Country impresario “Cowboy” Jack Clement was responsible for some of the greatest moments in popular music. As a producer at Sun Records in the 1950s, Clement worked with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. For Cash, Clement produced “Ring of Fire” and wrote “Guess Things Happen That Way.” He went on to discover Charley Pride, producing his first 20 albums.
Beyond country, Clement recorded three tunes on U2’s oft-scorned Rattle And Hum album, when the Irish kids decided to head South for a dose of American rhythm and blues. “That was fun,” Clement told me in 2004. “I got to go over to Memphis to the old Sun studio where I’d worked, and there was a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band again.”
Clement, who was paid generously for his time, worked with U2 on “Angel of Harlem,” “Love Rescue Me” and “When Love Comes to Town.” Clement recalled that he had some “neat” home video footage of Bono and bassist Adam Clayton, who drove east from California in a rental car and soaked up the local sights during their working holiday.
Well, Clement succumbed to liver cancer on Thursday, aged 82. I interviewed him about his solo album, Guess Things Happen That Way, which featured Cash on new versions of the title track and Ballad of A Teenage Queen. But I did not know, until today, that Clement only made the cut for the Country Music Hall of Fame this year, and his induction will be posthumous.
It’s a pretty shocking oversight, though Clement was not exactly a stooge for the Nashville establishment. “The country music industry is fucked,” he told me during the interview. “Monopolies, payola, it’s a mess.” Country radio, he added, is “shit, it’s boring, it all sounds the same … These corporate characters could care less about the music, and they want it to sound like everybody else’s records, and so they all sound alike, and a whole lot of that stuff is not selling right now.”
Contemporary country stars “all get on my nerves,” he said, declining to name names.
Clement had much to say about Cash, who had been dead for about a year. “I considered him one of my best friends. I never had a friend any better than him, I’ll put it that way. I loved the guy, I still do. I miss him every day.” Clement had played a lot on Cash’s American Recordings albums, and Cash’s version of “We’ll Meet Again” was recorded at Clement’s studio. At Cash’s funeral, Clement read a two-page poem called “My Friend the Famous Person.” He had written it about Cash in 1991.
Here are some notes from the interview:
RING OF FIRE (RECORDED MARCH 1963, NO. 1 COUNTRY, NO. 17 POP)
The mariachi horns were Johnny’s idea. Jack was living in Beaumont, Texas at the time, and producer Don Law called him to say that June Carter, Johnny’s future wife, and her manager Merle Kilgore had written a song called “Ring of Fire,” and Johnny had a dream about it in which the mariachi horns were on it. Johnny didn’t know much else, but he was hearing these horns on that record, and he wanted to know if Jack would come to Nashville and help him produce it, which is what he did, although he did not get credit. Jack played guitar. He knew the two trumpet players, who knew how to read and write music. Jack hummed the melody, they wrote it down, he changed the mikes on the drums, and they cut “Ring of Fire.” He thinks they played the original version of the song, performed by June’s younger sister Anita, at the studio.
GUESS THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY (RECORDED APRIL 1958, NO. 1 ON COUNTRY CHART, NO. 11 POP)
Clement’s role model for the song was Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” — “and my version is in that direction, more than the way Johnny Cash did, more sort of a rumba thing, sort of a Latin feel.” He originally played the song for Marty Robbins, who recorded a verse and a chorus. Johnny, who had brought Marty to the studio, asked Jack why he didn’t give the song to him. Jack replied that he didn’t think it was in his style. Marty took the demo to get clearance from his producer, Mitch Miller, and said if he doesn’t record it in a month not to hold it. Johnny said if Marty didn’t record it, he would. A few months later, Marty still hadn’t cut it. Cash came in to Sun, and Jack still hadn’t finished the song. While Johnny was working on something else in the studio, Jack went to the restaurant next door and finished it, and they recorded it. On its 1:51 running time, “I remember it was short, but it didn’t bother anybody.”
BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN (RECORDED NOVEMBER 1957, NO. 1 COUNTRY, NO. 14 POP)
It preceded “Guess Things Happen That Way.” Inspired by a red-headed gal, called Barbara Pitman (sp?). Sun Studio was the “candy store,” and he fell in love with the “teenage queen,” who was a singer there, produced by Jack.
Jack met Charley soon after the producer moved to Nashville in 1965, paid for Charley’s first session himself, and remained in touch with Charley to this day. “Charley Pride was a great artist, still is, a wonderful, wonderful voice. Charming.”
RCA Records originally turned Charley down, then talent scout Chet Atkins changed his mind about the “colored boy,” worried that he might be passing up another Elvis Presley. By then, Jack had received encouraging feedback from Texas DJs who had heard an acetate, so he was thinking of pressing the album himself. Chet played the acetate at an A&R meeting the next week, came back and said, “We’ve got a deal.” So Jack didn’t press the record, but he had no regrets.
They put out the album with no reference to his color — just let the sound carry it. At early southern gigs where the crowd was unaware that he was black, he’d step out onto the stage with a disarming, ‘Well, I do have this sorta permanent suntan.’ From then on, he had them in the palm of his hand.
NOTE: For more about Johnny Cash, check out my gossipy rock anthology Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, which is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2004, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING