If one were under the impression that the “jack” in the phrase “jack of all trades” referred to “Cowboy” Jack Clement, it wouldn’t be hard to understand why. In addition to his legendary career as a producer, Clement also achieved great success as a singer, songwriter, talent scout, engineer, and song publisher. Perhaps most importantly, however, was the role Mr. Clement filled as one of the most fearless, creative, and maverick characters in the long and storied history of American music.
Jack Henderson Clement was born on April 5, 1931, in Whitehaven, Tenn., then a suburb of Memphis. The son of a choir director, he was immersed in music from a young age and began playing the guitar and other instruments in school before running away from home at 15. In 1948, he joined the Marine Corps, where he began playing bluegrass with a group called the Tennessee Troupers. In 1953, fresh out of the Marines, Clement and mandolin player Buzz Busby formed the comically-inclined bluegrass duo Buzz and Jack, the Bayou Boys.
After spending some time at Memphis State, where he has earned the nickname “Cowboy,” Clement co-founded Fernwood Records, a small studio that was operated out of his business partner Slim Wallace’s garage. While none of these recordings broke through into the mainstream, they did catch the ear of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, who invited Clement to join him as a producer and engineer. At Sun, Clement quickly proved his adeptness behind the soundboard, recording early rock n’ roll and rockabilly classics from artists like Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Soon after, he proved his great instincts as an eye for talent when he discovered a young and wild pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis when Sam Phillips was out of town. “We’d just go in the studio and cut anything we could think of,” Clement told the Nashville Tennessean. “The thing about him was he was totally uninhibited. He didn’t have any insecurities. He was just nuts…He didn’t hold nothing back.” During that initial session, Lewis cut the track “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which reached the top of both the R&B and country charts.
" I was in hog heaven...trying to make it sound better than reality. A lot of times it did."
Clement on Engineering the Million Dollar Quartet
In December of 1956, just months after joining Sun Records, Mr. Clement found himself behind the board during one of the most fabled moments in rock n’ roll history when he engineered the so-called Million Dollar Quartet session that featured Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. “It was a very free atmosphere,” he told No Depression magazine. “I was in hog heaven…I wasn’t trying to get reality, you know? I was trying to make it sound better than reality. A lot of times it did.”
The next year, he demonstrated his knack for songwriting when his songs “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way” became big crossover hits for Johnny Cash. He also began preparing for a solo career, although it never fully materialized. “At that point I wasn’t all that intent on it,” he explains. “I was intent on it in 1952 and ’53, but after a while I decided I didn’t really want to do that.” Having established himself as a key architect of the legendary Sun sound and with little else to prove, Clement departed the studio in 1959 in order to set up his own recording studio.
Although Clement’s Summer Records imprint was short lived, he rapidly established himself as an in-demand producer for the major labels, most notably at Chet Atkins’ RCA records in Nashville. In 1960, Clement moved to Beaumont, Texas, where he was drawn to the local sound. “They had a sound going down there, regional kind of stuff. The variations of style, that was what made country music,” he said. He opened a recording studio and formed a publishing company and also charted another #1 hit with George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care.” He also continued to work with his old friend Johnny Cash, who contacted Clement to help him with the mariachi-style arrangements for his 1963 hit “Ring of Fire.” “I knew he was the only one who’d see how it could work,” Cash wrote in his autobiography. “There wasn’t any point in even discussing it with anybody else.”
In 1965, Clement moved to Nashville and (predictably) opened his own recording and publishing business. Soon after, he recorded a demo session by Charley Pride, a then-unknown African American country artist. “I had this office with these big speakers, and I’d get people in there and play Charley’s record. Loud, man. Like, really loud. I’d play that record and then I’d show ‘em his picture. That was fun,” he said. After convincing Chet Atkins to sign Pride to RCA, Clement wrote Pride’s first two hit songs and produced his first 13 LPs, helping Pride to become an international star and desegregating country music in the process. By the mid-1970s, Pride had become the best-selling performer for RCA Records since Elvis Presley.
"I knew he was the only one who’d see how it could work…There wasn’t any point in even discussing it with anybody else."
Johnny Cash on asking Clement to help arrange "Ring of Fire"
Now a significant figure in the Nashville music scene, Clement began working with some of the biggest names in the industry. He wrote a number of hit songs that were recorded by singing stars such as Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, and Elvis Presley, and also produced some of the most important country records of the era. In addition to working on some of singer Don Williams’ earliest recordings, he also produced Waylon Jennings’ classic 1975 album Dreaming My Dreams, which is considered an essential relic of country music’s outlaw movement.
During the 1980s, Clement’s Nashville home studio--lovingly known as the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa—became a meeting ground for musicians and artists to play music, drink, and hang out. “Jack was a musical mastermind, in a sense, but what made him stand out to people was he had this sense of fun and a little bit of mischief in everything he did,” said Michael McCall, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He had a whimsical, creative spirit about him, and he inspired that in other people. In an industry that puts a high value on conformity, he was the ultimate non-conformist, and people loved him for it.” Later in the decade, Clement worked with the Irish super group U2 on their hit album Rattle and Hum, which was partially recorded at Sun Studios.