In Memoriam: Joe Clay

Published on: September 27th, 2016

Joe Clay at WWOZ's Piano Night in 2015 [Photo by Kichea S. Burt]

Joe Clay at WWOZ's Piano Night in 2015 [Photo by Kichea S. Burt]

"Father of rockabilly" and Harvey native Joe Clay passed away peacefully and surrounded by family on Monday, September 26, 2016. Clay was born Claiborne Joseph Cheramie in 1939 but it was under his stage name that he rose to prominence with hits like 'Ducktail,' 'Sixteen Chickens,' and 'Get On The Right Track.' His career highlights include appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, a hearty revival in Europe in the 1980s, and appearances at Ponderosa Stomp.

In a 2014 interview with the Times-Picayune, he shared, "I started playing drums, like, around the house. I beat on everything. Even at school I played with a pencil on the desk. I'd get punished every single day with that. The teacher hit my hand. But I couldn't stop." At 12, he began sitting in with musicians at a local club and found how to get people out of their seats with a Fats Domino beat. He soon formed his own band that featured two drummers playing simultaneously.

At 17, Clay earned a contract with RCA Records and had his first hit, 'Ducktail.' He was scheduled to perform it on The Ed Sullivan Show in May 1956 but the ducklike wiggle of his rear end was too much for pre-Elvis era Sullivan who shut down the song with "I don't want that kind of stuff on my show." Clay performed the tamer 'Only You' instead, just 3 months before Elvis's legendary appearance. Clay's path would soon cross with Elvis as he joined his band as a drummer. Clay also performed with George Jones and spent years on the Bourbon Street gig circuit.

Clay's music career got a big revival in the 1980s when acts like Elvis Costello and The Stray Cats gained popularity. Concert dates for Clay in Europe followed, as well as local festivals and performances. Clay also hit the stage at WWOZ's Piano Night in 2015, joining pianist David Torkanowsky at House of Blues New Orleans. See their performance of 'Lucille' below, including Torkanowsky's enthusiastic introduction of Clay at the beginning.

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