By Bud Elder
There is a science that simply states that our personalities are easily shown through the features imprinted on our faces. Heck, the Chinese believe in this study so fervently that they find meaning in every nuance of one’s mug, ascribing this or that trait to eyebrows, nostrils and the two little lines that run from mouth to nose. However, there seems to be, no matter the culture or language, a universal truism – a round face is significant of a jovial person who knows how to lighten up other faces. Sound like anyone we know? Perhaps our cover?
We now introduce a man who needs no introduction, one Roy Clark, resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma and a walking definition of a country music legend who, if it is true that one’s face is an arbiter of one’s fortune, is indeed a fortunate man.
Today, we are backstage at the Rose State Auditorium in Midwest City, Oklahoma, when that face, that countenance, is aimed our way, beaming, with nary a sense of “I’ve done this a million times and who the heck are you?” Nope, it’s Cousin Roy, the pickin’ and grinnin’ king of prime time country spectacle, guitar in hand and electronics pre-packed in his ears.
“Sorry if I don’t hear so well,” he says, “They’ve already got me wired for sound.”
During the photo shoot that follows, Clark, who has worked with just about every star at every level of the entertainment business, absently picks his unplugged electric guitar. What does he think about as he’s making this private, singular music?
Perhaps it’s his upbringing.
Born in Meherrin, Virginia, Roy Linwood Clark grew up in Staten Island, New York and lived as a teenager in Washington, D.C., where his father worked at the Washington Navy Yard. At 14, Clark began playing banjo, guitar and mandolin, and by age 15 he had already won two National Banjo Championships and World Banjo/Guitar Flatpick Championships. He was simultaneously pursuing a sports career, first as a baseball player, then as a boxer, before dedicating himself solely to music. In 1950, he had his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. He was just 17.
And while Virginia and Staten Island aren’t exactly parallel with other country music home environments, like the flatlands of Texas and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee or the Arkansas cotton patch, Clark did enjoy throughout his upbringing what seems to be a common deminator for classic C&W performers – a close, musical family.
“My Dad and his brothers played. It was always a part of my life from birth, always music in the house,” he said. “However, I was more into sports before I found I was musically inclined.”
By 1955, Clark was a regular on Jimmy Dean‘s Washington, D.C. television program. In 1960, Clark went to Las Vegas, where he worked as guitarist in a band led by former West Coast Western Swing bandleader/comedian Hank Penny. During the early 1960s, he was also prominent in the backing band for future-fellow Oklahoman Wanda Jackson.
Knowing what we now know about Roy Clark, it’s a fair question to ask if he could have been satisfied with being a musical sideman for the remainder of his career.
“Yes,” he said. “But being a true entertainer was in my nature.”
Fates and national television recognized Clark’s nature rather quickly. Dean invited him to appear on “The Tonight Show,” and appear he did, bringing to the masses music that was mostly considered “hillbilly.” Clark has remained an ambassador for this music throughout his career and was, eventually, the first country music performer to serve as one of Johnny Carson’s regular guest hosts.
It was during this time that audiences were figuring out that Clark was more than just a singer, more than a guitarist. He was funny, quick-witted with expressions and reactions that perfectly fit within the small screen.
“An entertainer is out front, and the musician is in the orchestra pit,” he said. “Both are important to a successful show.”
In the ’60s, Clark joined the cast of perhaps the greatest gag American television satire ever played on the squares – “The Beverly Hillbillies” – in the roles of both Roy Halsey (a nod to his ever present manager and music legend Jim Halsey?) and, yes, his mother Myrtle. (Come to think about it, the Hillbillies had a thing about “drag” – remember “Jethrine?”)
What does he remember about his appearances on that classic sitcom?
“My encounter with Ellie May Clampett (Donna Douglas) was my first on-screen kiss,” he said. “What more could you ask for?”
In 1969, Clark would appear close to the House of Clampett, as his new series, a rather odd variety hour with a brazen “will it play in Peroria?” title – “Hee Haw” – joined a Tuesday night lineup that included “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” Clark spent 22 years on the series, from network to syndication.
“Hee Haw” continued Clark’s quest to showcase American country music, at the time relegated to hayseed small town stations in tiny bergs all over the south. Suddenly, in living rooms from coast to coast were the likes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, as well as soon-to-be fellow Oklahomans that included Hank Thompson, Dale Robertson and Jody Miller. Royalty.
“I had no idea what to expect on my first day of ‘Hee Haw,’” Clark said. “Then I saw all my friends there … Grandpa Jones, who I had played for, and Stringbean, and others who made the music click. As more time goes by, the more I see ‘Hee Haw’s’ contributions to culture. I was too busy doing the show at the time to think about things like that.”
Before, during and after “Hee Haw,” Clark was a regular chart-topping recording artist, from “The Tips of My Fingers” (a top ten hit in 1963) to his American recording of the Charles Aznavour French meditation “Yesterday, When I Was Young” (personally requested by Mickey Mantle to be sung at the ball player’s funeral), to ’70s hits “Thank God and Greyhound,” “I Never Picked Cotton,” “Come Live With Me,” “Honeymoon Feeling” and “If I Had to Do It Over Again.”
Clark’s concerts at this time are best represented by several live albums, from “Roy Clark Live” in 1972 to “Roy Clark in Concert,” recorded in Las Vegas in 1976. These records reflect a performer at the peak of his game, going from his signature hits and classical guitar solos to randy fiddle demonstrations. There’s also a banjo or two to be heard. The albums are joyous affairs.
Clark is still in the studio, recording for his own label, Roy Clark, Ltd. A new Gospel album was recently completed with his touring band, sessions within which Clarks says he “did the absolute best work of [his] life.”
Best guess is that Roy Clark himself doesn’t have a complete handle on the awards given to him throughout his career, most notably his inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame, invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry, a 1982 Grammy and various “Comedian of the Year,” “Entertainer of the Year” and “Instrumentalist of the Year” achievements from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. He is also in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
During all this, Clark and his wife, Barbara, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they have lived for many years.
“Growing up, I was just so into the local music scene and my local friends. I didn’t know much yet about the rest of the country,” he said. “What brought me to Tulsa were the people. I had played numerous dates here by then, and the people and the landscape were so much like home. It was advantageous to my touring schedule to be centrally located, and when I made the move from the east coast, it could only be Tulsa.”
While not in every sense of the word a true “native,” Clark has given back countless hours to his adopted state. There is a Roy Clark Elementary School in Tulsa and, recently, the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame named him the state’s “Music Ambassador for Children,” a designation that brought the entertainer to the state capitol for proper honoring by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin.
“Oklahoma’s Music Hall of Fame is the only state-authorized organization created to promote Oklahoma music,” said executive director Penny Kampf. “Roy has always been wonderful to the organization and, upon naming him our “Music Ambassador for Children,” he starred in some television PSAs to help promote our programs.”
Tonight, Clark walks onto a stage like one would mosey into the living room, in constant demand and continuing to do many dates throughout the year. Opening with “Alabama Jubilee,” he elicits wild adoration from this packed house. His opening act, Corey White, a protégé of Halsey, has dazzled; Clark’s band, which features Richard Kennedy (keys), David Smith (keys), Pete Generous (drums), Justin Bertoldi (fiddle), Tony Walter (bass) and Ralph Lowe (guitar), have the enviable task of trying to keep up with their estimable bandleader.
After an hour, with no less than Jim Halsey himself sitting in the audience, our country music superstar leaves a crowd that, to the person, doesn’t want this night to end – they need more “face time” with Roy Clark.
If you enjoyed this article, then you would love the All-American Rejects, Christian Kane or some of the other brilliant musicians from Oklahoma. For a little taste of Oklahoma country music, check out Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith or Carrie Underwood.