- Joseph Rosen
- Rockabilly legend Joe Clay may be better known to European audiences than in his hometown.
In the early 1950s, there was a young Southern boy who -- still in his teens -- became renowned for his barely controlled hip-shaking stage presence and frenetic guitar playing. He appeared on the famous Louisiana Hayride broadcast, was signed to the RCA label, and was sent up to New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, where his too-wild, almost-suggestive dance moves got him censored. If that sounds like Elvis, think again. He's one of New Orleans' own.
Joe Clay, born Claiborne Joseph Cheramie in Harvey, is a unique case of the right man born, most likely, at the right time but certainly in the wrong place. In the early '50s, he started out by playing drums with a country band in Marrero, keeping time at weekly dances and club gigs on the West Bank -- at a time when the sounds of the city were strictly the burgeoning rhythm and blues of New Orleans. According to Clay, he tuned in and heard those new sounds on the radio, but because of the color barriers, never considered going to the nightclubs attended by black New Orleanians to hear the artists he loved. Instead, he absorbed that energy into his own playing and was one of very few local musicians of the '50s to experiment, cautiously at first and then wildly, with blending country and R&B into a sound that would soon revolutionize America.
"At about 11 years old, my parents used to go to a dance every Sunday afternoon in Marrero, and I used to watch this drummer play all the time." Clay says. "So one Sunday, I asked my dad if he could ask the guys in the band if I could sit in. And they all laughed at me. They said, 'Man, you don't know how to do that.' And I said, 'Yeah, I think I can play them drums.'"
It turns out he could play.
"I had no idea what rockabilly was," he said. "It was just something I felt, so that was what I did."
Clay was soon in demand on the West Bank club circuit, largely because he played his soft, speedy shuffle with brushes instead of sticks in a way that didn't drown out the vocalists. At 16, he began playing six nights a week at the Gay Paree, a Marrero hot spot, as part of the house band that backed national country acts like Faron Young and George Jones. Soon, he and that band got a gig at WWEZ radio in Marrero, playing live each Saturday at noon, taking requests from callers. At the time, the RCA label was starting up a subsidiary called Vik Records and scouting for talent. One of the ways it did that was by sending solicitation letters to radio stations throughout the South. Clay had begun playing guitar by this time, and brought one to the Vik audition, where he sang "Shake, Rattle & Roll."
The label helped Clay get emancipation from his parents (and change his name) before bringing him to Houston to cut four of the six tracks he recorded as Joe Clay -- including the crazily upbeat "Sixteen Chicks" and a high-octane version of Rudy Grayzell's country-rock "Ducktail." Then the label flew him to New York to record more songs but with a new band.
"They said, this is your band, and I'm just standing around thinking 'Oh my God, what is my family going to think of me playing with a colored band?' Because in them days, you didn't do that, not where I was from. But they were musicians just like me, so that's different. We were working together."
After that, Clay sat in on a gig with a young Elvis Presley at Pontchartrain Beach, and traveled to New York to play Ed Sullivan. Sadly, though, his RCA contract -- signed hastily and upon further study, hardly generous -- worked out poorly. Also, the New Orleans popular music of the time -- the rhythm and blues beginning to take off out of Cosimo Matassa's studio, where Clay occasionally sat in -- wasn't friendly to rockabilly. And Clay wasn't likely to move. He spent the '60s playing top-40 hits in a band on Bourbon Street (alongside a young Mac Rebennack) before quitting music entirely in 1976 to begin driving a school bus on the West Bank, where he was discovered ten years later by a surprising UK fanbase. Now, Clay, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, travels to Europe several times a year to play to sold-out houses of die-hard rockabilly fans who still bemuse Clay with their enthusiasm, but hardly so much as the first time.
"When I get onstage, [the MC] says, ladies and gentleman, I told you I was going to find him, and he is very much alive," Clay remembers. "And I think that's one of the moments in life that I can never, ever, ever forget. They had one spotlight on me, and when they seen me, the fans started falling out all over the floor, because they thought I was dead."