Not too many people can claim to have worked with a range of artists that includes legendary rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, jazz icon Louis Armstrong, Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride, polka king Frank Yankovic and socially conscious Irish rockers U2. But producer/songwriter/artist and all-round character Jack Clement can.
Born on April 5, 1931, just south of Memphis in an unincorporated area called Whitehaven, Clement got his first serious break in 1956, when Sam Phillips hired him to work at his Sun Records label after hearing Clement’s production of rockabilly artist Billy Lee Riley. While at Sun, Clement worked with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and a host of others.
After a brief time recording hits at a studio he started with a partner in Beaumont, Texas, Clement moved to Nashville and began a long career, producing 20 albums for Charley Pride over a six-and-a-half-year stretch. Clement also produced many key recordings by Waylon Jennings, Cash, John Hartford, Doc Watson, Sheb Wooley (and his alter-personality Ben Colder), among many more.
As a songwriter, Clement’s compositions have been covered by artists such as Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Cash, Hasil Adkins, John Prine, Cliff Richard, Richard Thompson, Roy Orbison, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Foghat, Chicken Shack, The Move and too many more to list here.
Clement also released a solo album (All I Want to Do in Life) in 1978, which generated three charting country singles. In 1969, Clement launched Jack Clement Recording, which for years was one of the most desirable recording facilities in Nashville. (Currently, the studio’s location is home to Garth Fundis’ Sound Emporium.) After Clement sold his studio, he set up shop at his house and christened the facility the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.
During the interview at the Cowboy Arms Hotel, Clement regaled me with enough entertaining stories to fill a book. He started off the interview getting his cat Eugene to perform tricks, including pulling his finger and motivating Clement to activate stereo fart machines. A one-time Arthur Murray dance instructor, he broke out of chatting and began to demonstrate how to dance to a waltz, illustrating how many musicians miss the emphasis on the beat. Clement also shared his enthusiasm for his latest project, Cowboy’s Ragtime Band. This assemblage of some of Nashville’s finest has played a number of gigs at the Country Music Hall of Fame. When we walked upstairs to the studio, I noticed that the stairway walls were covered with a large mural of Johnny Cash standing on clouds with a guitar, with spaceships figuratively hovering around him. But the highlight of the visit was hearing a revelatory (and unreleased) version of Louis Armstrong singing the Youngblood’s Summer of Love anthem “Get Together.” Needless to say, it was quite a hang.
You got your start in music production working for Sam Phillips at the legendary Sun Records label in Memphis during the ’50s. How did you hook up with Phillips?
I first went to see Sam to audition for him as an artist. He was very nice and he gave me a really good audition. He spent an hour or so with me and listened to everything I did and concluded that I was a little too smooth. [Laughs] I played a lot of bluegrass and a lot of other stuff. I was pretty good, but I wasn’t singing rock ‘n’ roll: I was singing Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins and all that kind of stuff. That would’ve probably been in 1955.
Then about six months after I did that audition, I went to work for Sam in June of 1956. I had produced a record with Billy Lee Riley called “Rock With Me Baby”; “Trouble Bound” was on the back side. I took it to Sam to master. He heard the record and wanted to put it out on Sun. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I was going to college here and that I was working at this building supply place and not making very much money. He said, “Well, maybe you ought to come work for me.” I thought maybe I should, and a couple of months later, I did. He gave me my first job in the music production business.
I would imagine that Sam Phillips was quite a mentor.
Sam encouraged me to go out there and be different. There was never any talk of trying to sound like someone else. Get wild. Get crazy. Do everything wrong. Whatever! It was a thing where we could do things wrong and sometimes they would work out, and if they didn’t, it was no big deal. So I started off with a guy who is an experimenter, and so I became more of an experimenter, and I still do it. I’m always looking for that different sound.
Sam was big on rolling lots of tape, wasn’t he?
Yeah, and so was I. Let her roll; tape is cheap. Sometimes, we used to get the tapes that people sent to us with their songs on them and [we’d] re-use them. [Laughs]
You and Marty Stuart and Kenny Vaughn performed at Phillips’ memorial service.
We did a Rolling Stones song called “No Expectations” and this song I wrote called “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” which was a hit for Johnny Cash. I also read some stuff from my unfinished book.
Sam always hated “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” He never did say why. It was kind of too cutesy for him, I guess. The fact that it was a big million-plus-seller hit didn’t matter to him. Sam bitched about that song for the rest of his life and it got to be kind of a joke, really. He told me one time that he actually went home and prayed, “Oh Lord, don’t let it come to this!” The thing about it was that everyone around there loved it. One day, I remember he came in and said, “You know, the more I hear that thing, the less I like it.” But he put it out, and it was a big hit.
Sam was always saying that he was looking for something different. He wasn’t necessarily going for correctness or any of that stuff. He wasn’t trying to compete with Nashville. He knew he was in a place that was sort of isolated in a way from Nashville and all of the slick stuff. He knew that he had to come up with his own thing, and that was always the theme.
Sam liked to work with musicians before they got too good, like while they’re learning, because [that’s when] they’re experimenting and you get that benefit of the experimentation. You don’t get that sort of freedom from superpolished musicians. He favored working with people who weren’t too seasoned. That’s what recording is about: When you do it right and let it all hang out, you get lucky. You stay in the studio until you get what you want.
It seems like many records are afflicted by too much thinking.
There is too much thinking, too much tuning and too much trying to make things absolutely slick and perfect. There is a big difference between being smooth and being slick. Smooth is cool. Slick is like shit. Have you listened to the radio recently? There is nothing smooth about it.
There are a lot of people in the record industry now who don’t seem to understand anything about capturing the moment and that “semi-translux” state you have to go into when you record. When it comes time to record, you’ve got to throw it away.
Louis Armstrong demonstrated that to me when I was producing an album with him in 1970. The first time he went to the microphone, he sat at the piano next to Larry Butler, and they ran over the songs a little bit. He kind of learned them halfway and went to the microphone and started singing. The first time I heard him, it sounded awful. I thought, “Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?” The next time he ran it through, he nailed it. I realized that he had done something that I had always done, which is to play around and do it all wrong and get it out of your system, and then you can do it right.
Jerry Lee Lewis always amazed me at how he would go into any room and throw it away. If there was a piano and an audience of one or more people, he would give you a whole show and not hold anything back.
You recorded a lot of the classic Jerry Lee Lewis/Sun recordings.
The first one we did was a song called “Crazy Arms,” which had been a big hit for both Ray Price and the Andrews Sisters. What we did was kind of an audition tape, really. Sam [Phillips] was in Nashville at a disc jockeys’ convention that day, which was a Thursday. I was in there with Jerry Lee, Roland Janes and Billy Lee Riley, and we cut two or three things and I asked Jerry Lee if he knew “Crazy Arms.” He said he knew a little of it, so we cut it. Billy Lee [Riley] was in the bathroom and he thought we were just messin’ around, and he was supposed to have been playing the bass. The only thing the record had on it were piano and drums. At the very end, Riley strolled in, thinking that we were goofing off and picked up an electric guitar and hit a little off-chord at the very end and that stayed on the track. When Sam came back the next Monday, I played it for him and he flipped and did the lacquer right there in the studio control room. Dewey Phillips added it on the air that night on his radio show, and by that Thursday, we had records. Those were the fun days. You could cut a record on Thursday and have it in stores the very next week.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’” was a one-take deal. We had cut a whole bunch of other stuff that day, and we were working on a song I wrote called “It’ll Be Me.” I got tired of it and walked out of the studio and said, “Let’s get off this for a while and get back to it later.” Jerry Lee’s bass player, J.W. Brown, said, “Why don’t we do something else? Hey Jerry! Why don’t we do that song we’ve been doing on the road that everybody likes so much?” He said, “Okay.” So I said, “Let me go turn the machine on.” I hit Play and Record, turned around and sat at the desk and they did [“Whole Lotta Shakin’”] in one take without a dry run — nothing. Blam! There it was! We didn’t overdub or do anything to it. In fact, we didn’t even play it back for a while. [Laughs] We started getting back into “It’ll Be Me” or something. Later on that evening, we started playing it back and we just played it all night. It’s fun to be able to cut a record and just hear it after one take.
Your relationship with Johnny Cash began during those days at Sun.
Yeah, Johnny grew up in about the same area where I grew up. He was over in Arkansas, but not that far away, whereas I was over in the south of Memphis. Johnny and I would sit around and sing a lot of songs we knew and liked. We wouldn’t have any guitars or anything; we would just sing. The thing that people don’t know about Johnny Cash is that he could sing just about anything. We both knew a whole bunch of songs.
The best thing about Johnny was that he never lost his urge to pick. And that was true right to the end. Over time, a lot of players get jaded and they just don’t want to whip out their guitars and pick. Waylon would still play, but not like Johnny Cash. Cash would whip out his guitar anytime and play with anybody.
I saw him a couple of days before June [Carter, Cash’s wife] passed away [in June 2003]. Johnny was pretty calm, and I could tell by the look in his eyes and what he was saying that he was going to get right back into recording. A week or so later, he called me and said, “Come on out and play.” The last time I saw him, I was playing dobro with him for a session. Marty Stuart was there. Rick Rubin has been systematically cutting tracks out there for several years now and he was cutting songs for a box set. I’ve only met Rick Rubin once before. He came over to the studio one day. I really like him, and I respect what he did for Johnny Cash.
After you left Sun and spent some time in Beaumont, Texas, you settled in Nashville and began quite a string of successful productions, including Charley Pride, the first — and to this day only — major African-American to become a serious country music star.
There was a PR guy for Cedarwood Publishing named Jack Johnson who I would hang out with when I got to Nashville. One night, we were on Music Row at a place called The Professional Club, which was right across the street from Cedarwood. It was a place where a lot of songwriters and people on recording session breaks would hang out. People brought guitars there all of the time. If you wanted to write a song and then sing it to somebody, you could be singing it to Tom T. Hall or Kris Kristofferson, ’cause they’d all be there. Anyway, Jack Johnson had been telling me about this guy named Charley Pride, and he talked me into going over to Cedarwood to hear this tape. So we went back over to The Professional Club after that and had a few more cocktails, and I said, “Get him in here, I’ll record him and I’ll pay for it.” A month or so later, here’s Charley. I played him about six or seven songs and I gave them to him and he picked out these two songs.
Back when I was working at Sun, I talked about wanting to find a black guy who I could get to sing country. I worked with one guy who wasn’t that good, but when I heard Charley Pride, I knew I didn’t have to teach him anything. Charley and his whole family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights, just like I did. He loved Hank Williams and he really could sing it. I’ll never forget when I first heard his voice in that RCA studio: Wow! It was magnificent! The word got out around town about this session, and the next time we recorded, the control room was full of people. Charley loved that. He liked an audience.
I wrote his first Top Five record, “Just Between You & Me.” I co-wrote “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger?” I could do an album on Charley in a week or so. It wasn’t a whole lot because it was mostly 4-track. I ended up doing 20 albums with him over the course of six-and-a-half years. He was the biggest seller on the label, and it took him only a couple of years to do that.
It is still highly unusual to see a black artist doing country music.
It is still unusual, isn’t it?
I can only imagine what it was like almost 30 years ago in Nashville.
RCA, to its credit…I’m still amazed that, back then, a corporation had enough wisdom to decide that they should just release Charley as a new country artist and not even bring up the racial thing. Here is this guy who sounds good. When radio stations started playing Charley, they didn’t know he was black. The label wasn’t trying to keep it a secret. They just said, “Hey, here is a great singer, let’s put it out.” I’ve always thought that was a time when a corporation waxed wise. I’m not saying that there might not have been a little trepidation for some at the label, but we just didn’t mess with it. We just rocked on. Charley told me that there has never been a racial incident in his whole career.
You were instrumental in introducing Townes Van Zandt with your productions of some of his most important albums.
I produced the first several Townes albums, including his first album called For the Sake of the Song. We got along really well. He would always call me up from the road and tell me some joke. Townes was always funny. One time, he came back from Europe and brought me this CD that had 26 versions of “La Paloma.” It had every single kind of way you could think of doing “La Paloma.” [He sings the melody.] We were really close. I loved him.
One of Waylon Jennings’ finest albums, Dreaming My Dreams, was produced by you.
Waylon always said that it was his favorite album. The record did really well and it actually turned out to be his first million-seller. It took us six months to make and we argued a lot, but we were proud of the results.
You built Jack Clement Recording back in the ’70s, and it became one of the most popular studios in Nashville. You sold that and, during the past 20 years, you’ve operated out of a home studio. What were some of your considerations when you built your own room?
When I had my studio down the street, I had two curtains on the studio side of the control room window. An artist could close it if he wanted to. One of the curtains was kind of see-through sheer and the other one closed things off completely. If you did not want anyone staring at you, you had the option of shutting them out and having some privacy. I’ve thought about it over the years and don’t see the point in having a control room window. You just don’t need it.
When an artist or musician out on the floor is trying to perform and looks in that window and sees the engineer or other people laughing and cutting up or looking bored, it’s a distraction. I’ve seen terrible misunderstandings happen because somebody is seeing something on the other side of the glass, but they’re not hearing it. That was true of a couple of instances with Waylon.
My first goal when I consider creating a recording space is to come up with something that musicians will like and feel comfortable with. My first thing is to create a place where people like the sound of the space. My studio upstairs may be a little dead, but people seem to like it. A place like this is more conducive to relaxing and feeling at home than a regular studio. Everybody who has ever worked here has enjoyed the atmosphere.
Do you have some thoughts on what you consider to be a good production?
First of all, I don’t see how you can have a good production without a certain amount of freedom. You should try to go in there and get it right and throw it away. Remember, we are in the fun business, and if we’re not having fun, then we are not doing our jobs. Here are my three universal truths: Number One: All people from Memphis speak in parables. Number two: Women don’t like steel guitars. Number three: If you throw enough shit against the wall, somebody will see a picture in it. [Laughs] Somebody will see a picture in anything.