I Write the Songs – “Cowboy” Jack Clement

Jack Clement in 1978

We’re going back to an old school, country songwriter for this month’s I Write the Songs. Jack Henderson Clement, born in Memphis, Tennessee in the April of 1931 started playing and performing at an early age, playing both guitar and dobro, and he made his first record at the age of 22, recording for Boston based Sheraton Records after a short term serving in the U.S Marines. Following this recording, he took the decision not to pursue a musical career at that time but, instead, went to Memphis State University to study full-time from 1953 to 1955. This is where he picked up his nickname “Cowboy”, playing steel guitar with a local country & western band. Perhaps the most significant thing about Clement is that, in 1956, Sam Phillips hired him to be a producer and engineer at Sun Records, where he would work with the likes of Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and most importantly for Clement, Johnny Cash. In 1957 he would write his first song for Cash, ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’, which would give Cash a significant cross-over hit. He would write more songs for Cash, including number one country hit, ‘I Guess Things Happen That Way’ (which also crossed over to the pop charts, taking the number 11 spot) and the amusing ‘The One on the Right is on the Left’, another cross over that hit number 2 on the country charts and number 46 on the pop listings. He also wrote the riff that launched one of Cash’s most iconic songs – the horn section’s opening phrase for ‘Ring of Fire’, the recording of which he also produced. He is also the man credited with discovering, and recording Jerry Lee Lewis, while Sam Phillips was away on a talent scouting trip. He wrote ‘It’ll Be Me’ for Lewis, who only used it as a B-side, but it became a UK hit for Cliff Richard in 1962.

In 1959, Clement relocated to Nashville, accepting a job to become a producer at RCA’s famed Nashville studios, and in 1961 he relocated again, this time to Beaumont, Texas, joining the producer and publisher Bill Hall in opening the Gulf Coast Recording Studio and the Hall-Clement publishing company. By this time Clement had written a number of songs that had been picked up by other artists and his star, both as a writer and a producer, had risen considerably.

He returned to Nashville permanently in 1965, where he established a publishing business and started his own recording studio, working with artists such as Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Ray Stevens and Don Williams. In 1971 he co-founded JMI Records and, in later years, he would also produce albums for the likes of Waylon Jennings (1974’s “Dreaming My Dreams”) and Townes Van Zandt (1987’s “At My Window”).

In all, Clement wrote nearly twenty country hits covered by a wide range of artists, including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins, Bobby Bare, Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cliff Richard, Charley Pride, Tom Jones, Dickey Lee, and Hank Snow. Clement was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973.

He increasingly turned to producing in his later years and became quite sought after given his early experience in producing rockabilly artists and his association with Sun Studio. In 1987, this lead to him being approached by U2 who wanted to record at the Sun Studio. He, apparently, had no knowledge of them as a band but agreed to work with them. The results are probably the outstanding tracks on the “Rattle & Hum” album – ‘When Love Comes to Town’, with B.B. King, ‘Angel of Harlem’,  and ‘Love Rescue Me’, with backing vocals by Bob Dylan.

A fire claimed both his home and studio in 2011, and though Clement was unhurt, many priceless recordings and memorabilia from his career were lost. In the April of 2013, it was announced that “Cowboy” Jack Clement would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He died four months later. A songwriter and producer to the end.


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About Rick Bayles 289 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

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