Orleans in the 1980s, he befriended Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers band. That encounter led Mr. McClain to begin recording again, and to perform in a revue that toured the Northeast. He liked the region so much that he relocated in the early 1990s.

While performing in Manchester, N.H., he met Sandra Upper. Like Mr. McClain, who had been married and divorced three times, she had been married before. They married in 1995. “We just figured we finally got it right, and I can tell you we certainly did. Every minute was worth waiting for,” she said. “I truly, truly was blessed, and he felt the same way.”

Mr. McClain, she said, left love notes for her around their home and was partial to giving flowers, “but not for occasions. Sam didn’t do occasions, so every day was a birthday, every day was an anniversary.”

No service is planned for Mr. McClain, whose recordings included the album “Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey).” Asked about his influences for that recording in an interview posted on www.musiclegends.ca, he said: “There were only a couple — Jesus and friends.”

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“Any time, in any of the songs when you hear the word love, you can substitute the word God,” his wife said. In a song like “Give it Up to Love,” she said, “what it’s really about is giving it up to God.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.