Roy Clark, the multi-talented musician, Country Music Hall of Fame member and co-host of Hee Haw, died Thursday at home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of complications from pneumonia. Clark’s publicist confirmed the musician’s death. He was 85.
Clark was often quoted as saying, “I grew old on Hee Haw, but I could’ve grown old without it.” He and his longtime co-star on the show, Buck Owens, delivered corn-fed punchlines, which earned the series plenty of eye-rolling ridicule, but the pair, and their many co-stars through the years, also provided a serious showcase for country music. But for Clark, Hee Haw was merely one aspect of a multifaceted career.
Roy Linnwood Clark was born April 14th, 1933, in Meherrin, Virginia, about 65 miles south of Richmond. From his infancy, Clark, the oldest of five children in his family, was a natural on stringed instruments. His father, who worked several jobs, also played banjo, guitar and mandolin at square dances, and by age 14, the younger Clark was performing regularly at clubs, dances and on television in the Washington, D.C., area, where the family had moved when he was eight years old. He would go on to play with Opry members Stringbean and Grandpa Jones, as well as backing Red Foley and Ernest Tubb. Jimmy Dean, who featured Clark in his band the Texas Wildcats on his mid-Fifties TV series, would fire him for perpetual tardiness. At 17, the musician, who was also a skilled boxer in high school, with a record of 15-1 in bouts throughout Philadelphia and Baltimore before hanging up his gloves, won a national banjo championship. That achievement earned him a trip to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, where he rubbed shoulders with Uncle Dave Macon, Hank Williams and other legends.
In 1960, Clark opened for Wanda Jackson in Las Vegas, an engagement that coincided with the release of his Capitol debut LP, aptly titled The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark. Early on in the decade, Clark would co-headline in Lake Tahoe with Andy Griffith, and appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. In 1963, he scored his first hit, a Top Ten recording of Bill Anderson’s mournful “Tips of My Fingers.” A second Top Ten, “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” in mid-1969, coincided with the start of the role for which he would become best known, as “pickin’ and grinnin'” co-host, with Buck Owens, of Hee Haw. A CBS summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Hee Haw‘s reputation as the corn-fed country version of the fast-paced NBC hit Laugh-In led to its cancellation in 1971 as part of what was called the “rural purge” – with other shows, including Green Acres, Lassie and The Beverly Hillbillies all losing their network spots. Clark would play a dual role on the latter series, as both “Cousin Roy” and (in drag) his mother, Myrtle. He also appeared in guest roles on such series as The Odd Couple in 1971.
After its brief network run, Hee Haw entered syndication and would remain on the air until 1992, nearly a quarter-century consisting of almost 600 episodes. Although Owens left the series in 1986, Clark remained with the show until the end. He also earned a spot in the history books as the first-ever guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Clark also shared time on the big screen in 1986 with fellow country superstars Mel Tillis and Glen Campbell in the comedy film Uphill All the Way.
Clark’s subsequent Top Ten hits, which often spotlighted his instrumental prowess, included “I Never Picked Cotton” and the comical “Thank God and Greyhound.” With the Lawrence Welk Show, another canceled series, now in syndication and often pitted against Hee Haw on rival stations, Clark poked fun at the competition with “The Lawrence Welk-Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka,” a Top Ten solo hit for him in 1972. The CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1973, Clark would have his last major hit in 1976, with “If I Had It to Do All Over Again” reaching Number Two. He would continue to earn honors from the Country Music Association as well as the West Coast’s Academy of Country Music, and in 1983 took home a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental for “Alabama Jubilee.”
Clark reached a new audience in 1983, with the opening of his theater in Branson, Missouri. The first of its kind, Clark’s theater would showcase several popular country artists who would later go on to build their own venues in the live-music mecca. He sold the theater in 1997, shortly before returning to recording after a decade with a live album from Billy Bob’s Texas.
Clark, who moved from near Annapolis, Maryland, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1976, was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2000, and in 2009 was made a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. A Grand Ole Opry member since 1987, he had also appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, and, owing to his international appeal, took the prestigious stages of the Grand Palace in Brussels and Moscow’s Rossiya Theatre, where he would, in 1976, become one of the first American artists to perform in the Soviet Union.
In 1995, when his longtime friend Mickey Mantle died, Clark performed “Yesterday, When I Was Young” at his funeral at the baseball legend’s request. In his later years, Clark, who underwent hip replacement surgery in 2005 and spine surgery two year later, staged “A Conversation With Roy Clark” events, in which he would tell stories and takes questions from audience members.
Clark is survived by his second wife, Barbara Joyce, whom he married in 1957.