Jimmy Clanton is known as one of the most popular teen idols of the 1950s and ’60s. Between 1958 and 1962, the “Swamp Pop Teenage Idol” had seven charted hits — including three which reached the Top 10 and four which were million sellers — in addition to starring in films and sharing the stage with a variety of well-known artists including Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Platters, and many more.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Clanton and asked him about his musical childhood, his rise to stardom, his experiences as a live performer, and what he’s been up to lately.
You were born in Louisiana. Did you come from a musical family?
My mother was a Cajun French Creole from down in the bayous of Louisiana. I was born down in the Louisiana bayous in a town called Golden Meadow, but I was raised in Baton Rouge. My dad came out of the hills of Alabama. It’s a long story about how he met my mother. My dad drove a refrigeration truck where he used to go to the bayou area and pick up shrimp from a shrimp factory. My mother worked in that factory and that’s how my dad met her.
The music, however, really came from my dad’s side with my grandparents and my uncles and aunts. In Alabama, I would go to visit my grandparents on summer break from school and they were very musically inclined and, also, very big on the old Baptist Church-type hymn books, so that’s really how the music came to me.
We understand you started playing guitar at a pretty young age. What motivated you learn to play it, and who taught you how to play?
That came from my visiting with my grandparents in Alabama. When I was still a young teenager, one of my aunts or uncles found an old guitar in the household there. I just kind of fiddled around with it until they showed me a couple of chords and that really got me hooked. By the time I came back home from that vacation, I cut grass with an old fashioned push mower and saved up enough money — in fact, it was $12 — and went to a pawn shop and got a guitar. Then, I found a little 25-cent guitar chord book and began teaching myself. I began to follow songs on the radio in no time at all, started playing them, and graduated to an even higher degree of guitar playing week after week.
You said you followed songs on the radio. What kind of music did you listen to at the time?
Well, back in the early ’50s, you didn’t have FM radio — you had AM radio — and the particular station we listened to was very diversified. This station would play country music for two hours in the morning and Top 40 every afternoon. And since it got to where I really enjoyed playing guitar, I’d follow the country music in the morning and then pick up on the chord progressions from the Top 40 in the afternoons and I really progressed over just a couple months time.
In 1956, while in high school, you started your first band, The Dixie Cats. Can you tell us anything about that group?
Yeah, that was kind of a living room get-together type band, you know? We just wanted to play together for the sake of hearing what we sounded like, and I think we did play one little gig, if you want to call it that.
What kind of music did you play?
Well, we were playing the local Top 40 music we heard on the radio — Elvis, Little Richard, and stuff like that.
While you were still attending Baton Rouge High School, you joined forces with a rival band leader, Dick Holler — who later wrote “Abraham, Martin and John” for Dion — in a group called The Rockets, didn’t you?
Yeah, but before that, I played in a different band. Evidently by 1957, the local nightclub music scene was changing from the easy-listening sounds of The Four Freshman and The HiLos to more of a rhythm and blues type-sound. And Dick Holler approached me at an engagement I was playing at and told me that he wanted to change the style of his group to where he and his band could play the newer kind of music that was coming forth.
Dick convinced me that he had a lot of contacts and a lot of bookings and, my gosh, in late 1957 to make $15 a night — which was a lot of money back in 1957 — to get to play music you loved? So I agreed to join the band. We got together and we got a horn section, and within six months, we were the #1 white rhythm and blues swamp pop band on the entire Gulf Coast.
Originally, you were supposed to play the guitar for the group, so how did you end up becoming a lead vocalist?
When I first started playing with Dick, he wanted me as a guitarist since I was the best guitar player in Baton Rouge — at least for a white boy. But I started noticing that he was doing all the singing. And I’m laughing about this because I can see it like it just happened two minutes ago, but in my prior band, I was playing guitar and, one day, I just kind of overheard this out-of-context conversation with the leader of the band where I heard him say, “Well, I have to pay so-and-so $5 a night more because he sings,” and I never forgot that.
Now, singing really was pretty much something I did only around the house or when I was with my grandparents in Alabama, and I also did a little singing with the Dixie Cats, but nothing that would bring any attention to myself. But when I noticed that Dick was doing all the singing — and after awhile, he was getting kind of hoarse — I went to him one day and said, “Dick, you’re doing all the singing. With all that singing, you can get hoarse, so I wouldn’t mind doing a couple of songs here and there to help you out,” and then I added, “But in the other band I played with, the guy who sang got an extra $5 a night more.” And Dick looked at me with a weird expression on his face and said, “Well, I’ll give you a chance to sing at the next club we play.”
And as you know, back in 1957, we had no recording equipment — no cassette tapes; nothing like that — so the only way anyone could learn songs was either to write the songs down after hearing them on the radio, by buying the record, or by buying Hit Parade magazine. So, needless to say, it was very laborious to get songs and learn them. But I had heard this song on the radio by one of The Neville Brothers — Arthur Neville — which he recorded on Specialty Records called “Oooh Wee Baby,” and as soon as I heard that song, I fell in love with it! [Sings] “Oooh Wee Baby/I love love love you so/Oooh wee baby…”
So, anyway, that night at the club, I told Dick, “I’m ready!” And I’ll never forget this: The club we were playing was called The Carousel and, man, it was tough; I mean, that crowd was rough! If you didn’t play right, if you weren’t in tune, or if you didn’t sound good, that was it — in no time at all, you were out of a job.
So I got up there and Dick said, “OK, here’s your chance.” I had already rehearsed the song with the band, and I went up and started singing “Oooh Wee Baby.” All of a sudden, it was amazing — I can still see it like it just happened: Above the bar there was a large stage which was about ten feet off the ground, and I noticed that after I started singing the song, everybody started gravitating up toward the front of that stage — and there were a couple of hundred people there! I couldn’t believe it — even the guys were all coming up — and I looked down and they were all looking up at me as I was singing. And it’s a weird thing — and I’ll never forget this — but I looked down and I read the lips of what this one guy was saying to his buddy. He looked over to his friend and he said, “Man, that kid can sing!” and I thought to myself, “I just hit a home run here — $5 more a night!”
In no time at all, the crowds and the girls started gravitating toward me. I became a main singer of the band, and I became a co-owner of the group, and eventually I started making $45 a night!
And, at one point, didn’t you decide to go to New Orleans to record with the band?
Yes, one day, Dick — who was a couple of years older than me — came over and said, “There’s this guy in another band I know who says there’s this place, Cosimo’s Recording Studio in New Orleans — it’s only 90 miles from Baton Rouge — where for $25 you can get an hour’s worth of recording time so you can hear what you sound like,” and Dick thought that was a great idea.
So, sure enough, we went to New Orleans. Since Dick was the head of the band, he did the majority of the singing. We recorded for about 45 minutes — all original songs and stuff we’d play around at the clubs with Dick doing the vocals. All of a sudden, Dick said, “Ok, that’s it,” but the engineer got on the microphone and said, “You’ve still got six minutes left. Do you have anything else?” Dick said, “I don’t have anything,” but he looked over at me and said, “Jimmy, do you have anything?”
Well, it just so happened that, at the time, I was dating my first love, and she and I were doing nothing but fighting and arguing all the time. And out of the clear blue, I was sitting in my living room a couple of weeks prior to this and I ended up writing a song. I had never written a song in my life, much less thought about writing one, and I couldn’t record it, but somehow or another, I had it all memorized.
So when Dick asked me if I had a song, I said, “Well, I’ve got this little song I wrote” — the song about me and my girlfriend — and Dick said, “Well, go ahead; we’ve already paid for the time,” so I did a rough run-through and then recorded “I Trusted You.”
And what happened as a result of the session?
We all went back home and, about a week later, I got a phone call at my house. A man said, “My name is Johnny Vincent and I’m here doing a studio session here at Cosimo’s and I just heard a playback of you singing a song. I like what I hear and I like the song, and I’d like to talk to you about signing with my record company. Do you think you could you drive to New Orleans?”
The next day or so, I drove to New Orleans. Johnny was at the studio and he said, “Look, I want you, but I don’t want your whole band. I want to record you with all the major players that play on the hits down here in the South.” At the time, I didn’t realize that Cosimo’s place was an iconic recording studio with many iconic recording artists, not to mention all the session players who worked with people like Lloyd Price, Little Richard, and Fats Domino — I just didn’t know any of this. But I ended up signing a contract with Johnny, and I went back home and I told the guys what I was doing but I also said, “I’m staying with the band. I’m not going anywhere.”
So Johnny’s company put out the record, “I Trusted You,” and the great thing is it got all kinds of airplay because I was the first kid, locally, who had ever made a record, much less had one played on the radio. It was a huge hit everywhere the band went and we got bookings and bookings, and, at the time, I even dropped out of LSU because the writing was on the wall — things were going so well with the music.
So “I Trusted You” was out for about three months and then what transpired after that was when everything really kicked off — wow!
You mean, because Johnny Vincent wanted another original song from you?
Yes, he called me and he said, “We need to go in and do another session. Have you written any more songs?” [Laughs] And I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding! I just happened to have written that other song!” but I said, “Well, I guess I could go to work on one.” And I’m telling you, it was amazing, because in no time at all I became a songwriting machine! I started knocking out songs left and right in my living room.
So I went to the studio and I did a couple of cuts and then I said, “OK, here’s a ballad I wrote.” I taught it to the band and then we recorded “Just a Dream.” And talk about a time when I had no idea what was going to come forth, but even the saxophone player in the studio — who had played with all the greatest Black artists — came over to me and he said, “That song is a hit!”
And he was right, wasn’t he?
He was! We put out “Just a Dream” on a local basis and it did well. Then Johnny Vincent called me — this was now April of 1958 — and he said, “I’ve secured a spot for you on a new dance party TV show called American Bandstand with this guy, Dick Clark, so I’m gonna send you to Philadelphia.” Well, that was like telling me I was gonna go to the moon, you know? I’d never been on an airplane — I’d never even been out of the South — but I said, “OK!”
So I got on the airplane and I went to Philadelphia. They met me at the airport and they took me to the TV studio and I got up on the stage and I did a lip-sync of “Just a Dream,” and that was about it, you know — you went on and then you went off. And they took me back to the airport and I went back to Louisiana.
Lo and behold, I got a call telling me that Johnny Vincent got orders for over 100,000 copies of “Just a Dream” the day after I did American Bandstand! And within ten days, I was on a plane, and the recording studio guy, Cosimo, became my manager. I kinda felt like I owed it to him, although I guess he decided to take advantage of things — he put his name as co-writer on all of my songs I recorded, even though he didn’t write them. But I guess I just felt that I owed it to him — not knowing what the future would hold for me — so I guess I just let that go.
So I went to New York and the next thing I know I’m at the biggest booking agency for all the Top 40 musical acts of the day. They took one look at me and, man, before you know it, Alan Freed — who I eventually became friends with — wanted me. Dick Clark wanted me. Everybody wanted me! Overnight, I was touring on buses all over America — a teen idol star overnight. I mean, it really happened that fast, overnight.
And it’s worth noting that “Just a Dream” not only sold a million copies and went to #4 on the pop charts but, amazingly, also rocketed up to #1 on the R&B charts, didn’t it?
When somebody told me, years later, that it went to #1 on the R&B charts, that blew me away! I felt, “Wow!” But then I realized it was because of the musicians, and because the sound of my records in that early day was really that swamp pop sound. You know, swamp pop is a combination of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. You have to have drums, guitar, bass, and piano, but you also have to have at least two horns to make it swamp pop, and we had tenor sax and trumpet. I had horns on all of my records in those early days and I really believe that what’s really led to what happened.
But, also, many people believe a major reason you rose to the top of the R&B charts was due to the quality of your vocal performance, in that you had such a soulful sound with a lot of expression. Would you agree with that assessment?
I do agree. I just had that voice — that way about me. I called it “phraseology,” you know? A lot of times I’ll talk about how I’ll do a lot of “curlicues” when I sing — you know, my little soulful “loops” that I do with my voice — that “phraseology” I’m talking about. In fact, somebody once told me, “You know, Jimmy, nobody has ever successfully covered your songs, because they just can’t sing your songs like you do.”
You mentioned that you went out on bus tours, which went out all over America and Canada. You did some with Dick Clark on his Caravan of Stars tours and others, as well. We read that on these tours you became friendly with a number of well-known artists including Bobby Darin and Jimmy Beaumont of The Skyliners? Do you have any memories of touring with these artists?
People often ask me, “Did you know so-and-so?” and “Did you know so-and-so?” I knew everybody and I did shows with everybody — except James Brown, OK? I knew Elvis. I knew lots of people. But to answer your question, yes, I was friends with them — Bobby Darin and I were together on the bus tours. We were friends. We hung out together. And Jimmy Beaumont and I definitely were good friends. We hung out together, too.
I’ve had a lot of people say, “I guess you guys always got together to hang out after the bus tours were over?” No. We all went back to our hometowns and we didn’t see each other again until there was another bus tour.
But, yes, I was friends with Bobby Darin and Jimmy Beaumont. I was also very close with Dion of Dion and the Belmonts, and I was very good friends with Clyde McPhatter. And so, you know, there were certain people who I hung out with — certain ones who I became good friends with when we toured together.
And speaking of tours, didn’t you have a connection to the 1959 Winter Dance Party tour which starred Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper and the so-called “Day the Music Died” — Feb. 3, 1959?
The connection is, first, I knew all of those guys. I’m not sure I ever did a show with The Big Bopper, but I knew Buddy Holly and I knew all of The Crickets. And I also knew Ritchie Valens; I had done shows with him.
And, in 1959, I was out on a bus tour. I’ll never forget this: On that tour, there was a knock on my hotel door. It was the stage manager from our show, and he had a very somber look on his face. He said, “Jimmy, I need to tell you something,” and he proceeded to tell me what had happened with those guys. Of course, I was stunned.
But then he told me something incredible. He said, “The promoter of that tour wants the tour to go on.” I thought later to myself, “I guess they want to make money off of this, because how do you have a tour go on when everyone is gone except for one act, you know?” But he said that the promoter of that tour wanted to fill the slots with name artists to finish out the tour. So I agreed I would leave the tour that I was on and I would fly up there and I would pick up the tour that they were on.
That must have been really difficult to do.
It was incredibly hard to do. I’ve been asked, “How were you able to go on stage as the sweet, smiling Jimmy Clanton?” And, truthfully, what I did was: I would go on stage and do my hits, but because I was an accomplished guitar player, I took Buddy Holly’s guitar and played some of his songs as a tribute to him on stage, and that was how I got through doing a show each night.
That’s unbelievable. You mentioned earlier that you became friends with the iconic DJ, Alan Freed. Evidently, backstage at a theater one time, he told you that he was going to Hollywood to produce a rock and roll movie which would feature artists like Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, and others. What else did he tell you about his plans for this film?
The way that started is very simple: Backstage, he happened to pass me, and very matter of factly, he explained to me that he was going to Hollywood. He told me about this movie he was going to do and he told me a little about the story line. He said, “I’d like for you to play Johnny Melody in the movie.” To say the least, I was very happy to accept the role because when he told me about the story line, I realized this would be perfect for me because it’s what I was already doing anyway.
And that movie, Go, Johnny, Go!, is now considered one of the more iconic rock and roll films of its time and is still shown on TV on Turner Classic Movies, etc. In the meantime, you continued to have hits including “Letter to an Angel,” “A Part of Me,” and “Go, Jimmy, Go.” But we heard that not too long after “Just a Dream” went big, you went home to Baton Rouge where your mom told you had received something significant in the mail. Can you tell us more about that?
Oh my gosh, yeah; this is very poignant. I got a letter in the mail from Ace Records — this was in 1960 after I had the hits — and in that letter was a check made out to me for $10,000! It was a royalty check, and I’ll never forget what I did with it. I went down to the bank and I said, “I want to open up an account.” I deposited the check and within the next ten days — I don’t remember all the details — but I found a construction company and had my mom’s house totally redone. It was enlarged, and I even put in central air conditioning, all thanks to that first royalty check.
You were a good son to do that for your mom, and you were rewarded for it, too, because you were soon asked to appear in another movie, Teenage Millionaire.
But, then, at the height of your fame, you went into the Army. Is it true, however, that while you were in the service, your officers somehow managed to get you to entertain your superiors?
Boy, you’ve done your homework, haven’t you?
[Laughs] Well, we try!
Well, what happened was, in no time at all, word got out throughout the ranks where I was stationed — this first happened at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where I did my first 16 weeks of training. The company commander called me in and told me about a party he was planning for all the officers. He knew who I was and he told me that he had a little band that had worked with him before, but asked if I would do a show with them. And I don’t remember exactly how this came out, but I said, “Yeah, but can we talk about how I could be compensated?” And he said, “Well, we could work it out for a three-day pass,” and I said, “OK.” And so I did the show and I got a three-day pass.
Within no time at all, the commander called me back in and said, “It was such a success — everybody loved it — that we want to do it again. Can we work it out?” And I thought, “Oh, boy. I’m in a good position here,” so I said, “Yeah, we can. However, how am I gonna be compensated for this?” and he said, “How about another three-day pass?” I kind of ho-hummed around and then I said, “What about two three-day passes back to back?” And he looked at me and he said, “OK!” So, lo and behold, I called my booking agent in New York and he booked me up in Canada and I flew up to Canada and made $1000 for a show I did up there before flying back to my base.
So that worked out. And while you were in the Army, you still had several hits including “Don’t Look at Me” and “Because I Do,” but after you were discharged, you decided to see if there were any “leftover” songs which your record company could immediately release, didn’t you?
What happened is this: Before I went into the Army, I had gone into the studio to do a three-song session; in those days, we would typically record three songs at time. I had already found two songs that I thought would really be Top 40-ish, but I needed a third one, and I didn’t have anything that I had written myself at the time because everything I had written I had already recorded.
And it was very interesting because I was up at the publishing house, which was located at 1650 Broadway — all of the publishing houses were up in New York City — and, there, I saw a little cardboard box which was about eight inches long and just wide enough to put some 45 rpm records into it, and there were a bunch of demos in there and a bunch of 45s on the floor.
So I said to the guy there, “What’s in that box?” and he said, “Oh, you don’t want to mess with that!” He said, “Those are the songs that all of the artists have already heard and were turned down by everyone.”
And I thank the good Lord for this, but there were about 20 45s in that box, and somehow or another I pulled out “Venus in Blue Jeans,” which was co-written by Howard Greenfield, who wrote a lot of songs with Neil Sedaka — in fact, he and Neil wrote “Another Sleepless Night,” which was a good hit for me and which made the Top 20 — and I said, “Let me hear that.”
Now, because of my guitar playing, there are certain combinations of chords that make up songs that I love, and when I heard this song, it had the exact chord progression which was one of my all-time favorites and I said, “I love that and I want to make that the third song of the session!”
So we recorded it, but the record company never put it out. And after I got out of the Army, I called Johnny Vincent and said, “Do we have any recordings in the can — at least, to just let people know I’m back?” And he said, “We only have one thing. It’s this song we did, but I don’t know how you’re going to feel about it,” and I said, “Well, at least it’s something! Whatever it is, let’s put it out.” I didn’t even remember it but, lo and behold, we put out “Venus in Blue Jeans” and that thing just went into the Top 10 overnight. It was amazing!
And it’s probably our favorite song of yours! Over the course of your career, you’ve played venues from Lincoln Center to the Hollywood Bowl, and you’ve appeared in countries from The Philippines to Australia to Thailand — not to mention Italy where, in 2019, you performed for 40,000 people — but is there any particular live performance that stands out in your mind as one of your favorites?
Yes, there is one that stands out above them all. Around 2010, there was a swamp pop band that I was playing with down in the casinos in Louisiana, and around that time, out of the clear blue, I started writing songs like crazy. I was sitting down as I was getting ready to go to New Orleans to do this casino gig and I had this thought: “If I was getting ready to do my very last one-man show of my career, where would I want it to be?” And I said, “Well, without a doubt, I would want it to be in Louisiana.”
I ended up writing a song called “Lovin’ Louisiana.” It turned out to be phenomenal because I taught it to the guys in the band, and I sang it with them at the casino, and the people went wild. In fact, I heard so many people were calling around locally to see where they could buy this “Louisiana” song that I ended up recording it.
Now fast forward from 2010 to 2017. It’s seven years later, and I get a call from a promoter in Baton Rouge — my home town — and he says, “We want to bring you bring you back to do a concert on the stage of Baton Rouge High School” — the school where I graduated from. This would be the first time I’d appear on that stage in 60 years.
And when the night arrived, there I was in my home town at my own high school doing a one-man show on that stage. And all I could think of as I did that show were all the people — all the fans, all my schoolmates, and everybody else — and I can remember saying: “I always wanted my last one-man show to be in Louisiana and, lo and behold, here I am tonight.” And when I sang that song, “Lovin’ Louisiana,” I’m telling you, it was unbelievable, and that, without question, was my most significant performance of my over-60-year career.
Unfortunately, these days, since so many concerts have been postponed what have you been up to?
Well, that goes to another side of my career. What I have been doing for quite awhile now — and certainly all through the pandemic — is I’ve been very busy with my Jimmy Clanton Ministry. I am a born-again Christian and I minister the Word of God; I teach, I proclaim, and I give out all what the Spirit of God says in the Bible.
And aren’t you also working on an autobiography?
Oh my gosh, yes! My assistant, Sandy Weeks, and I are working on that. We started working on it ten years ago and it’s not finished because so much has happened over the last few years, and it is totally supernatural! In fact, the Spirit of God gave me the title, From Singer to a Servant of God, and I think I can say with no exaggeration that when people start reading that book, they won’t be able to put it down.
We’re already looking forward to reading it! In the meantime, is there anything else that you would like to add — or anything you’d like to say to your fans, some of whom have been following you for six decades now?
Well, people can keep up with me on my Facebook pages, and I do a ministry program every Sunday on surfcityradio.net. Another thing people can look at is my website, jimmyclanton.com. Anything they need to know about Jimmy Clanton is there — including pictures — and all my music is available there, as well.
I’ve been blessed that God has so connected me in such a way that people are still aware and still desire to hear what I have to say, to hear my music, and to hear my ministry. I’m also touched because it’s just been amazing how God has kept me in such contact with people for all these years!
To learn more about Jimmy Clanton, please go to jimmyclanton.com. For Jimmy Clanton’s Facebook pages, click on facebook.com/JimmyClanton and facebook.com/JimmyClantonMinistry. Lastly, to hear Jimmy Clanton’s Sunday ministry program, please go to surfcityradio.net.
Photos by Sonny Maxon
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