Jack Clement: Nashville legend who worked with Johnny Cash, U2 and Jerry Lee Lewis

 

"Cowboy" Jack Clement was one of the renaissance men of American music. A maverick original, his 60-year career was spent mainly within the country genre – writing and publishing hit songs, producing seminal albums (many in his own studios), recording in his own right, working as a DJ in his later years and even producing a horror film which has gained a cult following.

Clement, who has died at the age of 82 after suffering from liver cancer, worked with artists as disparate as U2 and Louis Armstrong as well as countless country performers. Moreover, he was a key player in two important moments in American culture. As producer and engineer for Jerry Lee Lewis, he helped pioneer rock'n'roll in the mid-1950s, Lewis having previously been seen principally as a country singer and pianist with evangelical leanings. And by penning two best-selling singles for Johnny Cash, he accelerated the would-be rocker's life-changing reverse journey into country and western.

The "Cowboy" nickname owed nothing to any range-riding prowess (indeed, his favourite among his own songs was "Some Cowboys Hate Horses"). In fact, the moniker had stuck with him from a radio show he did when he was a teenager. This came before a four-year stint in the Marines, during which he wrote lyrics in his head while on guard duty. But if the Memphis-born Clement was no Gene Autry, his first involvement in professional music, playing guitar and banjo in the bluegrass band Buzz and Jack & the Bayou Boys, established the direction his life would take.

He began to diversify after joining Sun Records, the Sam Phillips-owned Memphis label that gave the world Elvis Presley. Producing for Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley, Cash and Lewis, he was at the mixing desk in February 1957 when the latter cut "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in one take. The whole million-selling whirlwind was propelled by a boogie piano and no little suggestiveness in the lyric. Clement soon displayed a different string to his bow, writing "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" which took Cash high in the US charts and confirmed him as a major country singer.

Fired in 1959 by Phillips, whose royalty rates he pointedly recalled in a 1977 interview as "kinda low", Clement joined RCA as a writer and producer. By 1961, however, he had teamed up with producer Bill Hall to form a publishing company in Beaumont, Texas. His songwriting credits ensured a good living: George Jones recorded his material; Cliff Richard had a UK No 2 with "It'll Be Me"; and Porter Wagoner linked with Dolly Parton to make "Just Someone I Used to Know" an American hit.

In 1963 he produced, arranged the horns and played guitar on "Ring of Fire", arguably Cash's signature song, and wrote several humorous numbers for him, including "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart". Even after his friend's death in 2003, Clement worked on the soundtrack for the biopic I Walk the Line. Michael McCall, writer for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said Cash "liked working with him because they had so much fun".

In 1966-67 Clement was also instrumental in the emergence of black country singer Charley Pride, one of 11 children born to poor sharecroppers in Mississippi. He composed Pride's first two hits, "Just Between You and Me" and "I Know One", and produced his first 13 albums. With country still an all-white medium, it was a major step towards desegregation.

Clement expanded his repertoire. In 1972, he produced what is thought to be the first country-music video, for Don Williams' track "Come Early Morning". He also produced the movie Dear Dead Delilah, a box-office flop with enduring underground appeal. In 1975 he was co-producer, with Waylon Jennings, on the Texan's critically acclaimed Dreaming My Dreams album, and three years later, aged 46, he released his own, highly regarded LP for Elektra, All I Want to Do in Life. The follow-up, Guess Things Happen That Way, came a mere 28 years later.

In 1988, Clement was at the controls when U2 recorded three songs for the Rattle and Hum album, including the hits "Angel of Harlem" and "When Love Comes to Town". In later years, he shared his passions on Outlaw Country, a nationwide radio station founded by Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. The Americana Music Association gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and a documentary about him, titled Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement's Home Movies, won a prize at the Nashville Film Festival.

This year, a concert in his honour was held in his adopted city, with Taylor Swift, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and close friend Kris Kristofferson among those paying homage. In October he was to have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. On its behalf, Michael McCall hailed Clement as "a musical mastermind" who spotted and developed "game-changing artists", but also one with "a sense of mischief" who would often dance around the studio, in a distinctly uncowboy-like manner, "in a bathrobe, playing the ukulele".

Phil Shaw

Jack Henderson Clement, singer, musician, songwriter, producer, publisher, disc-jockey and film-maker: born Memphis, Tennessee 5 April 1931; two children (one daughter, one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 8 August 2013.

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