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News createt: 05-08-2010

Cowboy Jack Clement To Talk Elvis

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'Cowboy' Jack Clement's coming back to Memphis to talk Elvis
By Bob Mehr,

To most people Elvis Presley remains a larger than life legend, a cultural icon, and a musical colossus. But for "Cowboy" Jack Clement -- a songwriter, producer and noted bon vivant, who's spent life in the company of musical giants from Johnny Cash to U2 -- Presley was something far more simple than all that.

"He was just a really nice guy," says the 79-year-old Clement, from his home office in Nashville. "I always did like him."

This year, the Memphis-raised Clement will be back in town celebrating Presley during Elvis Week. He's scheduled to participate in the concert and mini-convention called "Back in Memphis: A Tribute to the King" at the University of Memphis' Michael D. Rose Theatre on Aug. 12.

Clement's relationship with Presley dates back to the earliest days of the fledgling King's career. In 1954, Clement was a singer and MC for a country band playing a local club called the Eagles Nest when he invited Presley up to perform.

"This was about a month after he got going and he was the talk of the town at that time," says Clement. "I would go up and play and sing, and he'd come up and then I'd have to follow him back up. Elvis would really tear it up. They just loved him. I'd never seen or heard anything quite like it."

In 1956, Clement was hired on at Presley's label Sun Records as an engineer, though he arrived at the company just after Sam Phillips had sold Elvis' contract to RCA.

Phillips always said the decision was purely a practical one, that he needed the funds to keep the label going and fuel the promotion of its next hit, Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes.

"I never quite believed that," says Clement of late friend Phillips. "One time he said, 'Jack, if you're gonna make a mistake, make a 12 million dollar mistake."

Even though Presley was off Sun and breaking nationally, he still made his way back to the studio at 706 Union Ave. regularly. "He dropped by a lot. One time me and another guy were back in the control room shooting craps and he came in with his motorcycle suit on and we thought he was a cop," says Clement, laughing.

"I think he had a definite homing instinct. He came by the day he found he was drafted. I had the feeling I might've been the first guy he told that to," says Clement. "He said 'Jack, I'm going into the Army.' I told him it might be good for him. 'Cause I'd been in the Marine Corps for four years and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And when he left he seemed pretty upbeat about it; he thought it was gonna be an adventure."

Of course, Presley's most famous drop-in occurred on Dec. 4, 1956, when he joined Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis in the studio for an impromptu jam, that would become known as "The Million Dollar Quartet" session. "We were doing a Carl Perkins session and Sam was running the board. We were just about through and then Elvis came in and everything came to a halt," says Clement.

"After a while, Sam went next door to Taylor's restaurant. And I was sitting in the control room, turning up some knobs and I heard what they were doing. I remember I stood up and said 'I'd be remiss if I didn't record this.' So I stuck a tape on, walked out in the studio and moved a few mics around and I just let it run for about an hour and a half or so. Nobody seemed to object."

Clement's quick thinking captured a historic summit of rock and roll giants. The moment became mythic, thanks to a well circulated photograph of the four men huddled around a piano. The recording of the session was re-discovered and eventually released in 1987, while an expanded 50th anniversary edition came out in 2006. More recently, the event provided the basis of a hit Broadway play.

On Aug. 12, Clement will be performing some of the Sun-era material he's associated with at the tribute show along with other Elvis friends and collaborators like American studios guitarist Reggie Young, rockabilly heir Billy Burnette and piano man Billy Swan. A portion of the proceeds from this concert will also benefit Myrna Smith of The Sweet Inspirations, a onetime backing singer for Presley.

Meantime, Clement is working on a new album of his own, a follow-up to his 2004 effort Guess Things Happen That Way. "It's gonna be danceable record. I used to be an Arthur Murray instructor in Memphis before I went to work at Sun," says Clement. "It's gonna have some sambas, a tango or two, a few waltzes and some fox trots. It's not gonna sound like Glen Miller. But it'll have a beat."


Back in Memphis: A Tribute to the King

Featuring "Cowboy" Jack Clement, Billy Burnette, Reggie Young, Billy Swan, Jerry Carrigan, Shane Keister, Norbert Putnam, Dennis Jale and other special guests. Aug. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Michael D. Rose Theatre, 255 University Dr., at the University of Memphis. Reserved seats are $45 and include admission to the mini-convention and silent auction from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. with special guests Barbara Hearn Smith, Charles Stone, Sonny West, Sandi Pichon, Roben Jones and more. Tickets: For more information, call (901) 830-5761.