Aug. 09--"Cowboy" Jack Clement -- the Sun Records engineer, country music visionary, singer, songwriter, producer, raconteur and musical philosopher -- died on Thursday at his home in Nashville after a long battle with liver cancer. The Memphis-born Clement was 82.
Already a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Clement had been nominated to the Country Music Hall of Fame in April; he will be inducted posthumously at ceremonies in October. In January, he performed as part of a star-studded concert in his honor at Nashville War Memorial Auditorium, as several generations of friends and fans -- including Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Jakob Dylan and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach -- paid homage to him.
Clement's career was defined by an unaffected brilliance, adventurous spirit and oddball quirks -- he picked up the nickname "Cowboy" despite his deep aversion to horses, and the fact that he was usually clad in his trademark Hawaiian shirt and sneakers.
A charming figure with a fun loving air, Clement didn't lust after hits or musical immortality, yet all of that came to him anyway. "I never tried to be trendy," said Clement, in a 2007 interview with The Commercial Appeal. "Most of the hits I've ever had were unlike what was going on at the time. I always did what I wanted to do and got lucky. Like I always say: When all else fails, get lucky."
"The common thread throughout his career was this adventuresome sense," said local music historian and author Robert Gordon, who also directed a feature film documentary on Clement. "Him always wanting to take something further, to look at it from a different perspective, to do it in a way that had never been done before. That's why, whether he was working with Jerry Lee Lewis or Charlie Pride or U2, he could imbue the 'Jack-ness' into all of that. And that 'Jack-ness' was an inherently Memphis spirit: rebellious and individual."
Knox Phillips had been friends with Clement since he was boy, and recalled the close bonds between his father, Sun founder Sam Phillips, and the "Cowboy." "To my father, Jack was very much like Elvis or Johnny Cash, any of the people he worked with or discovered. Sam saw him as a creative genius, this tower of strength. You know, the two of them could sit and have high level conversations speaking totally in metaphor," said Phillips, laughing. "Sam loved him dearly. He had many different artists, but there was only one Jack."
Jack Henderson Clement's story began in Whitehaven, where he was born in 1931. "We lived out in the country on Highway 61 South, on the way to Tunica," he recalled. His father was director of a Baptist church choir, and Clement showed an early aptitude for music, playing in schoolhouse bands from his early teens.
After high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, ending up stationed in Washington, D.C., where he landed a spot on a drill team. Following his discharge, Clement played on the country and bluegrass circuit along the East Coast for a couple years. After a particularly chilly winter in Boston, Clement returned to Memphis. "I was going to stay in Memphis and thaw out for a while and then head back east, but I never did go back."
Following a stint an Arthur Murray Dance School instructor, Clement enrolled at Memphis State University, picking up some country gigs on the weekends throughout the Mid-South. He eventually teamed up with Slim Wallace -- "he was a kind of a well-to-do truck driver," noted Clement -- and started a studio and label in South Memphis called Fernwood.
One of Clement's first charges was recording an Arkansas rockabilly cat named Billy Lee Riley. "So we cut this record and we were going to press it up on Fernwood Records. And Sam Phillips is the guy that did all the mastering in those days," said Clement. "I had gone and auditioned for him one time; he liked what I did, but he thought it was a little too slick for what he was putting out at Sun Records."
Clement and Phillips' second encounter proved to be a meeting of kindred spirits. "So I took the Riley record to Sam to have it mastered. I went back a few days later to pick it up, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I'd been working at a building supply place and that I hated it. Sam said, 'Well, maybe you ought to come work for me.' Two weeks later I did."
"What Sam heard on Jack's record and felt in Jack's presence was something different, something innovative," said Gordon. "That's why their union was so successful; they were both innovators."
At Sun, Clement would record Jerry Lee Lewis' biggest hits, pen several others for Johnny Cash ("Ballad of a Teenage Queen"; "Guess Things Happen That Way") nurture Roy Orbison, and generally help define the label's sound and aesthetic through the '50s.
Sam Phillips and Clement would prove a potent combination. "They had the same creative ends in mind, but reached them by totally different means," said Knox Phillips. "Sam used passion and psychology; for Jack it was humor and charm. That became his production technique. He could always lighten the mood and relax the atmosphere in the studio, which made it easier to get out of the artists what he was looking for."
Clement's quick thinking also captured a historic summit of rock and roll giants on Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley dropped by Sun and joined Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis for an impromptu jam that would become known as "The Million Dollar Quartet" session. "I remember I stood up and said 'I'd be remiss if I didn't record this,'" recalled Clement. "So I stuck a tape on, walked out in the studio and moved a few mics around and I just let it run for about an hour and a half or so. Nobody seemed to object." The recording of the session was re-discovered and eventually released in 1987, while an expanded 50th anniversary edition came out in 2006. More recently, the event provided the basis of a hit Broadway play.
Clement stayed at Sun until he was fired by Phillips over a small argument in 1959, though they remained close, lifelong friends.
After a failed attempt to start his own label, Summer Records (the label's motto was "Summer hits, summer not") and working briefly for Chet Atkins at RCA in Nashville, Clement decided to take drastic measures.
"I'd gotten burned out on Nashville and Memphis and wanted to go somewhere that was different. So I went to Beaumont, Texas," he said. Partnering with Texan music businessman Bill Hall, Clement "got this old store building in Beaumont and turned it into a studio, " he said. "And within six months we had a million seller: Dickey Lee's 'Patches.'"
Clement stayed in his tiny Texas outpost for almost four years, scoring several further songwriting and publishing successes. He returned to Nashville in 1965, armed with a batch of new songs and set himself up as an independent publisher and producer. "In an industry town like Nashville, Jack kept things weird and interesting," said Robert Gordon. "He brought a lot of Memphis to that city."
"My thinking was I'd do stuff that was different," said Clement. "I'd always try and be different. I learned that from Sam Phillips. Most of all the hits I've ever had were unlike what was going on at the time."
In Music City, Clement would revolutionize country, helping Charlie Pride become the first black star of the genre. In addition to writing Pride's first hit ("Snakes Crawl At Night"), producing the session and getting him signed to RCA, it was Clement's connections in radio that helped break the record and country music's color barrier.
Clement also continued to work closely with his friend Johnny Cash. He would arrange the famous mariachi horn part on the singer's 1963 hit "Ring of Fire", wrote several comic story songs, some which would appear on the landmark live album At Folsom Prison, and played with Cash on his final "American Recordings" LPs.
Over the course of his career, Clement was a experimentalist: he produced Bobby Bare's 1967 county concept album A Bird Named Yesterday, and Waylon Jennings' defining outlaw LP Dreaming My Dreams. Later, he would return to Sun studio to record U2 during the height of the Irish rockers late-'80s fame.
He would play a key role in advancing the careers of many towering American songwriters: among them Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine. And Clement would prove equally influential in the studio, helping tutor men who would go onto become some of Nashville's biggest producers, including Garth Fundis (Alabama, Don Williams) and Allen Reynolds (Crystal Gayle, Garth Brooks).
Clement also recorded and released a couple solo albums, including a brilliant 1978 debut, All I Want To Do In Life, and equally stirring follow-up in 2004, Guess Things Happen That Way.
From his Nashville home studio and headquarters, The Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa, Clement reigned over a kooky entertainment empire. In the '70s, he directed the cult horror film classic "Dear Dead Delilah"; in the 2000s he hosted a vividly entertaining radio show on Sirius/XM. Whatever the medium, whatever the project, Clement never feared venturing into the unknown.
Clement's philosophy was captured in the 2005 documentary on his life, "Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan." The film, codirected by Memphian Robert Gordon and Angeleno Morgan Neville, proved a stirring, unconventional look at the "Cowboy." "After hanging around Jack, we could see his life was like an episode of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus,'" said Gordon. "That became our challenge: Can we make a movie that's like a lost episode of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'? And Jack Clement was the exact right guy to pursue that with."
For a while, a few years back, there had been talk of actor Terrence Howard starring in a Charlie Pride biopic to be directed by Memphian Craig Brewer. Asked who he thought could play him in the film, Clement had one choice. "Well, I'd like to have Johnny Depp. I think he can pull it off as far as the acting goes," he said. "Plus, the resemblance is amazing."
Despite his quips and cracks, Clement's contributions to American musical history can not be taken lightly. "He might have presented himself with this comedic mask, but it'd be a mistake to dismiss Jack as just a Shakespearean clown," said Knox Phillips. "At heart, he was a deeply serious person, and you can tell that from his body of work. He created and wrote some wonderful music that, in my option, argues for his importance forever."
Clement is survived by his son Niles, daughter Alison, and longtime companion Aleene Jackson. Plans for memorial services are pending.
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