By Johnny Baier
Editor’s note: In December of 2016 I had the chance to visit with multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and comic, Roy Clark at his office in Tulsa. During our visit he shared many stories of what can only be described as an amazing life and career. Much of what was discussed that day became the basis of a new exhibit at the American Banjo Museum entitled America’s Super Picker, Roy Clark which will run through March of 2017. Enjoy here a glimpse or two into the makings of a very special man, musician and entertainer…
Born with music in his heart on April 15th, 1933 in Meherrin, Virginia, the man who would become America’s Super Picker, Roy Linwood Clark, is the son of two amateur musicians. “Because my dad and uncles played music around our house, I’d say I’d been listening to music since I was in a crib – but we couldn’t afford a crib! My dad did whatever it took to raise a family of five – and still found time to make the music he loved. If I had the ‘get up and go’ that my father had, I’d have been a big star years and years ago.” The Clark family settled in Washington, D.C. where Roy’s dad, Hester Clark, worked in a Navy yard by day and played music for square dances on the weekend.
“Considering I’d been brought up around it, I’ve always found it odd that I didn’t start playing music until I was 11 years old. While picking around on my dad’s tenor banjo one day, a neighbor asked if I’d ever played the guitar? Replying that ‘I’ve never even held one,’ the neighbor soon returned with the instrument that would change my life. When I strummed across those strings it tripped a light switch in me that was loud and consistent…I had to learn to play!”
The Christmas gift of a Sear’s Silvertone guitar set the course for Roy’s future. He began playing guitar, banjo and mandolin and, at the age of 14, was playing at square dances with his father. Practicing so much that his hands bled, Roy won two national banjo championships and, at the expense of his school work, was simultaneously pursuing both his music as well as a sports career, first as a baseball player and then as a boxer. However, after appearing on local radio and television and regularly getting paid to perform at square dances and nightclubs, when an invitation to do a guest performance on the Grand Old Opry came with his second banjo championship, at the age of 17 Roy Clark dedicated himself solely to his music.
After spending a year in Nashville working exclusively in country music with Grand Ole Opry stars such as Grandpa Jones, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, in 1951 Roy Clark returned to Washington, D.C. where his ever growing reputation as versatile musician and entertainer found him playing not only country, but pop, jazz and early rock n roll. “Music was my salvation, the thing I loved most and did best. Whatever was fun, I’d go and do that. My dad always told me, 'Never turn your ear off to music until your heart hears it -- because then you might hear something you like.’”
Although a successful bandleader on his own, Clark joined Jimmy Dean’s band in 1954. While Roy had been content to work recurring local gigs, Dean, ever the businessman, had much larger aspirations – and Clark wanted to be part of them. In 1955, when Roy was a regular on Jimmy Dean’s Town and Country Time television program, Clark’s habitual tardiness caused Dean to fire him, commenting “Roy, you’re going to be a big star someday, but right now, I just can’t afford you.” Age 27 and out of work, Wanda Jackson’s offer for him to come to Las Vegas and front the band for a new show she was opening at the Golden Nugget turned out to be a turning point in Clark’s career. Fighting a chronic lack of self-confidence, the following years saw Roy work diligently as he developed his unique, stand-alone talent as a multi-instrumentalist, singer and comic. “I learned comedy as a self-defense mechanism. I had to be the first one to laugh at me. I didn’t want to sing or play something serious and have someone in the audience laugh. So, I would play something serious and then I’d make a wisecrack.” His predicted path to stardom nearly complete, in 1962 Roy signed with Capitol Records and released his first solo instrumental album, The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark.
The year of 1962 was pivotal in the career of Roy Clark. Jack Parr had retired from the Tonight Show and before the torch was passed on to the new host, Johnny Carson, NBC brought in a series of guests hosts – which included Jimmy Dean. “I was performing at a club in Arizona and I got a call on Wednesday from Jimmy asking me to be in New York on Friday to appear on the Tonight Show! Of all the people in my life, Jimmy Dean is the one who has done me the most good. While people think we didn’t get along, we never had a cross word. His asking me to appear on the Tonight Show was a fastball right down the middle.”
With his first national television exposure and Capitol recordings enjoying significant airplay, people in the industry were talking about “Roy Clark.” Although signed by Capitol as an instrumentalist, record company executives recognized Roy’s ability as a serious vocalist and with “every musician in the state of California” as part of the session, produced Clark’s first hit vocal recording, The Tips of My Fingers. "We didn't call it a crossover hit back then but I guess that's what it was. We didn't aim for that, because if you aim for both sides you miss them both. We just wanted the song – and my performance of it - to be believable."
Clark’s rural sense of humor was equally believable when he played dual roles on four memorable episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies. "Humor is a blessing to me. My earliest recollections are of looking at something and seeing the lighter side. But it's always spontaneous. I couldn't write a comedy skit for someone else." Throughout the 1960s, Clark recorded more albums, toured constantly, and appeared regularly on television variety shows from Johnny Carson to Mike Douglas to Flip Wilson. "I was the token bumpkin. It became, ‘Let's get that Clark guy. He's easy to get along with.’"
With unquestionable momentum, in the late 1960s Roy Clark’s career was on the verge of a full blown explosion. Early indications of this came with his move to the Dot record label in 1968 which resulted in a signature hit, Yesterday, When I Was Young. “I was in the final stages of preparing a new vocal album and had selected all the tunes when a friend played me a demo recording of this beautiful French song which, when translated, became Yesterday, When I Was Young. I heard it and – literally – fell out of my chair. Rin Tin Tin could have made that song a hit! After my recording became known, they took the song to everybody to record…Frank Sinatra said he couldn’t afford to have a record second to Roy Clark…it made me feel good that he felt it was that strong that he couldn’t do it any better.”
A consummate musician no matter what the genre, Roy starred with Petula Clark at Caesar's Palace, became the first country artist to headline at the Montreux International Jazz Festival and appeared in London on The Tom Jones Show. But it was an innocuous meeting with two Canadian television producers during a guest appearance on The Jonathan Winters Show which would ultimately define Clark’s identity to generations yet to come. “In September of 1968, John Aylesworth and Frank Peppia approached me with an idea for a show that was like a countrified Laugh In…slapstick comedy and some good country music. In this business you say ‘yes’ to everything so I said, ‘Of course!’ In January of 1969 my manager, Jim Halsey, called me said, ‘They’re getting ready to do that show.’ I said, ‘What show?” He said, ‘It’s obvious they’ll come up with a better title when it’s time to do the show, but for now they’re calling it Hee Haw.’ The show I’d forgotten I agreed to do went on the air in June of 1969 – and the rest is history.”
Based on their success with rural comedies such as the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, when CBS had a falling out with the Smothers Brothers and needed a mid-season replacement, in June of 1969 they gave the little donkey a chance and Hee Haw made its network television debut. Universally panned by critics, Hee Haw was an instant sensation among viewers and a ratings grabber for CBS. “You can go to college and get educated, but you can watch Hee Haw and get another kind of education. We never tried to be sophisticated…corny was part of our charm.
But there was something deeper in Hee Haw that touched people, particularly those who had grown up with very little. The bib overalls weren’t fiction. When I grew up I had one pair of shoes and went barefoot whenever I could so those shoes wouldn’t wear out before winter. People who grew up in poverty relied on a sense of humor…you have to have something to laugh at when you don’t have anything.”
Despite its high ratings, CBS cancelled Hee Haw along with it other rural comedies in 1971 as part of an effort to make their image more urbane. Moving into syndication without missing an episode, Hee Haw went on for another 20 years and nearly 400 episodes, making it the longest running weekly syndicated series in history. Finding eternal life in reruns, Hee Haw has truly earned its unique place in American pop culture. “Hee Haw was the last hit television show that didn’t hurt anyone. We were just having a good time; we weren’t controversial and we weren’t selling anything. People still come up to me and say ‘I’m a-pickin’ and I’m obliged to reply, ‘and I’m a-grinnin.’ It makes me feel good that they remember enough that they would go through that little bit of energy. I feel that is a very, very nice, warm gesture letting me know that I represent something nice in their life. Any way I look at it, Hee Haw was a major part of my life and I am proud to have been part of it.”
With Hee Haw firmly establishing him as an American entertainment icon, in the 1970s and 80s Roy Clark came to symbolize country music to a new generation. His star – fueled by masterful musicianship, engaging vocals and a sincere, quick wit found his career crossing genre barriers into mainstream entertainment. He toured constantly, often selling out the showrooms of major venues in Las Vegas and Atlantic City while upholding his country roots as a belated member of the Grand Ole Opry. In addition to Hee Haw, Clark was a regular on numerous talk, sitcom and variety television shows, including becoming a regular guest host for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. His string of country hits which included Thank God and Greyhound, If I Had To Do It All Over Again, Somewhere Between Love and Tomorrow, The Lawrence Welk – Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka, and Honeymoon Feelin’ culminated with his chart topping single, Come Live With Me.
Roy’s unique talents recognized were by his peers when he received multiple Entertainer of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year awards from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music prior to winning the 1982 Grammy award for his instrumental version of Alabama Jubilee.
An astute businessman, in addition to his investments in everything from real estate to cattle to professional sports teams, Clark is credited with being the pioneer superstar who – through a steady stream of legendary performers taking the stage at the Roy Clark Celebrity Theater –transformed Branson, Missouri from a quaint mountain town to a mecca of live musical performance. For a man who did not taste major success until he was 30, Roy’s amazing career has not been part of some grand plan, but rather taking everything in its own time.
“I had dreams of being a star when I was 18. I could’ve pushed it, but it wouldn’t have happened any sooner. I’m lucky.
What’s happened has happened in spite of me.”
Although an unlikely international emissary of peace and goodwill, in 1976 Roy Clark became just that as the first country music artist to perform in the Soviet Union. “After hosting a delegation of Soviets in Las Vegas, they casually commented, ‘You’ll have to come and visit our country.’ One thing led to another and we found ourselves planning a concert tour of the Soviet Union. What an experience…we did 18 concerts to sold out audiences. A very skillful interpreter made sense of my country slang, but when it came to the music, it was more about the feeling I was projecting. Although they may not have understood a single word of Yesterday, When I Was Young, you could see in the faces of the audience that they knew and understood the feeling of the song. The whole purpose of the tour was to bring people together. I believe the problems of this world can be solved by the people of this world. This is the only world we’ve got and we have to learn to live in it together. That tour proved to me that people are people, no matter where they live.”
Following the tour, the U.S. State Department praised Clark for opening diplomatic doors which had been tightly closed for decades, commenting, “We had done more good than we will ever realize in our lifetimes.” When Clark returned to the country in 1988 after the fall of the iron curtain, he was hailed as a hero. “Our 1988 Friendship Tour was prompted by an invitation from Premier Gorbachev himself. We could immediately see a difference in the people from our previous visit…they were talking to each other and to us!
It was amazing. I’ve done an awful lot of things in my career but our trips to the Soviet Union and Russia – and the impact they had – are the absolute highlights.”
Roy Clark’s decade-defying success can be summed up in one word – sincerity. Though he's never bought a joke and doesn't read music, this self-described - and proud of it - "hillbilly singer" is that rare entertainer with popularity worthy of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Bob Hope summed it up when he told Roy, “Your face is like a fireplace.” That special warmth that Roy shares with his audience is, however, only a glimpse of the man himself. In a profession where success is often at the expense of family, Roy Clark has been married to his loving and supportive wife, Barbara, for nearly 60 years. Since the age of 23, Roy has enjoyed an ongoing love affair with aviation. Owning numerous aircraft and often flying himself to his own engagements, one of his proudest moments in the sky was flying his plane in formation with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team.
A resident of Tulsa since 1976, the Country Music Hall of Fame member freely shares his name and talent to benefit countless regional charities and events - including Roy Clark Celebrity Golf Tournament which raised thousands of dollars for the Children’s Medical Hospital. His spirit of community was recognized in 1978 when the Roy Clark Elementary School in Tulsa was named in his honor. In 2011 Clark was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame and was further honored by the Oklahoma House of Representatives, being named Oklahoma’s Music Ambassador for Children. “I’ve always been connected with children because I am basically still a kid at heart. Nothing matches the pride I feel when someone comes up to me and says, ‘I went to the Roy Clark School.’ It doesn’t get much better than that!”
The man who took the best from an impoverished background and developed an innate God-given talent into international superstardom remains humble and sincerely grateful for his success and his fans. “I guess I could have done a lot more. But I realize and rationalize that you can’t do everything. For me, the most important thing is pleasing my audience. If you’re a bad person, people pick that up. I’m a firm believer in smiles. I used to believe that everything had to be a belly laugh. But I’ve come to realize that a real sincere smile is mighty powerful.”