“Personality Plus” is probably the way most will remember Roy Clark, and while that is accurate, it only tells part of the tale. Others will say that he was a superior instrumentalist who influenced guitar players across a wide spectrum of musical styles. A few will recall his compelling vocal recordings, and a significant segment of the music world will remember Roy as the multi-talented comic who held together the homey ensemble called Hee Haw.
In terms of American popular song, his recorded influence is surprisingly minimal, considering his larger-than-life personality and constant television exposure. If we turn solely to the pop charts, Clark looks like hundreds of other one-hit wonders from the 1960s, denting the top twenty a single time with a haunting record called “Yesterday When I Was Young.” That recording, along with a handful of others that hit on various charts, demonstrate the significance of his vocal talents.
We mention the songs only because this is quite likely to be the least known, and definitely the most overlooked aspect of Clark’s gifted career. He stepped into Johnny Carson’s role as guest host of The Tonight Show with remarkable ease. He influenced rock and country artists alike with his unequaled guitar playing. He donned a dress with absolute hilarity in one of his wacky roles on The Beverly Hillbillies. And of course he set the tone and bridged the gap between serious music and absurdity as the aforementioned co-host of Hee Haw.
But again, you probably know all that. So what we’ll try to accomplish here, in this underwhelming tribute to a remarkable talent, is introduce (or re-introduce) you to his surprisingly enjoyable and impressive legacy of vocal recordings.
The song titles are linked to Youtube for your convenience below.
Tips of My Fingers, 1963 — This was Roy’s first record to chart, a cover version of a song written and popularized by country artist Bill Anderson a few years earlier. Clark managed to turn this odd country ballad into a pop recording. Although still twinged with country, it became acceptable to a much wider audience, even resulting in an appearance on American Bandstand. It’s not his best work, but if you give it a listen, you’ll hear his impressive youthful range.
Yesterday When I Was Young, 1969 — Clearly his best, it’s one of those songs you forgot that you knew. Cue it up for anyone over the age of 50 and they’ll say “oh yes of course.” Many people think of it as a song of remembrance, but the message is actually one of regret. And with Clark’s vocal treatment, the effect can give you the chills.
I Never Picked Cotton, 1970 — Another haunting vocal, although not nearly as meaningful to a broad audience. We include it here just to demonstrate that “Yesterday” wasn’t an off-chance stroke of luck. Clark changes key and leads the listener down a dangerous road; try and keep up.
Thank God and Greyhound, 1970 — This tune demonstrates Roy’s ability to draw the listener in with a song of heartbreak, then unexpectedly turn the tables to rollicking fun. This link goes to a video from the Ed Sullivan Show, and you can’t help but smile along with Roy when he “flips” the song. Clark used this sly smile and quick eye movements to invite the viewer to share the joke — and the invitation was seldom refused.
Come Live With Me, 1973 — Although it barely dented the pop and easy listening charts, this is certainly one of the best love songs to cross over from the country genre.
So there’s a little stroll down memory lane, so that we may confidently add “vocalist” to Roy Clark’s incredible resume. Had he chosen to be a mainstream pop performer, he would’ve had even greater impact. But then he wouldn’t be Roy Clark, and he wouldn’t be as beloved as he was…and still is.
And if you’ve read all this and you still don’t get it about this Roy Clark character, cue up the video of his performance of “Malaguena” from The Odd Couple circa 1968.
Photo above from an early broadcast of Hee Haw, Roy Clark (right) with Buck Owens.