By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) – “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who inspired pioneering rock’n’rollers and classic country musicians, sometimes while prancing around the music studio in his bathrobe and playing the ukulele, died on Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 82.
Clement died after a long bout with liver cancer, just months before he was to have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, which confirmed his death.
Despite his nickname, which was a holdover from an old radio skit rather than anything to do with horses and six-shooters, Clement actually favored Hawaiian print shirts and was as far removed as possible from actually being a cowboy.
While he was not a star himself, Clement inspired the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and even U2, during his long career in music.
“He had a role in two really important changes in American culture,” said Michael McCall, a writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Clement played a large role in the birth of rock’n’roll when he was hired as a producer and engineer at Sun Records, where he worked with music greats such as Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich.
“He was there when Jerry Lee walked in, and who knows what wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been there,” said McCall.
It was also at Sun that the young engineer wrote “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way,” two songs that a young rocker from east Arkansas named Johnny Cash turned into No. 1 country and Top Twenty pop hits in 1958.
The friendship between the two men was deep and special.
“Cash liked working with him because they had so much fun,” said McCall.
Clement then moved to Nashville, where he continued writing songs and worked as an engineer, producer, recording studio owner, music publisher and as an artist, leaving an indelible mark on the city.
It was in Nashville that Clement was the first to record Charley Pride, a black singer, which helped desegregate country music and began an association that lasted 13 albums.
Clement also had three Nashville studios and a publishing company. Among his genre-busting achievements was producing Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams, one of the most acclaimed albums to be released during the 1970s heyday of the so-called Outlaws on Music Row.
Merle Haggard, Ray Stevens and a host of country luminaries liked to record at Clement’s studios.
But he would step out far from country to work with polka bands and gritty singer-songwriters like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt. He even produced tracks for U2′s Rattle and Hum, a popular tribute to American music in 1988.
McCall noted that Clement had a knack for spotting “game-changing artists” – in the likes of Lewis, Cash, Pride and Williams – and “bringing them to the public.”
While the list of musical achievements spans more than five decades, it could easily have been overshadowed by Clement himself.
“He was a musical mastermind, but he brought this sense of fun and mischief (into the studio),” McCall said. “He danced around in his bathrobe and played the ukulele. He would do anything spontaneously to keep the mood light and fun and to keep his sense of joy about music.”
Guitarist Scotty Moore, who worked with Clement at Sun, lamented his friend’s passing.
“He was just an all-around fine fellow for me,” said Moore from his home outside Nashville. “He was just Jack.”
(Editing by Brendan O’Brien and Lisa Shumaker)