One of the pioneers of rockabilly, Gretna’s Joe Clay, died September 26 after losing a battle with cancer. He was 78. Clay, whose given name was Claiborne Joseph Cheramie, recorded a handful of explosive tracks in the mid-’50s before seemingly falling off the musical map, but by chance resurfaced in 1986 and became a global sensation.
Encouraged by his parents to play music as a child, initially Clay sang and played drums before later learning guitar and bass.
“I started playing with hillbilly bands when I was 12,” recalled Clay. “It was Hank Williams stuff that I was playing since I was itty-bitty. We played what we felt.”
Besides Williams, Clay also fell under the influence of Fats Domino, absorbing the New Orleans beat. By the mid-’50s, Clay was regularly playing on local station WWEZ. One of the deejays encouraged Clay to record a demo tape and see if he could shop it to a record label. Clay complied and the tape found its way to RCA. A month after submitting the tape, Clay got a call from RCA who were interested in signing him to their Vik subsidiary. In April of 1956 he was flown to Houston where he recorded the atomic “Ducktail” and “Sixteen Chicks” with Link Davis on guitar.
After this seemingly promising start, RCA arranged for Clay to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show the following month. Clay was set to introduce “Sixteen Chicks” on national television, but at the last minute Sullivan deemed the song too racy and made him substitute it for the Platters’ ballad “Only You.”
While he was in New York, RCA arranged a second Clay session employing jazz/R&B heavyweights Mickey Baker on guitar and Leonard Gaskin on bass. The session produced the roaring “Cracker Jack” and “Get On the Right Track.”
Unfortunately, great music initially doesn’t always translate commercially and Clay’s singles fell through the cracks. RCA would let Clay’s contract expire while concentrating on their new prize: Elvis Presley. Ironically, that same year (1956) Clay would fill in with Presley’s band at a Pontchartrain Park gig when Presley’s regular drummer fell ill.
Without a record deal, the Joe Clay persona was abandoned and he became C.J.—a talented and dependable drummer who played the honky tonks on Fourth Street and across the river on Bourbon Street. Along the way he picked up a job driving a school bus by day to help raise his family.
All that would change three decades later. By the mid-’80s, there was a rockabilly revival (remember the Stray Cats) in progress. By chance, some of Clay’s old recordings began surfacing on rockabilly reissue LPs, and reaction with new listeners was electric. But seemingly nobody knew who or where Joe Clay could be. That would eventually change dramatically.
“I’ll tell you how that happened,” recalled Johnny J, who played guitar with Clay for almost 30 years. “Bobby Brennan was playing bass in a (New Orleans) band called the Rockabyes. They had a gig in New York opening for and English band, Levi and the Rockats at Max’s Kansas City. Levi (Dexter) hired Bobby for a new band he was putting together and Bobby moved to England. Bobby stayed there a year before moving back here. He started playing with me with the Blue Vipers.
“Bobby knew Scott Godeaux who played guitar with Joe. They were part of a clique of musicians that rehearsed and played gigs with each other. Bobby and Scott were in a bar somewhere talking to two English guys that were rockabilly nuts. The English guys were going on about their favorite artists—Sonny Fisher, Sonny Burgess—then they mentioned Joe Clay. It was Scott that said, ‘Oh you mean C.J.?’ The English guys were dumbfounded. One of them said, ‘You know Joe Clay?’ Scott gave him Joe’s number and they went berserk. They passed Joe’s number on to Willie Jeffrey who was a promoter in England. Joe got booked for around two months of gigs in Europe.
“Then I’m standing in line at the Winn-Dixie and I see this picture of Joe Clay on the front page of the Times-Picayune. He was standing on the hood of a school bus with a guitar. Overnight he was a rock star. He was on the front page two days in a row. Ever the entrepreneur, Jimmy Anselmo calls me. I had the only rockabilly band (the Hitmen) then and Jimmy says ‘We gotta do a Joe Clay night at Jimmy’s. Can you back him?’
“Jimmy gave me Joe’s number. Joe and I talked and a day or so later, he shows up in front of my house in his school bus on Oak Street with a tape of songs for us to rehearse. The Jimmy’s gig went great. We wound up playing all kind of gigs with Joe—Catholic girls’ school cafeteria, a Chuck E. Cheese spinoff restaurant, Joe’s Jungle Bar, even on a Mardi Gras float.”
When asked how he’ll remember Joe Clay, J. paused.
“He could play a backbeat like nobody else. Joe was always happy. He was a guy with a lot of mirth.”
Dave Clements, who was also a Hitman and backed Clay on bass for nearly 30 years, was equally impressed by the man.
“Joe never mailed it in,” said Clements somberly. “He was totally fearless and full of energy right to the end. He was like a little kid. He was so grateful to get a second chance and loved every minute of it. To Joe it was like getting a Christmas present every day.”