In September and October 1970, Nashville songwriter, producer, music publisher and record-label executive “Cowboy” Jack Clement added independent film producer to his long list of credits, as he and a New York-Hollywood film crew descended upon the grounds of a sprawling estate in the tony Nashville suburb of Brentwood and set about making a low-budget horror flick called Dear Dead Delilah. Seen as a logical extension of his J-M-I Records label, which had launched in late summer 1971, the Motion Picture Division was formed – and its first project secured – well before Clement had any experience in film production. It’s a chain of events that befit a man who once worked as a dance instructor for Arthur Murray before he had even learned a single dance step.
Essentially a Southern gothic horror film, with exaggerated accents to match, Dear Dead Delilah was helmed by novelist and screenwriter John Farris (his only directing credit) and starred Agnes Moorehead, on a break from her Emmy-winning role as meddling witch Endora on TV’s Bewitched, along with Will Geer, who would soon go on to play Grandpa Walton on the CBS series, The Waltons. A brutally violent film, it’s the story of a spoiled Nashville clan with Moorehead (in her final big-screen appearance) as Delilah Charles, the manipulative wheelchair-bound heiress at its Machiavellian center. Teasing avaricious family members with the promise of hidden cash stashed on the estate’s grounds, Delilah is cared for by Luddy, whose actions during the film’s unpleasant prologue – not to mention the film’s title – suggest the title character may be in danger. With nods to, if little of the subtlety of, Alfred Hitchcock, the film nears so-bad-it’s-good territory, especially with Moorehead’s over-the-top psycho-biddy performance, but it stops short of achieving camp-classic status. The Deliverance-meets-Psycho score was composed by Bill Justis, noted for his 1957 instrumental classic, “Raunchy,” and later as the composer of scores for films including Smokey and the Bandit. Of special note are the hilariously creepy closing credits: a grisly recap of the movie’s violent scenes underscored by a rousing instrumental version of “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”
Dear Dead Delilah had its world premiere at Nashville’s downtown Paramount Theatre on May 5th, 1972, with ads promising, “You pay for the whole seat – you only use the edge!” Although financially unsuccessful, the film would play in theaters and drive-ins for the next year, before landing on TV screens (albeit in heavily edited form) by mid-decade.
For his part, Clement soon learned that the function of a film producer was more or less always being on a scavenger hunt. “Yesterday, I was running all over the place, hunting for a trailer house which would serve for Miss Moorehead’s dressing room,” he told the Tennessean in an on-set interview in 1970. “Then it was decided that she would do the part in a wig, so off I went again, scrounging up hair and dyeing it.” While Clement planned to continue producing films, including a vampire screenplay by Farris called “The Blood Lovers” and a country musical, Dear Dead Delilah would earn him his sole credit as a big-screen producer. The project also devastated Clement’s bank account, forcing him to sell off several of his businesses, although he remained an integral part of Nashville’s music community through his home studio, the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.
In 2005, Clement’s early love for the untapped uses of videotape, a medium he continued to experiment with for years, was displayed to great effect in the wildly entertaining documentary, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies. Clement was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in April 2013. He died four months later at age 82.