This past weekend I had the extreme pleasure to talk to Rockabilly Hall of Fame member Joe Clay on the phone. I got to hear him tell his stories and even got him to answer a few questions for you all. For this rockabilly fangirl, it was the chance of a lifetime! If this is your first introduction to Joe Clay, in short, he is a true legend. Joe has been playing since age 12. Performing as a backing musician in the 50's and 60's allowed him to play with some of the biggest names in music. However, marginal success as a front man lead him to be a school bus driver near his home in New Orleans while only working as a musician on the side. Thanks to the modern rockabilly weekender circuit, he has been given a second chance at music. He now travels the world playing huge festivals, making all of the girls swoon. All the while he remains humble and grateful to the fans for his continued success. It was great to talk with him and hear his point of view on the music and to be able to tell him how it is from my generation's point of view.
D: You started playing really young. How did you get into the music industry?
Joe: Well, when I was 12 years old or a little earlier I always got in a lot of trouble because I played my pencils on the desk like you play the drums. My parents always took me to a hillbilly place on Sunday. I watched this hillbilly band and I told my dad, I said, I think I can play those drums that guy is playing. My dad asked the guy and the guy said, can he play? And my dad said yeah, I think he can. So I got up and I played just like I do now. It came so natural. Like I had been playing my whole life.
D: Do you remember what that hillbilly place was called?
J: Hmmm...come on…. come on…..The Moonlight Inn!
D: People from my generation envy people like you for getting to be a teen in the 1950's. What do you think about when you think back to the 50's?
J: Well Dollie, trying to compare it to today, I think it’s better today. During my days we were kinda laid back. They had the jitterbug and all that, but the fans today are really into it, really strong. Especially overseas, it’s crazy. Every time I go there it’s getting bigger. I remember I started in ‘86 and it was like 150 people. I kept going like twice a year. Then there was 500, then 700, then this year in June I went to England it was 20,000. I said, WHOA! I noticed, over my career, going there, the parents would bring their kids and now they are grabbing this today. The kids are getting into this music just like the parents did. It’s great man, it’s cool.
D: You are right that more people are getting into it. When you said you have played for 20,000 people, that is like Viva Las Vegas. That many people go to that weekender. It’s crazy!
J: Well let me tell you this little story while it is in my mind. The first time I went to Europe in ‘86 they took me to a parking lot and I saw all of these 50’s cars and I saw all the boys and girls were dressing like the 50’s. It was like, for a moment I went back in time. Ya know I said, my god, is this real or am I dreamin’? Is this true, is this really happening? I finally came to my senses and I said, this is unbelievable, it’s like I am back in the 50’s! They brought me backstage and introduced me. Before then the lights were off on the stage and then when they introduced me they put the spotlight on me. When I walked out on stage the girls and even the guys were like, passing out. They thought I was dead! They couldn't believe it was really me, really Joe Clay. I will never forget that scene. That was pretty awesome.
D: Wow! And that was already back in 1986…. 28 or 29 years ago. You are still going and still playing for fans.
J: Yeah, in fact, while they were searching for me, I was playing lots of hotels. I did a lot of hotel work through my teenage years, for conventions. I was playing with a guy and his son had been overseas with his own little band and someone had told him that Joe Clay was really hot over there. He told the people overseas that I played with his dad. So when he came home he called me and told me that I was big overseas. I told him no, that was 30 years ago, that's impossible. That can’t be me. That's somebody who is using my songs and my name. That’s not me. Anyway, about a year later the agent in Europe called me. He said, oh god I finally found you. He told me he put an ad in every newspaper in the United States looking for me. I didn’t believe it was me, I said, it can't be! That was 30 years ago man! I asked him which songs are they, and he told me. I didn’t quite remember them. They had to send me the record!
D: So you didn’t even remember your own songs and you had to have them send you the record? That’s such a funny story, I love that. At that time you were recording those albums did you have any sense that the music you were making was revolutionary?
J: No. I had an idea that it would move a little bit but then it didn't. So I lost faith in it. I stopped being Joe Clay and I got a little trio called the CJ Trio and did top 40. We did that until ‘86. We played conventions and on bourbon street six nights a week.
D: If you had to name a moment in time when you felt you "hit it big", when was it? Was it in ‘86 when they found you again?
D: Was that the first time you went overseas?
J: Yeah, in ‘86, that was my first time ever. Since then I have been all over the continent. I would say one of the biggest so far is that this September I am going to Japan. That is really crazy. I didn't think rockabilly was doing anything over there, but I hear it is really big.
D: Yeah Joe, I hate to break it to you, but if you think the Europeans are crazy, wait until you see the Japanese. You are not going to believe it. It’s going to be crazy. They are going to jump and do crazy dances…..
J: Oh god, yeah, that great!
D: So, who would you say was the biggest name you have played with in your career?
J: Are you ready? Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, George Jones…because when I played in hillbilly bands we had a house band and once a week one of these guys from Nashville would come in. Like George Jones, Jimmy Newman, Faron Young, and it goes on and on. I backed all of them! Fats Domino…wow! It’s crazy when I think about it.
D: That's awesome. So I heard you played on the Louisiana Hayride. Tell us about that.
J: That was a just a regular job. The guys I played with there were just getting started. It was a gig we played once a week. One of my thrills in life was when I played in my hillbilly band. We played in Mobile, Alabama, at a lounge. So when me and the bass player went on break, I told him, let’s walk across the street and listen to that other band. So we did. This guy was singin’ and I said, this guy sings very good, and it was Hank Williams! It was pretty crazy, jeez.
D: Wow! That’s awesome because he really didn't get to play that long. So the fact that you got to see him in that brief amount of time is really cool.
J: Yeah, he was really just starting!
D: So you are getting ready to play Viva Las Vegas. What songs can we look forward to hearing?
J: I’m going to be doing Duck Tails, 16 Chicks, You Look That Good to Me, Jellybean, Dog Gonit, Goodbye Goodbye. It’s gonna rumble, I can tell you that!
D: I will be there, in the front row! You will see the blonde girl with the curly blonde hair, jumping up and down, that will be me.
J: All right, yeah! Before I get out on stage the crowd is ready. I don’t even have to start them up, they are ready! You can’t miss, man.
D: Yeah, we are all there to see the legends. We want to see as many legends as we can. We are honored to be in the presence of a legend, someone who was making music in that time period. Ya know, I am only 27 so of course I didn’t get to see any of those bands back in the day. So I am always really excited to see them now.
J: Oh wow. That’s great Dollie. That’s something else that freaked me out, that story that I told you about when the girls passed out...well I was singing 16 chicks and they were all singin’ and that blew me away!
D: Yeah, we know all the words! Because really, no new music is coming out from that time period, so we have been listening to these same songs for so long. So to be able to see them live is surreal to us. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I hope that at Viva Las Vegas I can snag a picture with you after your set when you are out signing records in the hall.
J: Oh that would be great babe. No problem. I am so glad you called. I get all stoked when we start an interview like this because everything starts coming back and it starts revving me up. I am so ready! I’m counting the days! See ya there hun!
We are definitely counting the days also Joe! See you there!