Born Claiborne Joseph Cheramie, 9 September 1938, Harvey, Louisiana
Even though Joe Clay had only two solitary singles released during the 1950s, his scant recording inventory is viewed as being a pinnacle in the rockabilly pecking order.
Encouraged by his parents, young Claiborne took an early interest in country music and by the age of 12, was competent on drums, rhythm guitar and bass. C.J., as he was known to his friends, formed a trio and had a regular 30-minute spot on radio station WWEZ in New Orleans, leading to appearances in Louisiana. During 1955, his local reputation enabled him to play the prestigious Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, where he shared billing with the up and coming Elvis (for whom he played drums on one occasion when D.J. Fontana couldn't make the gig).
In 1956, RCA was in search of new talent to record for their new Vik subsidiary. Encouraged by WWEZ deejay Charlie 'Jolly Cholly' Stokely, C.J. cut a demonstration tape at the station and sent it to New York. About three weeks later he got a phone call from producer Herman Diaz who wanted to record him in Houston. On April 25, 1956, working in Bill Quinn's Gold Star studio, Joe Clay (as he now called himself) cut five selections for Vik. The two songs selected for single release were both covers of recent Starday recordings : "Duck Tail" (Rudy Grayzell) and "Sixteen Chicks" (Link Davis). Clay's versions are more exciting than the originals. Considering that he had to deal with material and musicians (guitarist Hal Harris among them) that were totally new to him, it is striking that Clay exudes confidence, as if he had been making records all his life. Unfortunately Clay's record, for all its wild energy and apparent teen appeal, failed to dent the charts in any market. Vik chose not to release the other three songs recorded at the session : "Doggone It", "Goodbye Goodbye" and "Slipping Out And Sneaking In". (They were first issued on a Bear Family LP in 1986.)
Clay returned to the Louisiana Hayride and also secured a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show (several months before Elvis), singing a toned-down "Only You", as Sullivan didn't want the raucous "Duck Tail" on his show. While in New York for the Sullivan performance, Clay recorded four more numbers on the evening of May 24, 1956. For the session, Herman Diaz employed an accomplished group of Afro-American studio players that included guitarists Mickey Baker and Skeeter Best, bassist Leonard Gaskin and drummers Bobby Donaldson and Joe Marshall. The use of two drummers gave the New York selections an uncommonly forceful rhythmic drive, even for rockabilly, but it was Baker's guitar that turned the proceedings into a bona fide rave-up. Despite Clay's inspired effort and the help of phenomenal sidemen, his second Vik single, "Cracker Jack"/"Get On the Right Track Baby" (Vik 0218) sold no better than the first one and there were no further Vik sessions or releases. His RCA contract not renewed, Joe returned to New Orleans, picked up his old name in 1960 and continued to perform as C.J. Cheramie for a couple of years. In 1962-63 he released three undistinguished swamp pop singles under the name Russ Wayne, for the Samter label out of Gretna, Louisiana.
Around 1971 he gave up entertainment for a steady job as a school bus driver. During the European rockabilly revival of the 1980s Clay was rediscovered by Willie Jeffery and in 1986 he received a hero's welcome from rockabilly fans in England, Holland and Sweden. He would return to Europe several times and was also in demand for gigs in New Orleans, but he continued to drive the school bus until 2001.
In 2004 he recorded a comeback album with new material ("The Legend Is Now"), which was released on the Spanish El Toro label in 2005 and again produced by a Diaz, this time Carlos Diaz (no relation to Herman). The CD includes a long interview (38:52) with Clay. Available on Spotify. For several years he performed at the annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. In 2008 Joe Clay appeared in an award-winning Canadian documentary entitled 'Rockabilly 514', where he speaks about his early beginnings as a rockabilly musician and his fascination for the new generation of rockabilly kids. He is also seen in a live performance of "Sixteen Chicks".
More info :
CD : Ducktail (Bear Family BCD 15516, 1993). Reissue of the 1986 LP. The complete RCA/Vik recordings. Only 11 tracks, the 9 songs from the two 1956 sessions plus two alternates. Liner notes by Ian Wallis.
Acknowledgements : Stuart Colman (NDT 246), Jay Orr, Lee Cotten
Dik, May 2012
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