Jack Clement, who died on Aug. 8 in Nashville, was part of the first wave of rock 'n' rollers that included Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and singers Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. A Memphian by both birth and temperament, Clement brought the unbridled spirit of the Bluff City to Nashville's country-music scene at a time when Nashville needed it most. For decades a legendary figure among the intelligentsia, Clement in recent years began to receive the kind of attention he had always deserved. He was inducted this year into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a Nashville tribute show in January featured many of the artists he had worked with during his career.
Clement made history in Memphis as a producer and songwriter. Working with Phillips, Clement recorded rock standards by Lewis and Bill Justis, and wrote "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and "Guess Things Happen That Way," both hit singles for Cash. Alive to the possibilities of the performance captured on magnetic tape, Clement cut Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" during a 1957 session that had begun as an attempt to record "It'll Be Me," a brilliant Clement original about comic books, rocket ships and omnipresence.
Born on April 5, 1931, in the Memphis suburb of Whitehaven, Jack Henderson Clement came to Sun uniquely equipped to immortalize the efforts of Lewis and Justis. Having joined the Marines in 1948, Clement had already played bluegrass in the Washington, D.C., area with Ernest "Pop" Stoneman and his son, Scott Stoneman — Scott's frenetic showmanship helped prepare Clement for the gyrations of Presley, whom Clement had met in Memphis in 1954.
After his discharge from the Marines, Clement returned to Memphis, where he began recording future rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley. Clement took a tape of Riley to Phillips at Sun, and worked with Phillips until 1959. Clement had also met fellow Memphis songwriters Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, who became life-long friends and collaborators. Working at Echo Studio on Manassas Street, the trio made a recording in which they called each other "cowboy." The recording was forgotten, but Clement's nickname stuck.
Looking ahead, Cowboy Jack opened a recording studio in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961. In Beaumont, he cut the teenage anthem "Patches" with Lee, and pitched a Lee-composed tune titled "She Thinks I Still Care" to George Jones, who went on to record a couple of Clement's songs.
Clement moved to Nashville in 1965. He began producing and writing for Charley Pride, the Mississippi-born singer who became country's first African-American star. Pride's recordings of Clement's "Just Between You and Me" and "Let the Chips Fall" have become classics of '60s country.
A producer who delighted in adding seemingly incongruous but commercial touches to recording sessions, he put mariachi horns on Cash's chart-topping 1963 "Ring of Fire." Clement also produced successful records for Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, and The Stonemans. (Sadly, Tompall Glaser himself died Tuesday in Nashville at age 79 as the Scene was going to press.)
In the '70s, Clement became a studio owner and a video pioneer, and it was his combination of wisdom and whimsicality that endeared him to such aspiring Nashville songwriters as Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. He produced Waylon Jennings' 1975 Dreaming My Dreams, and released an idiosyncratic 1978 solo album. His final solo collection, Guess Things Happen That Way, appeared in 2004.
Clement became in later years a symbol of the musical freedom Nashville has often denied its artists. Holding court at his house, which he dubbed The Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa, Clement was an insouciant conceptualist, as the 2005 documentary film Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan illustrates.
Cowboy Jack rebuilt his home studio after the 2011 fire that destroyed master tapes and memorabilia, and he was diagnosed with liver cancer late last year. In his old age, he enjoyed the devotion of fans and friends, as students of American music began to appreciate his art.
As he often said, he was in the fun business. But he was also a man who understood the relationship between artistic endeavor and real life. "There's a difference in being a fake and a phony," Cowboy Jack once told an interviewer. "I may be a fake, but ain't no phony. Fakery is all right — that's showbiz."