Joe Clay (b. Claiborne Joseph Cheramie, 1939) passed away on September 26 after a short bout with cancer. Clay is widely considered one the fathers of rockabilly,and was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Louisianians were a seminal part of rockabilly, with C.J. Cheramie—Joe Clay—being one of the leaders.
He was born in Gretna, Louisiana; his parents encouraged an early interest in country music and at the age of 12, he was already a competent drummer, later also learning rhythm guitar & electric bass. At only 12-years-old, he started performing in a country band that was offered a spot to perform local radio station WWEZ. RCA subsidiary Vik Records signed him a few years later, while he was still in his teens; he recorded in New York with guitarists Mickey Baker and Skeeter Best, bassist Leonard Gaskin, and drummers Bobby Donaldson and Joe Marshall. In 1956, he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a few months before Elvis Presley played there, and played a cover of The Platters’ hit “Only You.” Clay would later play guitar on some of Elvis’s recordings, but his manager would not let him tour outside the New Orleans area, and he never scored a hit.
After being dropped from RCA, he continued performing in New Orleans for over 30 years and drove a school bus to support himself. He faded into obscurity until 1986, when (unbeknownst to him) he became a major star in England as a result of the rockabilly revival in Europe. The renewed interest in his music eventually allowed him to tour England.
In 2008, Joe Clay appeared in an award-winning Canadian documentary Rockabilly 514 directed by Patricia Chica and Mike Wafer. In the film, Clay spoke about his early beginnings as a rockabilly musician in the 1950s and his fascination with the new generation of rockabilly kids. He’s also seen performing his single “Sixteen Chicks” among an enthusiastic crowd of young rockabilly fans. Clay was a regular performer at the Ponderosa Stomp, which will return to New Orleans in October 2017.