Remembering the Phoenix rockabilly star behind ‘the most important record ever cut here’ – The Arizona Republic

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

It was the first major hit of the rock ‘n’ roll era out of Phoenix.

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

He was 85.

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.

Guitarist Al Casey, Clark’s school friend who played on countless Hazlewood recordings, introduced them.

The making of ‘The Fool’

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

Hazlewood had his own roster of singers he used on his recording dates by then, including Jimmy Spellman.

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

Rich Kienzle has done liner notes for several Clark collections on Bear Family Records, a German label that specializes in reissues of archival recordings. 

“When you think of the way Sanford started, he recorded that single in a little hole-in-the-wall recording studio in Phoenix that had more than a little bit of a resemblance to Sun Studio in Memphis,” Keinzle says, referring to Memphis Recording Service, the home of Sun Records, where Elvis Presley cut his earliest recordings.

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‘The beginning of the Phoenix sound’

Clark’s first single is a swampy rockabilly classic bathed in reverb with Casey supplying a swaggering gem of a guitar riff that shares more than just a hint of DNA with “Smokestack Lightning.”

“They basically took the guitar riff from ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and, as Al said, turned it upside down,” Dixon says. 

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

When the song blew up much bigger than expected, MCI, which Dixon says was “basically a desk” at Audio Recorders, couldn’t keep up with demand.

So the little Phoenix label sold the master to Dot Records, where the single was remastered for maximum impact on radio.

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

The song went on to sell more than 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.

“That’s the beginning of the Phoenix sound, if you want to call it that, establishing Lee as a songwriter and producer, Al as a player, Sanford as a singer and Audio Recorders as a studio,” Dixon says. 

That single’s impact really kicked in two years later when Duane Eddy hit with “Rebel-‘Rouser,” one of many instrumental classics to be found on Eddy’s made-in-Phoenix calling card, the Hazlewood-produced “Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar Will Travel.”

As Dixon sees it, “All the characters involved, for the most part — Lee, the studio, many of the musicians (Al and Corki Casey), it all started in 1956 with ‘The Fool.’ I would call it the most important record ever cut here. It was really the start of the whole thing.”

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Some would argue on behalf of “Rebel-‘Rouser” as the more important record, Dixon says.

“But I don’t necessarily know if there wasn’t ‘The Fool,’ whether Lee would have had enough confidence to make that record. Suddenly, he’s doing what he always wanted — writing songs and having them recorded. He didn’t have to be a DJ anymore. He moved to Hollywood in ’56 to work for Dot.”

Attempts to follow ‘The Fool’

Clark enjoyed a second minor hit 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 hit, so you know… ‘The Fool,’ ‘A Cheat,’ you try and come up with something similar but different enough that it’ll be a hit on its own, but ‘A Cheat’ really wasn’t the follow-up that everybody wanted.”

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

“That song actually had a lot of the mystery that ‘The Fool’ had and Casey was playing really well,” he says.

“But by that time, Elvis owned everything. And the other Sun artists — Perkins and Jerry Lee — were coming along, really starting to crowd the field. So Sanford’s record didn’t have a chance in hell of getting anywhere. “

Despite continuing to make good records, often with Hazlewood, “The Fool” was destined to remain the singer’s only major hit.

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

It was a promising start to a career that never really made good on that promise — at least not commercially.

“Unfortunately, through a number of circumstances, most of them not of his making, he was never able to establish any momentum or any follow-up that he could build on,” Kienzle says. 

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

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‘I just couldn’t seem to come up with the second real big one’

When Kienzle interviewed the singer for those liner notes in 1985, Clark told him, “I just couldn’t seem to come up with that second real big one. I got a lot of things that charted, but nothing that was really big or stayed in there.”

It wasn’t for a lack of strong material, although as Kienzle says, part of the problem may have been that Randy Wood at Dot Records was trying his best to reshape Clark as something of a second-string Pat Boone.

“So if they did do anything good,” he says, “it was in spite of Randy Wood.”

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

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

Among record collectors, unless you happen to find an original pressing of “The Fool” on MCI, the most collectible Clark recording is his final 45 on Dot, 1958’s “Modern Romance,” which sounds a bit like he’s channeling Jerry Lee Lewis.

And that song never even charted. 

“They didn’t promote it,” Dixon says. “And it’s too bad because it’s a pretty strong song. It might’ve been a good second hit from him. But by that time, Lee’s year at Dot as a producer was up. And he was looking for new pastures for his music.”

Keith Richards labels Clark a “heavy-duty country singer, very like Johnny Cash,” in his autobiography, “Life,” in which the Rolling Stone looks back on his first gig, in a gymnasium, where he and a musician friend performed a cowboy ballad Clark released in 1959, “Son-of-a-Gun.” 

Clark would continue making records through the ’60s, from the Ricky Nelson-worthy rockabilly balladry of “Go On Home” to the original version of Hazlewood’s “Houston,” a finger-popping 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 U.K. compilation of his Ramco sides, “They Call Me Country” and “Return of the Fool” on Hazlewood’s LHI Records.

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One last hurrah on U.K. rockabilly circuit

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

“That’s where I first met him in the early ’90s,” Dixon says. “He was a home builder up there.”

He also worked in Vegas as a dealer and drove 18-wheelers for a while when he was living in Louisiana.

“But in between these other jobs, he would get back in the studio and record,” Dixon says. “He did some of his own sessions later with some of the songs he’d written.”

In the ’90s, Dixon accompanied Clark and Casey to the U.K. for a rockabilly weekender where Hazlewood also showed up. 

“It was really great,” Dixon says.

“The Brits over the years have just appreciated that early ’50s and ’60s rockabilly music more than we do. And so, like Northern Soul and other musical styles, they supported those acts.”

Clark knew most people only knew him for “The Fool,” but Dixon says he never let it bother him.

“I never felt he held a grudge the way some people do because he wasn’t famous,” Dixon says. “He seemed to have enough things going on, he didn’t have to dwell on that. He always had a backup plan.”

‘I’d love to do it again, but I’d never go out and starve’

In 1985, the singer told Kienzle, “I’d love to do it again, but I’d never go out and starve on the road. If I could get a record that would chart and make a decent living, I’d love it. But what can you do?”

Clark told him there were things he’d change about decisions he had made along the way, Kienzle says.

“At the same time, he said, ‘I’ve done well. I made money all my life. I miss the business. I miss the limelight. But I can go to a bar and sing. I’d never do it again unless I had another hit.'”

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

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

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

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

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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