In the mid-1950's, when the Cajun rockabilly singer Joe Cheramie was 17, he earned a contract with RCA records. The company flew the singer, who called himself Joe Clay, from Harvey, LA, to New York City, where he recorded with a group of New York's best black rhythm-and-blues musicians. A rare early example of racial integration in pop music, the records, featuring two drummers who played simultaneously, are astonishingly hard. They didn't sell at all.
Mr. Clay, disappointed, left national music and spent the next 30 years driving a bus in New Orleans and playing in local bars. In 1986 he reappeared to tour England.
A contemporary of rockabilly sensation Elvis Presley, the Harvey, LA, native once appeared to be headed along the road toward similar acclaim indeed. Clay appeared on the fabled Ed Sullivan show in May of 1956, several months before "The King" was to make his debut on that showcase of blooming international talent. In typically rigid fashion, Sullivan refused to let Clay play his ribald "Duck Tail" number on the show. Instead insisting that the youthful Cajun perform the Platters sedate "Only You."
During the summer of 1957, 18-year-old Claiborne Joseph Cheramie of New Orleans was a minor star in the young world of rock and roll. Clay's recording career had apparently taken off at that time. After releasing the "Duck Tail" and "Sixteen Chicks" singles for RCA records out of Houston, Clay traveled to New York City to record "Cracker Jack" and "Get on the Right Track."
RCA took this photo of Joe in 1956 for the Ed Sullivan Show.
The songs were acclaimed, with critics hailing them as the epitome of hellacious rockabilly rhythm. But it wasn't enough. "I don't know whether to say I was at the wrong place at the wrong time . . ." Clay suggested, noting that "Duck Tail" was released at the same time as Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes." "I guess it's the manager - that's the whole key." Clay said from New Orleans.
Relating an incident in which his manager left town with his earnings, Clay continued, "I started playing on Sundays with a hillbilly band when I was 12. It was Hank Williams stuff. I was playing the stuff since I was itty-bitty. We just played what we felt - we didn't copy off anybody. But I had a label behind me too. I had a contract signed for 20 years. In those days we didn't know nothing - they just said "Sign here."
Despite his auspicious start, Clay's early releases failed to cover significant commercial ground. He eventually fell into the lounge gig circuit while driving a school bus to support himself. Thirty years passed.
"I was working lounges five nights a week - it's a drag, but I've learned so much. There's so much that you learn throughout the years," said Clay, who had backed Presley on guitar and drums while attempting to forge a career.
Joe singing in Birmingham, England, 1986
Becoming a rock star once is hard to do. For a person to get two opportunities is exceptional indeed. C.J. Cheramie of Gretna, Louisiana, however, is an exceptional person. Cheramie's first shot at stardom came years ago. He was an 18-year-old rock 'n' roll singer, performing under the name of Joe Clay, with several successful records to his credit. He appeared on national television - the prestigious Ed Sullivan Show. But Joe Clay's manager discouraged him from performing outside of New Orleans.
Clay tried and failed to get away from his restrictive manager, he says, claiming that he lost his recording contract as a result. Disgusted, he shifted back to his real name and spent the next 15 years playing six nights a week on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Eventually he began driving a school bus on weekdays and playing on weekends only.
There on Bourbon Street, his musical career might easily have ended, but fate, as they say, intervened. Several years back, some of Joe clay's old records were re-released in England and were instantly successful. Clay became a musical sensation, with the added attraction of an air of mystery, since his real name and whereabouts were completely unknown. Then, after an exhaustive search by an English booking agent, Cheramie was located and the "legendary figure" became a real-life celebrity.
The impact of these events is more dramatically conveyed in Cheramie's own thick New Orleans accent. I'm thrilled to death, man!" he says sincerely, parking his bus in a shady spot at street side. " I wake up every morning and pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming."
Joe in Gretna, LA, 1989
"How did it all start?" he muses, as he cocks his feet up on a bus seat. "Well, I joined a country -western band when I was real young, and our little group got a job playing on WWEZ radio. One day the deejay got a letter from RCA saying they were starting a subsidiary called Vik Records and were looking for talent. So I sent 'em a tape, and a month later I was home listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio when RCA called me. The man said, 'Would you like to make a record for us?"' Cheramie pauses dramatically, his eyes as big as saucers. "Would I like to?" he repeats with rhetorical astonishment. "Well, hell yes!
"RCA took me to Houston, where I recorded Ducktails, Sixteen Chicks, Goodbye Goodbye (the song that would later hit biggest in England) and You Look That Good To Me. I traveled a little. I even played on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport with Elvis. "Then RCA took me to New york to record again, and they got me my shot on that Ed Sullivan show."
C.J. rises from the bus seat and paces a few steps up the aisle, seemingly suddenly pensive. "Right after that was when my troubles with my manager began," he says seriously, "and he wouldn't release me from the contract, so finally RCA said, 'Joe, we're sorry, but we just can't work with you anymore.' I thought, it just can't end like this, but it did."
I started hearing rumors that Joe Clay was popular in Europe and that people were looking for me, but I didn't believe it. Then I got a call from the booking agent in England, and he said, 'I've finally found you! You're a star over here!'" The English fans were not to be disappointed because his singing still shows a definite similarity to early Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins records. While Cheramie was never an originator, he certainly captures the wild, primal spirit of early rock 'n' roll.
Mr. Charamie - C.J. to friends - had been driving a New orleans school bus on weekdays and playing drums for combos doing Top 40 or country and western music at weddings, proms and hotel lounges around New Orleans.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Cheramie, who by then had confined his singing to serenades along with the radio during his bus route, a West German recording company several years ago re-released a few of his songs on a 50's rock revival record. His hiccup style singing, frenetic guitar and driving beat found an audience among Europe's small but ardent core of rockabilly fans.
Then Willie Jeffrey made it his mission to find Joe Clay. Mr. Jeffrey, a London business executive and self-described rockabilly addict, occasionally promotes European concerts by obscure middle-aged American rockers. For four years he made inquiries of contacts in the American music business, placed classified advertisements and asked disk jockeys to issue appeals for information.
Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I found him," Mr. Jeffrey recalled. Once the 1986 tour had been arranged, Mr. Cheramie quickly began getting ready. "I been walking and riding my bike and jumping around in my den with my guitar, practicing my old songs," Joe said in a soft Cajun accent.
1997 - September 13, Joe performs at the Continental Club, Austin, Texas.
JOY CLAY'S "VIK" DISCOGRAPHY by Richard Weize
APRIL 25, 1956 - Starday Studio, Houston, Texas. Producer: Herman Diaz Jr; vocal: Joe Clay; lead guitar: Hal Harris; rhythm guitar: Link Davis; other detiails unknown.
001 G2-PB-4031 DUCKTAIL (Rudy Grayzell) 4X/X-0211
002 G2-PB-4032 SIXTEEN CHICKS (L. Davis, W. Walker) 4X/X-0211
003 G2-PB-4033 GOODBYE GOODBYE (Wes Williams, Ch. Stokely) Vik unissued
004 G2-PB-4034 SLIPPING OUT AND SNEAKING IN (Wes Willams) Vik unissued
MAY 24, 1956, RCA Victor Studio 1, New York. Producer: Herman Diaz Jr.; voacl: Joe Clay; guitarist/leader: Mickey Baker; guitar: Skeeter Best; bass: Leonard Gaskin: drums: Bobby Donaldson; drums: Joe Marshall.
006 G4-PB-4541-1 GET ON THE RIGHT TRACK (Titus Turner) Vik unissued.
006A G4-PB-4541-3 GET ON THE RIGHT TRACK (Titus Turner) 4X/X-0218.
007 G4-PB-4542-1 YOU LOOK THAT GOOD TO ME (Clyde Otis, Ivory Joe Hunter) Vik unissued
007A G4-PB-4542-4 YOU LOOK THAT GOOD TO ME (Clyde Otis, Ivory Joe Hunter) Vik unissued
008 G4-PB-4543-4 CRACKER JACK (Don Rockingham, Clyde Otis) 4X/X-0218
009 G4-PB-4544-2 DID YOU MEAN JELLY BEAN (WHAT YOU SAID CABBAGE HEAD) (Nick Smith) Vik unissued