Influential country producer Cowboy Jack Clement dies
Songwriter, engingeer, producer worked with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and more
"Cowboy" Jack Clement, a producer, engineer, songwriter and beloved figure who helped birth rock 'n' roll and push country music into modern times, has died. He was 82.
Dub Cornett, a close friend of Clement's, said his hospice nurse confirmed Clement passed away surrounded by family after declining treatment for liver cancer.
His death came months after he learned he would be joining the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was to be inducted later this year. At the top of his official Country Music Hall of Fame bio was one of Clement's favorite quotes: "If we're not having fun, we're not doing our job."
Clement was known as much for his colorful personality and storytelling ability as his rather formidable place in music history.
A tribute benefit concert to Clement last winter drew video salutes from first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and pop phenom Taylor Swift, as well as performances and appearances by fans that included Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and Jakob Dylan.
Clement's career included stops in Memphis at Sun Records as an engineer for Sam Phillips, where he discovered Jerry Lee Lewis and recorded greats like Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. He also came through Nashville, where he was a close collaborator of Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and many of his fellow hall of fame members.
As a producer, he helped break through the color barrier in country music through his discovery of Pride.
The hall of fame noted he was a catalyst who always seemed to bring the best out of those he worked with. He convinced Lewis to put aside the country material he brought to Sun Records and stretch out with something a little more upbeat. The result? Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On.
He helped mark a turning point in the career of U2, recording their roots tribute Rattle and Hum.
He also came up with the idea of putting Mariachi horns on Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, transforming a fairly sedate love song into an ascendant pop culture moment.
"He was the maestro, the ringleader of tomfoolery, and I know Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips are ready to get back to work now that he's in heaven," said Cornett, who produced the benefit concert.
Born in Memphis in 1931, Clement picked up music in his late teens and continued to perform after joining the Marines at 17. He picked up the nickname "Cowboy" for his role in a radio show while attending college and soon built a garage recording studio.
He took the first records he made to Sun to master and was hired on the spot by Phillips. He also served as a producer, engineer and talent scout in Nashville for Chet Atkins during some of country music's most important years. Along the way, he boosted George Jones' career with his composition She Thinks I Still Care and had songs recorded by Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and Elvis Presley.
He also touched the legendary careers of Louis Armstrong, Albert Collins, Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams Jr., among others.
Clement's story was chronicled in the documentary Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan.