Roy Clark, Country Star & ‘Hee Haw’ Host, Dead

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Roy Clark

Although he will always be best known for his 24-year role as the co-host of television’s country music and comedy program Hee Haw, Roy Clark’s popularity and influence within the sphere of country music went far beyond that one program. Clark, who was often acknowledged as a master guitarist, died November 15 at his home in Tulsa, Okla., due to complications of pneumonia. He was 85.

Clark was a Grammy, CMA and ACM award winner, a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and Grand Ole Opry member. One of the first crossover artists to land singles on both the pop and country charts, he has been credited for helping to turn Branson, Mo., into a massively popular live music destination. As for Hee Haw, it became the longest-running syndicated show in television history.

Clark also filled in often as a guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

Born Roy Linwood Clark on April 15, 1933, in Meherrin, Va., his family moved to Washington, D.C., when Clark was young. His father played in a square dance band and took him to free concerts by the National Symphony and by various military bands. Beginning on banjo and mandolin, Clark received his first guitar, a Sears Silvertone, as a Christmas present when he was 14. That same year, 1947, he made his first TV appearance. He was 15 when he earned $2 for his first paid performance, with his dad’s band. He began playing bars and dives on Friday and Saturday nights until he was playing every night and skipping school, eventually dropping out at 15.

Watch an early clip of Clark playing “12th Street Rag”

Clark, who developed early into a guitar wizard, soon went on tour with country legends such as Hank Williams and Grandpa Jones. After winning a national banjo competition in 1950, he was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, which led to shows with Red Foley and Ernest Tubb. Yet he’d always return to D.C. to play not only country but jazz, pop, and early rock ’n’ roll (he’s prominently featured in the recent book Capitol Rock); to play with black groups and white groups; to play fast, to even play guitar with his feet. In 1954, he joined Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats, appearing in clubs and on radio and TV, and even backing up Elvis Presley.

Related: Glen Campbell died in 2017

Roy Clark with Johnny and June Carter Cash on Hee Haw

But in 1960, Clark was 27 and still scrambling. An invitation to open for Wanda Jackson at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas proved to be his big break. It led to his own tour, on the road for 345 straight nights at one stretch, and when he returned to Vegas in 1962, he came back as a headliner and recording star, with his debut album The Lightning Fingers Of Roy Clark. The next year, he had his first hit, “The Tips Of My Fingers,” a country song that featured an orchestra and string section.

Clark’s first appearances in 1963 on The Tonight Show and American Bandstand showcased his easygoing attitude and rural sense of humor.

Throughout the ’60s, Clark recorded several albums, toured constantly and appeared on TV variety shows from Carson to Mike Douglas to Flip Wilson. Then came Hee Haw. Described as “a countrified Laugh-In with music,” shot in Nashville, Hee Haw premiered in 1969. Co-starring Clark and Buck Owens, it was an immediate hit. Though CBS canceled the show after two-and-a-half years, despite ranking in the Top 20, the series segued into syndication, where it remained until 1992.

Clark was highly influential as a guitarist and overall performer. Clark has had 23 top 40 country hits, among them eight top 10s. In addition, his 12-string guitar rendition of “Malaguena” is considered a classic and, in 1982, he won a Grammy (Best Country Instrumental Performance) for “Alabama Jubilee.”

Watch Clark and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown perform “Take the ‘A’ Train”

Clark co-starred with Petula Clark at Caesar’s Palace, became the first country artist to headline at the Montreux International Jazz Festival and appeared in London on The Tom Jones Show. But the highlight of his career, he said, was a sold-out 1976 tour of the then-Soviet Union. When he returned in 1988 to Russia, Clark was hailed as a hero.

Clark had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award and membership in the Gibson (Guitar) Hall of Fame. He was the first country artist inducted into Las Vegas’ Entertainers Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009 and has also been inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.

Watch Glen Campbell and Roy Clark play “Ghost Riders in the Sky”

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