Telling it like it was: Clay Cole’s “Sh-Boom! – The Explosion of Rock ‘N’ Roll, 1953-1968”

The name Clay Cole may not be too familiar to some Sh-Boom! Magazine readers in the UK and Europe, but anyone who grew up loving all those great US hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s owes him a debt of gratitude.

Many early US rock and pop artists might never have been heard in Europe had they not first been popularised on Clay Cole’s TV and radio shows in New York, and then gone on to achieve huge chart success across the United States.

In his new book Sh-Boom! – The Explosion of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1953-1968), New York television personality Clay Cole gives a compelling personal account of his years spent hosting his own Saturday night pop music television show, The Clay Cole Show.

But this is no typical showbiz autobiography. In a fast-paced, conversational and witty style, Cole combines highly personal recollections with a comprehensive and detailed history of rock ‘n’ roll itself. Packed with fascinating facts and funny anecdotes, it’s a behind-the-scenes look at the shaping of an era. It’s pop music history told from the inside out, by someone who was there at the beginning.

He was only 15 – and still at high school in Ohio – when, in 1953, he began presenting his own local teenage music TV show. By 1955, the music had evolved and he recalls: “I was, without fully becoming aware, now hosting a rock ‘n’ roll show”.

In 1957, he moved to New York City to try his luck, armed with “a 10 year plan” for success. In fact, it only took a few months for him to land a Saturday evening live TV show in Providence, Rhode Island.

By 1959, at the age of 21 (although the TV channel’s publicity department claimed he was only 19), he was hosting a major TV show in New York. He was the youngest host on US TV – and already challenging for the crown held by the legendary Alan Freed and Dick Clark.

When Alan Freed’s TV career was ended by the great music industry payola scandal of 1959, it proved to be a stroke of luck for Clay Cole. After less than two months on air, he now had a “clear reign” on New York television. “I was spotless … I was never offered, nor would I accept, payola,” he says.

The Clay Cole Show attracted all the big names of the day, including Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee and Connie Francis (who later confessed she’d always had a secret crush on him).

With a good ear for a hit, Cole also became a champion of talented newcomers, such as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Tony Orlando, Dionne Warwick, Neil Diamond, Bobby Vinton, the Four Seasons, and Dion. In 1960, he launched a nightclub tour and hired three teenage sisters as dancers. They would later become The Ronettes.

He was the first to introduce Chubby Checker performing ‘The Twist’. And the first to present the Rolling Stones in America. He also pioneered music video clips and go-go girls, and gave debuts to young stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor.

Cole also helped to break the colour barrier on US television. He was the first rock ‘n’ roll TV host to have a multi-racial audience and regularly featured soul and R&B artists such as Ray Charles, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Steve Wonder, The Supremes and Dionne Warwick – often in direct defiance of his TV bosses who warned him he was welcoming too many black artists onto the show.

A singer and dancer himself, he once sang on stage with the Four Seasons after being invited to “sing along” by his friend Frankie Valli. “I was so intimidated by their perfect harmonies,” says Cole, “I simply mouthed the words and snapped my fingers – to their great relief, I’m sure.”

Sh-Boom! – The Explosion of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1953-1968) covers Clay Cole’s “fifteen years of TV fame” – and explores every pop music phenomenon from rhythm and blues, cover records, rockabilly, folk-rock, teen idols, and girl groups … to the arrival of The Beatles, the British Invasion, the creation of the American boy band, and Flower Power.

It was the shift to acid rock and heavy metal that eventually prompted Clay Cole to walk away from his highly popular TV show in 1968, at the age of 30. He realised he’d become “a black-tie, tuxedo guy, adrift in a tie-dyed T-shirt world”. His final show featured Jerry Lewis, Paul Anka, and the Cowsills.

Over the 40 years since, he has been the writer, producer and director of over 3500 broadcast TV shows, including several award-winning programmes.

Sh-Boom!’ … great title for a song … great name (we think) for a music magazine for ‘baby boomers’ … and now a great title for an important book that doesn’t just chronicle the early beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, it tells you how it felt to be there.

Sh-Boom! – The Explosion of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1953-1968) can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. It is also available direct from the Clay Cole website at www.claycoleshow.com

UPDATE:  We are sad to report that Clay Cole died on December 18, 2010 at his home on Oak Island, N.C. He was 72. The cause was a heart attack, his brother Richard Rucker said. In addition to his brother, he is survived by another brother, James Rucker, and a sister, Tama Rucker. 

 

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4 Responses to “Telling it like it was: Clay Cole’s “Sh-Boom! – The Explosion of Rock ‘N’ Roll, 1953-1968””

  1. Laura Says:

    Great writeup on a wonderful book by a terrific human being. Clay Cole has indeed done much for the golden age of rock and roll, and there are many artists out there who owe him a debt of gratitude – as we all do. I’m honored to call Clay Cole a friend.

  2. Raki Says:

    Thank you for this fantastic review. I love this book; I have read it three times. And I agree that Clay is a terrific human being. His fan club has being going strong for 50 years! And several members have launched a campaign to get Clay into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Do join us in the effort. He deserves the honor 100 fold.

    http://www.petitiononline.com/rabcdfcc/petition.html

  3. Jim Rucker Says:

    Thank you for the exemplary tribute to my talented brother Clay Cole.
    He was truly a remarkable personality, showman and humble performer. His demeanor was always to shine the spotlight on others, taking little celebrity himself. His favorite show-closing song used during his high school days when he wrote, directed, produced and starred in Rucker’s Rumpus Room was “You Gotta Have Hart”. Truly he had that in abundance. We will sincerely miss his humor, his grace and his humility. Please cast your vote for Clay’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where so many of those who given their first chance to perform on his show… now reside.

    • Lou Antonicello Says:

      As someone who watched the Caly Cole show back in the 60’s , I can say it was the one teen dance party you watched to see the host . Cole was THAT GOOD. His book is great, and I recommend it to everone interested in rock and roll. But what we really need is for a good documetary to be made on his life and career .That plus the book will help keep his memory alive. Also everyone should sign the pettion to help put Clay Cole in the Rock and roll hall of fame .

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