Friday, May 29, 2009
Remembering Two Who Got Away: Joe Clay and Andy Starr
In the mid to late 1950's, fame and recognition on a national scale for aspiring rockabilly musicians seemed to be within reach. However, in the vast majority of cases, the breakthrough record or performance remained elusive. Obviously, there was an upper echelon of recording artist who were garnering most of the exposure: Elvis, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Unfortunately, there were some very talented musicians who recorded some of the finest rockabilly of all and who also seemed to be on the cusp of something much larger until mitigating factors relegated them to almost complete obscurity for several decades. This post will deal with two such rockabilly musicians: Joe Clay and Andy Starr. In each case, careers in rockabilly that started out auspiciously never transcended their regional following and were eventually consigned to obscurity until interest in Great Britain helped to resurrect their careers.
Joe Clay was born Joe Cheramie in Harvey, Louisiana and was a musician since the age of 12. He appeared poised to breakthrough when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, ready to rip it up with his scorching cover of the Rudy Grayzell tune "Duck Tail," only to have Sullivan reign him in and require him to perform the much more serene cover of The Platters' "Only You." Missing his breakthrough moment, Joe began to slide into obscurity in spite of his excellent RCA recordings. Like so many rockabilly musicians, recognition was confined to regional interest.
Joe's RCA recordings from 1956 to 1958 are simply extraordinary. His "Sixteen Chicks" has to rate as one of the purest, uninhibited, quintessential rockabilly songs from the 1950's. I would say the same about the incredible recording "Goodbye, Goodbye". Both are well produced and highlight Joe's vocals and the very hot lead by the legendary rockabilly guitarist Hal Harris. Both of these are the real thing and have to rate as some of the finest rockabilly ever recorded. Clay's catchy vocals and spontaneous, boppin' style with a hard edge have led to claims that he is the principal forerunner to psychobilly and even punk rock. His 1956 recording of "Get on the Right Track," recorded in New York with a black session band is often cited owning to its wild and frenetic energy. After failing to generate national following and being constrained by a manager who wanted to keep him in New Orleans, Joe keeps his music interests alive but ends up earning a living driving a school-bus until he is resurrected in the mid 1980's by Willie Jeffries, a London businessman. Tours to a more appreciative Europe followed.
Andy Starr was born in the rockabilly rich state of Arkansas in the small town of Combs in the Boston Mountains. While serving in Korea, Andy put together a combo he named The Arkansas Plowboys and kept the group together upon his return. He eventually moved to Texas and and began to absorb the new "Cat Music" beginning to take shape in early 1955. Finally, Andy was afforded an opportunity to appear with Elvis in Gainesville, Texas at an open air concert that went well enough for Andy that he parlayed it into a record deal with MGM. Over the course of the next year,(1956) Starr produced eight very high quality rockabilly cuts that showcase his songwriting talent and vocals, which were often compared to Elvis. While "Round and Round" is a rocker whose laments the allure of the casino while "She's a Jesse" addresses the recurring "perfectly compatible female" theme so often heard in rockabilly. Andy's signature piece, "Rockin Rollin Stone" is pure rockabilly that works on the common blues metaphor to address wanderlust, with fine guitar work provided by Larry Adair. Andy's later recording from the early 1960's, "Evil Eye", is well arranged in an R&B format with a brass section. All in all all are top notch rockabilly that never acquired the national following that MGM had hoped for, leading to Andy's slide into musical obscurity. He remained active in music, recording his last record in Nashville in 2002, one year prior to his death.
Both Andy Starr and Joe Clay have been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.