Our writer remembers: In search of the REAL Roy Clark

November 15, 2018

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in January 2009 in the St. Petersburg Times

It was 1977, the glory days of the TV country western show “Hee Haw,” so when I arrived at the St. Pete Times, someone wrote a story about it, explaining to readers that while my name was Roy Clark, I was not THE Roy Clark, the one who picked and grinned next to Buck Owens for almost 25 years.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had to answer that question: Are you THE Roy Clark, sometimes in jest, and sometimes, over the phone, with serious anticipation. The best I can come up with is, “Well, my MOTHER thinks so.”

So what is it like to share a name with a celebrity?

It is not a problem that I face alone. In my lifetime, I’ve met John Wayne, George Burns, Linda Evans (who is married to Bob Evans), Glenn Miller, Anne Murray, Joan Collins, James Dean and Tom Jones, who writes sports for the Times and shares a name not only with the Welsh soul singer but also with the protagonist of a famous 18th century English novel.

Just for fun, I googled the name "Tom Jones" and got more than 14 million links, a great many that have nothing at all to do with the singer, the sports writer or the novel. And I’m sure many of them have heard, at one time or another, “Are you THE Tom Jones?”

Think about it.  What would your life have been like if you were named Marilyn Monroe, or Brad Pitt or, yeesh, Roseanne Barr?  Are you surprised that, when I wrote an essay on country music for the New York Times in 1976, I added my middle name, Peter, so as not to be confused with THE you-know-who?

All of these questions came to mind two Sundays ago as I stood near the green room of Ruth Eckerd Hall waiting to meet “THE Roy Clark,” or as someone else put it, “the REAL Roy Clark.” A security guard approached me, jovially, and looked at my name tag. “I heard them say to meet Roy Clark in the lobby, but I just left him on his bus. He’s eating his lunch.”

About 20 minutes before the 2 o’clock show, THE man walked in to shake hands and sign a few autographs. My wife, Karen, and I were first in line. He walked like a penguin, recovering from hip replacement surgery. He wore a maroon sports jacket, a western-style shirt with vertical stripes and a bolo tie. His hair, the work of artisans no doubt, was way too red and poofy for his 75 years. He was short and barrel-chested with an almost perfectly round face, jocular chipmunk cheeks and a sly grin.

I showed him my name tag and introduced him to Karen. It was her birthday.  “I’m married to Roy Clark!” she said, playing along.

“Well bless your heart,” said THE Roy Clark.

I told him that being named after him has made my life “more interesting.” As they took our photo, I had time to squeeze in one anecdote:

“So it’s 1975, and I’m living in Montgomery, Alabama, and I stop for gas. I show a young kid my credit card. He reads it and says, ‘So you’re Roy Clark, huh?’ I brace for the usual comments. ‘Yeah,’ I say, rolling my eyes. ‘Well, glad to meetcha,’ he says, ‘I’m Glen Campbell.’  And, sure enough, he was!”

THE Roy Clark’s eyes widened at the punch line. Time for one more handshake and a parting thought: “Roy, it’s an honor to share a name with such a great musician and such a good man.”

And then it occurred to me: What had been a source of mild annoyance had become transformed into a feeling of whimsical pride. Hey, thank God I wasn’t named Axl Rose or O.J. Simpson or Little Joey Stalin.

Instead, I share a name with a man who, in a career spanning six decades, has been honored countless times for his comedic talents and his musicianship. A man who opened for Hank Williams Senior. A man who, on one gig, played behind Elvis Presley and went on to play with almost every country great of his generation.

Who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Who played Cousin Roy on "The Beverly Hillbillies." Who sat in for Johnny Carson as guest host of "The Tonight Show." Who was asked to sing Mickey Mantle’s favorite song at his funeral, Roy’s signature “Yesterday When I Was Young.” Who in 1976 performed 18 sold-out concerts in the Soviet Union, and in 1988 was invited back to a liberated Russia.

But beyond his celebrity, I learned that THE Roy Clark is a person worthy of admiration, a man who has raised millions of dollars for children’s hospitals. He has been married for 50 years to his wife, Barbara, and he concludes each concert with the same message: “The first chance you get, do something nice for someone. … Because of you, that person will go out and do something nice for somebody else … This whole world can wind up doing nice things for each other, and we can be the ones to start.”

But let it be said that before he offered that message to his legion of mostly gray-haired fans, he led his talented six-man band, Roy’s Toys, in a rousing 90-minutes of down-home music and humor. From the fourth row, we could see him sweating and straining under the burden of a healing hip, and it was clear that, at the age of 75, his voice had lost some of its range. But the growl that’s left has its own charm. What still works are the flying fingers, capable of working magic on the banjo, mandolin, guitar and fiddle.  Early on, he gave us the galloping classic “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and he ended the set showing off his fiddle flair with a version of “Orange Blossom Special,” designed to keep all us young whipper-snappers in our place. “It may take me three trips,” he said with that mischievous grin, “but I can still fetch the load.”

Shucks, he is THE Roy Clark after all.