Born 2 September 1938, Golden Meadow, Louisiana
Jimmy Clanton is often lumped in with pre-Beatles teenage idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian but that’s not quite fair. Though most of his records fall into the teen pop category, Clanton was a dedicated R&B enthusiast with a good voice and a genuine feel for New Orleans music. Moreover, he wrote many of the songs he recorded, a relative rarity among white singers of his day.
Clanton was born (in 1938, not 1940 as most sources claim) and raised in Baton Rouge. While still in high school, he started playing guitar and formed his own band, the Dixie Cats, in late 1955 or early 1956. They played covers of popular rock & roll and R&B hits, featuring material by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in their act. The Dixie Cats would soon join forces with a rival band, the Night Trainers, led by pianist Dick Holler (the later writer of “Abraham, Martin and John”, a # 4 hit for Dion in 1968). Renamed the Rockets, the group recorded a few demos at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Matassa liked Clanton, offered to act as his manager and tried to get him signed to Johnny Vincent’s Ace label (of Jackson, Mississippi). Vincent wasn’t too keen on recording white boys (Ace had been specializing in R&B and southern blues until then), but he signed Jimmy mainly as a favour to Matassa. Clanton’s first record was released in September 1957 and coupled “I Trusted You” (which Clanton would re-record in 1959 for the B-side of “Go Jimmy Go”) with “That’s You Baby”. Though the first two Ace singles were credited to “Jimmy Clanton & His Rockets”, Clanton had been signed as a solo act and was backed in the studio by Matassa’s famous studio band, led by saxophonist Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler.
Both sides were Clanton-Matassa compositions and that was also the case with Jimmy’s second single, “Just A Dream”/“You Aim To Please”. The slow A-side quickly shot to # 4 on the pop charts and # 1 on the R&B charts, in spite of an irritating girlie chorus, and sold over a million copies. “Just A Dream” has been hailed as the first “swamp pop” hit. “You Aim To Please” made a nice contrast and showed Clanton’s rocking South Louisiana roots. Next came the double-sided hit “A Letter To An Angel” (# 25) /“A Part Of Me” (# 38), in the autumn of 1958. “A Letter To An Angel” was almost a carbon copy of the Johnny Ace number “Pledging My Love”. “My Own True Love” (which borrowed its melody from “Tara’s Theme”, from the film “Gone With the Wind”) peaked at # 33.
By 1959 the R&B content was quietly extinguished from his records and Clanton was turned into an all-American teen idol. He did the usual round of one-nighters, including Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars”. That year Clanton was the main star in the rock and roll movie “Go Johnny Go”, along with Alan Freed. Jimmy was allowed no less than five songs in the film, more than any other cast member (in a cast that included Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Jackie Wilson, the Cadillacs and the Flamingos). One of these five numbers was "Go, Jimmy, Go” (written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman), which returned Clanton to the Top 10 (# 5) in early 1960.
In 1960-62 Jimmy had success with three Neil Sedaka / Howard Greenfield compositions, “Another Sleepless Night” (# 22, also Clanton’s only chart entry in the UK), “What Am I Gonna Do” (# 50) and his third (and last) Top 10 hit “Venus In Blue Jeans” (# 7) **. In 1961 he played his second movie role, in “Teenage Millionaire”. Occasionally, Jimmy still recorded R&B material, but most of these recordings remained in the can until the 1980s and 1990s.
By the early 1960s Clanton was the only artist on Ace still producing hits and also the label’s most prolific album act. Altogether he had eleven Billboard chart entries on Ace, the last one being “Darkest Street In Town” (# 77) in early 1963. Soon Jimmy and most of his generation would be swept away from the charts by the rising tide of Beatlemania. After leaving Ace in 1963, Clanton recorded for Philips, Mala, Imperial, Eric, Laurie and Spiral. He had one final chart entry in 1969, with “Curly” (# 97) on Laurie, which was also released in the UK on London HLP 10289. In the 1970s he worked as a disc jockey and performed on oldies shows. During the next decade he was living in Pennsylvania and had a religious conversion. Clanton was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2012 he recorded a new CD, “Everybody Needs Love”. He continues to perform to this day.
** Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller are usually listed as the writers of “Venus In Blue Jeans”, probably correctly so. But label shots of the original Ace single show the composers as “Greenfield - Sedaka”.
Official website : http://www.jimmyclanton.com
Interview : http://www.mybestyears.com/InterviewSpotlights/CLANTONJimmy121506.html
Discography : http://www.45cat.com/artist/jimmy-clanton
Acknowledgements : Tony Rounce, Bruce Eder, Rob Finnis.
Dik, March 2016
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