Pop music TV pioneer Clay Cole dies at 72

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Clay Cole – whose groundbreaking US TV and radio shows in the 1950s and 1960s helped to launch the careers of many rock ‘n’ roll greats – 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.

Anyone who grew up loving all those great US hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s owes Clay Cole a huge debt of gratitude. Many early US rock and pop artists might never have been heard in the UK and Europe had they not first been popularised on his TV and radio shows in New York, and then gone on to achieve huge chart success across the United States.

In his recent book Sh-Boom! – The Explosion of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1953-1968), Clay Cole gave a compelling personal account of his years spent hosting his own Saturday night pop music television show, The Clay Cole Show. It’s an important book that doesn’t just chronicle the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, it is also a first-hand record of how it felt to be there.

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 found himself hosting one of the first rock ‘n’ roll TV shows.

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 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 said.

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,” Cole recalled, “I simply mouthed the words and snapped my fingers – to their great relief, I’m sure.”

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. His final show featured Jerry Lewis, Paul Anka, and the Cowsills.

Over the 40 years that followed, he was the writer, producer and director of over 3500 broadcast TV shows, including several award-winning programmes.

As his friend Laura Pinto (pictured left with Clay) told Sh-Boom! Magazine: “He was a terrific human being. Clay Cole has 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.”

Clay Cole is survived by his brothers Richard Rucker and James Rucker, and a sister, Tama Rucker.

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