Arizona rockabilly star Sanford Clark was Phoenix’s first hitmaker


Sanford Clark put Arizona on the rockabilly map in 1956 when he reached No. 7 on the Billboard Top 100 with “The Fool”.

It was the first big hit of the rock’n’roll era in Phoenix.

Clark died Sunday, July 4 in Joplin, Missouri, where he was undergoing cancer treatment and contracted COVID-19.

He was 85 years old.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Clark was 9 when his family moved to Phoenix.

After serving in the Air Force in the South Pacific, he returned to Phoenix, where he met Lee Hazlewood, an aspiring record producer and songwriter who was also a DJ at KTYL in Mesa.

Clark’s school friend guitarist Al Casey who has performed on countless Hazlewood recordings introduced them.

The making of “Le Fou”

John Dixon, an Arizona music historian and DJ who befriended Clark, recalls, “Lee was working on that song, ‘The Fool’, and Al said, ‘I know a guy who could sing it. ‘”

Hazlewood then had his own list of singers that he used for his recording dates, including Jimmy Spellman.

But he thought this single needed someone new, so he took Casey’s word and called on Clark to record “The Fool” in March 1956 on Audio Recorders for the Phoenix MCI label.

Rich Kienzle wrote cover notes for several Clark collections on Bear Family Records, a German label specializing in reissues of archival recordings.

“When you think about how Sanford started out, he recorded this single in a little hole-in-the-wall recording studio in Phoenix that looked more than a little like Sun Studio in Memphis,” Keinzle says, referring to Memphis Recording Service, the home of Sun Records, where Elvis Presley recorded his first recordings.

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“The Beginning of the Phoenix Sound”

Sanford Clark

Clark’s first single is a reverberating swamp rockabilly classic with Casey providing a swaggering gem of a guitar riff that shares more than just a hint of DNA with “Smokestack Lightning”.

“Basically, they took the guitar riff from ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and, like Al said, knocked it down,” Dixon says.

“It was a very simple riff. But Lee knew ‘OK, this is a great sound.’ He was sort of the ringmaster working with all of these elements, Sanford’s voice being a big part of it. Lee knew what he wanted and ‘The Fool’ gave him the credibility for people to listen and say: ‘Hey this dude can make a hit. ‘”

When the song exploded much larger than expected, MCI, which Dixon said was “essentially an office” at Audio Recorders, couldn’t keep up with demand.

The small Phoenix label therefore sold the master to Dot Records, where the single was remastered for maximum radio impact.

“If you listen to MCI’s ‘Fool’ and Dot’s ‘Fool’ some people even thought it was a different take,” Dixon says. “The difference in the sound is just amazing. The Dot version is so much warmer.”

Sanford Clark, "The idiot"

The song has sold over a million copies, inspiring covers by Johnny Burnette, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, Roger Miller, Elvis Presley, Robert Gordon and the Animals, to name a few .

“This is the start of the Phoenix sound, if you want to call it that, establishing Lee as songwriter and producer, Al as player, Sanford as vocalist and Audio Recorders as studio,” Dixon said.

The impact of this single really began two years later when Duane Eddy struck up with “Rebel-‘Rouser”, one of the many instrumental classics to be found on the made-in-Phoenix business card. Eddy, the “Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar Will” produced by Hazlewood Voyage. “

As Dixon sees it, “All the characters involved, for the most part – Lee, the studio, a lot of musicians (Al and Corki Casey), it all started in 1956 with“ The Fool. ”I would say this was the record. biggest ever recorded here. It really was the start of it all. “

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Some would argue for “Rebel-‘Rouser” as the most important record, Dixon says.

“But I don’t necessarily know if it wasn’t for ‘The Fool’, if Lee would have had the confidence to make this record. Suddenly he’s doing what he always wanted – writing songs and doing them. record. He didn’t. I don’t have to be a DJ anymore. He moved to Hollywood in ’56 to work for Dot. “

Attempt to follow ‘The Fool’

Clark enjoyed a second minor success in 1956 with the film noir rockabilly flavor of “A Cheat”. (No. 74).

As Dixon says, “There was a lot of pressure for that second move, so you know … ‘The Fool’, ‘A Cheat’, you’re trying to come up with something similar but different enough to make it a success. on its own, but ‘A Cheat’ really wasn’t the sequel everyone wanted. ”

Kienzle believes the timing that helped make “The Fool” a natural fit for airing may have hurt the singer’s chances of achieving the same impact with a rockabilly second single even deeper into the reign of Presley.

“This song actually had a lot of mystery that ‘The Fool’ had and Casey played really well,” he says.

“But by then Elvis had it all. And Sun’s other artists – Perkins and Jerry Lee – were coming in, really starting to crowd the field. So Sanford’s record had no chance of going anywhere.”

Sheet Music for Sanford Clark's

Although he continues to make good records, often with Hazlewood, “The Fool” was destined to remain the singer’s only big hit.

“It’s just one of those records that has stood the test of time,” Dixon says. “And Sanford did the final version for sure.”

It was a promising start to a career that never really kept that promise – at least not commercially.

“Unfortunately, through a number of circumstances, most of which were not his fault, he was never able to establish momentum or follow-through that he could build on,” Kienzle said. .

“It’s one thing that Sanford had in common with a lot of rockabilly singers, is that he made his reputation on one single.”

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“I just couldn’t find the second real fat”

When Kienzle interviewed the singer for these liner notes in 1985, Clark told him, “I just couldn’t find that second really big. I had a lot of stuff that got listed, but nothing really. important or stayed in there. “

It wasn’t for lack of solid hardware, though, as Kienzle puts it, maybe part of the problem was that Dot Records’ Randy Wood was doing his best to reshape Clark into a sort of second string Pat Boone.

“So if they did something right,” he said, “it was despite Randy Wood.”

In 1985, Clark said he didn’t want to make the kind of music Wood asked him to record for Dot.

“But when you’re young and stupid you really don’t know,” he told Kienzle.

Among record collectors, unless you find an original pressing of “The Fool” on MCI, Clark’s most collectable recording is his last single on Dot, “Modern Romance” from 1958, which sounds a kinda like he’s channeling Jerry Lee Lewis.

And that song was never even rated.

“They didn’t promote it,” Dixon says. “And that’s a shame because it’s a strong enough song. It might have been a good second hit from him. But by then Lee’s year with Dot as a producer was over. . And he was looking for new pastures for his music. “

Keith Richards calls Clark a “rock-solid country singer, very much like Johnny Cash” in his autobiography “Life”, in which the Rolling Stone looks back on his first gig, in a gym, where he and a musician friend played a Clark’s cowboy ballad released in 1959, “Son-of-a-Gun”.

Clark went on to make records in the 1960s, from Ricky Nelson’s rockabilly-worthy ballad of “Go On Home” to Hazlewood’s original version of “Houston”, a ballad that became a hit months later for Dean. Martin.

In 1966 he released a re-recording of “The Fool” with Waylon Jennings on guitar for Ramsey’s Ramco Records.

In 1968 his first two albums hit the streets – a UK compilation of his faces Ramco, “They Call Me Country” and “Return of the Fool” on Hazlewood’s LHI Records.

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Sanford Clark

Shortly after the release of these two albums, Clark retired from the music business to work in construction in the Payson area.

“This is where I first met him in the early ’90s,” Dixon says. “He was a house builder there.”

He also worked in Vegas as a dealer and drove 18 wheelers for a time while living in Louisiana.

“But in between those other jobs, he would go back to the studio and record,” Dixon says. “He did a few of his own sessions later with some of the songs he wrote.”

In the 90s, Dixon accompanied Clark and Casey to the UK for a rockabilly weekend where Hazlewood also performed.

“It was really great,” Dixon says.

“Over the years, the British just enjoyed this rockabilly music from the early 50s and 60s more than we did. And so, like Northern Soul and other styles of music, they supported these bands.”

Clark knew most people only knew him for “The Fool,” but Dixon says he never let himself be bothered.

“I never felt like he wanted it like some people because he wasn’t famous,” Dixon says. “He seemed to have enough things to do, he didn’t have to dwell on it. He always had a back-up plan.”

“I would love to do it again, but I would never go out of hunger”

In 1985, the singer told Kienzle: “I would love to do it again, but I would never go out and starve on the road. But what can you do?”

Clark told him there were things he would change in the decisions he made along the way, Kienzle says.

“At the same time, he said, ‘I did well. I have made money all my life. I miss the business. I miss the limelight. But I can go to a bar and sing. I would never do it again. unless I had another blow. ‘”

Clark is survived by his wife, Marsha, and several children.

Dixon says a memorial is planned for Phoenix, where Clark will be buried, in December.

“I spoke to Marsha this morning and she mentioned that she would like to have some sort of memorial like we did for Al,” Dixon said.

“So maybe we’ll do something where bands get together and celebrate Sanford’s life musically.”

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on twitter @EdMasley.

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