A Conversation With... Roy Clark
Growing up in the 1960’s, I remember hearing Roy Clark songs on the radio and later on our home stereo. “I Never Picked Cotton” was one of my granddad’s favorite songs; my mother was especially fond of “Right or Left at Oak Street.” I loved the big orchestral sound of “Tips of My Fingers” and Roy’s fast playing on guitar and banjo instrumentals.
When I got my first guitar and took lessons at the age of 12, my recital song was “Malaguena,” inspired by Roy’s amazing rendition of the song. Playing that rudimentary version of “Malaguena” gave me special appreciation for Roy’s guitar artistry. It was fun watching him in drag as “Big Mama Halsey” and “Cousin Roy” on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and it was a special treat when he turned up on “The Tonight Show” as a guest, and later as a host. He seemed like such a regular guy, it was like one of our own had made it big. And, of course, there was Roy infusing his enthusiasm, musical talents and sense of humor into “Hee Haw.” My family loved Roy Clark. We still do.
I long wondered, “How could one guy play so many instruments so well, interpret songs so easily, and be so incredibly versatile, joyful and personable?” After spending an afternoon with him in Tulsa on February 12, 2014, I still don’t really have an answer, except to say that Roy Clark is all that, and then some. He’s very friendly, genuine and gracious, with an infectious smile and naturally-occurring likeability. And, for more than fifty years he has been one of America’s favorite entertainers.
According to Roy, members of the Clark family were “born with music already in them.” The Clarks are definitely a musical family. The oldest of the five Clark children, Roy was born in Meherrin, Virginia during the Depression. He grew up around hard work…and music.
Roy’s family moved from Virginia to Washington, D.C. when he was 8 years old. His father, Hester, worked in a saw mill and at the B&O Railroad and the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. But, his favorite job, it seems, was playing guitar at square dances and on radio shows. He played in a country string band on WRVA Radio, and it wasn’t long until young Roy felt the urge to join the band.
Roy told me he was the only one of his boyhood friends who got into music. His father never encouraged or discouraged him, but he was always there to help, so Roy had what he calls “a built-in teacher.” He says his dad encouraged him to allow himself to be influenced by all types of music and entertainers.
His first instrument was a banjo, but he became enamored by the guitar when a neighbor came by the house, heard Roy picking on the banjo and offered him his guitar to play. Roy took a liking to the guitar and got one the next Christmas out of the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog. He was a fast learner. At age 14, Roy appeared on his first television show on WTTG in Washington. He was billed as “Roy Clark and Dad” and sang “One Has My heart, the Other Has My Name.”
It wasn’t long before Roy was also playing square dances and radio shows. He played on Saturday nights, then added Friday nights, Sunday nights and Thursday nights. Despite his dad not wanting music to interfere with his schooling, by age 15 Roy was playing so much he dropped out of school to hit the road. It’s a decision, he told me, that he’s always regretted.
Roy won the USA Banjo Championship at age 17, which earned him $500 and a trip to Nashville to play at the Grand Ole Opry. It took him two and a half days to get to Nashville by bus, with guitar and banjo in hand, but only 45 minutes after arriving he got an offer to go on the road with Stringbean. That two-week tour took Roy through Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma and made him “somebody” in Nashville.
After the tour ended, he played a couple of nights at the Grand Ole Opry, then headed back to DC to play in “black” clubs, “cowboy” bars and “underground” bars, where he learned to play “fast guitar” and honed his comedy skills. Roy was a natural clown who used humor and fast playing to cover up his lack of formal education and musical training. He played “hillbilly” and “black” music, blues-influenced country, and rock-n-roll (country with a backbeat) and would do anything to please the audience. Roy was known to play the guitar with a water glass or his feet and did “nutty stuff” on stage.
In addition to music, Roy also loved sports. He was a pro boxer for a time (getting paid for winning 15 of 16 bouts) and a football and baseball player. He was a powerful hitter, good enough to be invited to a tryout by the St. Louis Browns baseball club, and his dad really wanted him to be a baseball player. Sports helped him get in shape. Roy says “when you’re just sitting on your butt and playing guitar you have a tendency to swell up.” But, he never made it to the tryout.
Roy married at the age of 17 and stopped performing for a while to work as a car hop. That, and the marriage, did not last. By the time he reached his 20’s, Roy felt himself deteriorating, but found that music was his salvation, so he turned back to music and he decided to go out and live life.
Back on the road, he played dances, barbecues, radio shows and clubs with Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats. He learned the business side of music from Dean, and despite getting fired from Dean’s group, they forged a longtime friendship. I’ll tell you more about that later.
While he was on the road, Roy met performers including Elvis Presley (he played backup for Elvis), Charlie Daniels, Ernest Tubb, Grandpa Jones, Hank Williams, Red Foley and Andy Griffith. Griffith was also a blossoming star for his comedy routines like “What it Was, Was Football” and his role as Will Stockdale in “No Time for Sergeants” on the theatrical stage.
Roy told me the story of how he tried to get the role of Will Stockdale in a proposed “No Time for Sergeants” television series. He said, “I read for the part that he (Griffith) did for ‘No Time for Sergeants.’ Jack Webb was the producer for the television show. I walked in Jack Webb’s office - my manager, Jim Halsey, and me. After waiting for about an hour Jack Webb came out, took one look and said ‘too heavy’ and turned and walked out. Now, that was in California. We had gone all the way from Tulsa, Oklahoma to give a listen to Jack Webb and all I got was ‘too fat.’ I thought, well, this is show biz.”
Clark wound up working with Griffith over a weekend in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia and for two weeks at Lake Tahoe. He got another break when he went on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” show – the “America’s Got Talent” or “The Voice” of the day. That was Roy’s first network show, and he did rock-n-roll.
“This was back when Elvis was hot,” Roy said, “so everything was rock-n-roll. So I got me a white jacket, blue suede shoes and you had to audition to get on. They liked what I did because the demand for rock-n-roll music was more than the supply. You had to go through all this auditioning and they accepted me right off. The material that I was doing was Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino, but we couldn’t find one they (the network censors) would accept the lyrics to, so we finally settled on ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’” (Roy wanted to perform “Long Tall Sallie,” but the censors would not relent.)
The first turning point in Roy’s career came when Wanda Jackson came to see him perform in Washington. After the show the “Queen of Rockabilly” invited him to go with her to Las Vegas and play in the “Party Timers.” It was a “Right or Left at Oak Tree” moment for Roy. He chose to go west with Wanda, rather than staying home in D.C. Roy traveled to Oklahoma City to seal the deal with Wanda and her manager, Jim Halsey, and her father, Tom Jackson.
Roy spent about a month at the Golden Nugget playing for Wanda, and that led to his first LP album, an instrumental called “The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark” for Capitol Records. There was even talk of marketing him as a “black” musician, with his photo in silhouette.
Despite his growing popularity, Roy was broke and had to borrow money to eat. Jim Halsey set him up to play in places where Wanda had played. He and his second wife, Barbara, drove to gigs and stayed in cheap hotels. They did that for a couple of years, but then Roy got another big break – from his old pal, Jimmy Dean.
As Roy tells it, Dean gave him a chance to be on “The Tonight Show” when Dean was hosting, after Jack Paar left the show and before Johnny Carson took over as host. Roy was spectacular, and just as Dean predicted, the appearance on “The Tonight Show” caused his popularity to take off. (Don’t call him a “star.” Roy doesn’t like the term. He says if you spell it backwards, it’s R-A-T-S.)
A story you won’t hear in “A Conversation With…Roy Clark” is the one about what happened right after that momentous appearance on “The Tonight Show.” And, it happened in Ada, Oklahoma. (You can hear Roy tell this story in the online video extras, the unedited version of “A Conversation With…Roy Clark.”)
Remember, this happened the following night at East Central University when Roy was the warmup act for the great crooner, Mel Torme. Here’s Roy:
“When they introduced me that night I hadn’t even met Mel yet. They introduced me that night and that place had become unglued. Everybody in the west, in Oklahoma, had seen the show the night before and they were there. You got Jimmy Dean’s show on network television, and Oklahoma here. (gestures) Mel Torme didn’t have a chance and he let it be known. In fact, my manager and the promoter were going to take Mel back to Oklahoma City to catch a flight early the next morning. So, when John and I got in the car I didn’t know Mel had made a comment. Maybe a block out of town, he turned and looked at me, and it was night and a little misty rain. He said Mel turned to John and said, ‘Don’t ever, ever, ever book me with that hillbilly again.’ It took a long time before Mel and I ever spoke, but I was innocent. I was trying to survive in the big world of show business. It’s every man for himself.”
Soon after, an independent producer gave Roy the song, “Tips of My Fingers,” which became a country and cross-over hit. He did “American Bandstand” and became a regular on “The Tonight Show” (developing a strong rapport with Johnny Carson). Roy wanted to be considered a country singer, but cemented his place as a cross-over artist with his heart-felt cover of “Yesterday, When I Was Young.” Roy calls it the “ultimate song.”
Roy also “crossed over” to television to do The Beverly Hillbillies and he set “The Odd Couple” on fire by showing his varied musical skills and performing a “fast” version of “Malaguena.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilm2qeJndWo
There’s so much more to say about Roy’s career – his historic trip to the Soviet Union, regular guest-hosting duties on “The Tonight Show,” collecting classic cars, owning thoroughbred race horses, sponsoring a celebrity golf tournament (and a Seniors Tour event in Tulsa), piloting his own airplane and flying with the Tulsa Air National Guard and Blue Angels, opening the “Roy Clark Celebrity Theater” in Branson, and supporting charities and schools. But, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering what Roy told me about “Hee Haw.”
Sure, it was fun, and a game-changer for his career. It gave a huge boost to Roy, the other regulars, and the guest stars who dropped in – people like Randy Travis, Allan Jackson and Garth Brooks. During “A Conversation With…Roy Clark,” Roy talks about the show and how CBS came to put “Hee Haw” on the air. But, how did Roy get the offer to headline “Hee Haw” in the first place? Well, it’s because of legendary comedian Jonathan Winters.
Turns out that Roy’s reputation for comedy led to him being called “the country Jonathan Winters.” Roy said, “I had always been compared to Jonathan Winters, most them saying that we physically looked alike. I would run into people at the airport and they would say, ‘Mr. Winters, can I have your autograph?’ I would try to explain to them that I was not Jonathan Winters. It got to a point where they would say, ‘Yes you are, you just don’t want to me your autograph.’ I didn’t know how to spell Jonathan, so I just put ‘Johnny Winters’ and I got away with it. At least I think I did.”
The producers of Winters’ television series saw the connection, too. They noticed their ratings spiked upward whenever a country performer appeared on Winters’ show. Naturally, shows featuring Roy Clark were ratings winners, so the producers asked Roy if he would be interested in doing a show they called “Hee Haw.” Roy’s response was consistent with his show business philosophy: “In this business you say ‘yes’ to everything, because a lot of it never happens. So, I said of course I would.”
Expected to be a one-time, one-hour show, “Hee Haw” became a hit, but after two and a half years on the air a CBS programmer axed it, along with “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” for being “too country.” The cancellation, and the cancellation of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” inspired Roy to write and sing his own protest song, “The Lawrence Welk Hee Haw Counter- Revolutionary Polka.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hV85sDCRGkE
Roy and the “Hee Haw” gang had the last laugh. “Hee Haw” wound up in syndication and lasted 22 more years. Yes, Roy is loved, and he said he feels that love when he is on stage or out in public.
“When I look down and see some sweet little lady with a smile on her face, saying I look like her son, that makes me feel good,” said Roy. “They’ve invited me into their homes for years and years on television. They really feel like I am part of their family, and you can’t bluff anyone. When you’re accepted into their home and their family it doesn’t get any better than that.”
On April 15, 2015, Roy Clark will turn 82 years old. He still lives in Tulsa with his wife, Barbara.