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Roy Clark was a friend of mine

So long to a legend



In my office, stuck between magnets holding images of old baseball players and drawings from my son, there is a bumper sticker that reads: Johnny Cash is a friend of mine. I never met Mr. Cash, but always related to that sentiment that the “Man in Black” was a friend of the working-class poor man. Weaved around that souvenir are candid photos of my family and friends along with the Negro Leaguers and automotive trendsetters who have become extended kin.

There, stapled among this mixed bag of lifetime memories, is a selfie of me and Roy Clark, the “Superpicker,” yucking it up. I treasure that image because it captures the essence of the many conversations Roy and I had, chewing the fat about baseball, racecars and hot rodding, Tulsa, music, and life. When I learned that Roy had passed away on Nov. 15, I sat and reflected on that picture and the indelible mark that he made on my life and the world at large. And I reminisced, because Roy Clark is a friend of mine.

Anyone born before the George H. W. Bush administration will likely recall Roy mostly for his comedic role as the “grinnin’” cohost of “Hee Haw,” but that was only an nth of his talents. There wasn’t much Roy couldn’t master. He flew airplanes. He played a solid game of golf. Through his gift of music, he became an American diplomat who warmed the hearts of Soviet dignitaries and catalyzed the thaw that helped end the Cold War.

If it had strings, Roy owned it, both literally and figuratively. His lightning-fast fingers’ rendition of “Malaguena” left us awestruck; his wit and snark fostered a comical new respect for Greyhound bus lines (“Thank God”); and when he serenaded us with “Yesterday When I Was Young,” he captured with nostalgic clarity how fleetingly the years of life pass.

Decades before I met Roy, I recall the countless times traveling into town when my dad or grandmother would point out the window saying, “There’s Roy Clark’s bus barn!” Dad often listed the people that he claimed to have seen make pit stops there, which included the likes of Reba McEntire and Alabama. Many of his stories were probably hyperbole or apocryphal at best, but Roy Clark’s name and fame was a constant point of conversation in the Cornwell household.

Years later, I befriended Roy during my tenure as a music industry apprentice under the tutelage of master country music impresario Jim Halsey, Roy Clark’s manager for nearly sixty years. Halsey afforded me the rare opportunity to work closely with Roy at the office and backstage at multiple events. The day I met Roy, I asked him to autograph a game-used Texas League baseball from a Tulsa Drillers ballgame. Because he was one of the original co-owners of the Drillers, Roy’s eyes lit up. As he penned his John Hancock on the sweetspot, I expressed my gratitude to him for helping save baseball in the Oil Capital. Roy averted the praise, quipping how lucky he felt because he had the chance to be a part of professional baseball.

In true campy Roy Clark fashion, he joked that deal-breaker, though, was whether or not he would be issued a uniform. “If I couldn’t play my way into the game, I was going to pay my way into the game!” he told me in jest.  Indeed, Roy received his uniform and Tulsa got another baseball team.

Baseball and hot rods connected us. We talked about the many times he watched the Washington Senators play in D.C.; when he saw the Negro League Homestead Grays take the field; when he almost became a major leaguer for the St. Louis Browns; and about the growing pains as an owner of the Tulsa Drillers after the stadium collapsed. Whether in his office or in the greenroom before of after a show, Roy and I were just a couple of fellas benchwarming and bench-racing talking about the “good old days” of Detroit steel and America’s pastime.

Roy Clark was a friend of mine. The man who performed alongside Johnny Cash, played golf with Mickey Mantle, and entertained several presidents and diplomats also considered me a pal. For the kid who grew up in dire poverty to hear the man who used to visit us in our living rooms every Sunday evening call me by name was a treasure in itself.

When I had the privilege to watch an Opening Day ballgame with the original Tulsa Drillers owners Roy Clark and Bill Rollings, that was the “it” moment in my life when I realized I had “made it.”  Roy now joins his partner Bill on the roster in the sky, but their legacy lives on. With a banjo in one hand and a baseball in the other, Roy now gets to suit up and lace up his spikes for the best ballclub there is—in a place where the game and the music lasts forever.

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