Joe Clay, The Rocking Bus Driver
Joe Clay

Just to the south of the Mississippi River, Jefferson Parish School Bus Route 418 winds through the Gretna suburb of New Orleans stopping off at West Jefferson High, Gretna Middle School, Christ The King and St. Anthony Elementary Schools. C.J. Cheramie drives the bus and has done for fifteen years. He is popular with the kids allowing them to play the radio in the bus and even singing along to the top forty records, showing himself to be a good deal more 'hip' than one would expect from your average school bus driver, which is exactly what C.J. Cheramie is not. Just at the moment he feels more akin to Clark Kent who by quickly stepping inside a telephone booth can be miraculousy transformed into Superman. When Cheramie steps down from his school bus his transformation is no less incredible. He becomes Joe Clay, snarling, hip swivelling, Rock 'n' Roller, a throw back to music's golden era - the Fifties, a time when Clay rubbed shoulders with Presley, Perkins and Domino and if the wheel of fortune had spun differently who knows where fate may have led him all those years ago.

Claiborne Joseph Cheramie was born in Harvey, Lousiana, part of the sprawling metropolis of New Orleans. His parents Nellie and Claiborne Snr. encouraged an early interest in country music and at the age of twelve he was already a competent drummer, later also learning rhythm guitar and electric bass. By the early fifties the C.J. Cheramie Trio were regulars on the now defunct Radio WWEZ out of New Orleans with a thirteen minute show every Saturday. This led to personal appearances within Lousiana and Cheramie had soon shortened and flip flopped his first and middle names to arrive at a stage alias more likely to attract attention in the surreal world of show business. During 1955 his local reputation enabled him to play the prestigious Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport where he shared billing with the newly emerging Elvis Presley. The whole world would soon discover Rock 'n' Roll and Joe Clay, an enthusiastic and ambitious teenager, was to be one of that very first generation of its exponents. Within the next twelve months his career really started to take off and he played shows with Carl Perkins and Fats Domino and even filled in as a drummer for Elvis when he played Pontchartrain Amusement Park in New Orleans and D.J. Fontana could not make the gig.

Early in 1956 a WWEZ Disc Jockey with the delightful name of Jolly Charlie received an approach from an agent for RCA Records who were on the lookout for regional acts to sign for their new subsidiary label VIK and Joe quickly submitted a demonstration tape that he cut at the radio station offices at the Jung Hotel on Canal Street. It comprised two country tunes and two rockers including a frenzied "Shake, Rattle And Roll." RCA must have liked what they heard because Herman Diaz, Jr. whisked Clay up to Houston and on April 25, 1956 accompanied by Link Davis and Hal Harris on guitars, lay down some wild rockabilly of sufficient quality to stand comparison with the very best. The record company picked out the Link Davis' song "Sixteen Chicks" and Joe's cover of Rudy Grayzell's "Ducktail" to be the first single which was released on VIK 0211.

A month later Joe Clay was back in the studio again. This time RCA summond him to Headquarters in New York and four more songs were recorded at the Victor's studio 1, this time accompanied by a rhythm 'n' blues band fronted by Mickey Baker. His second and final single (VIK 0218) comprising "Cracker Jack" and "Get On The Right Track" was culled from this session, but RCA in their wisdom could find no use for the other tracks among them the amazingly titled "Did You Mean Jelly Bean (What You Said Cabbage Head)".

Although far from achieving hit status Joe Clay's contribution to the world of Rockabilly had attracted enough attention for him to obtain a booking on the Ed Sullivan Show as support for Nat King Cole. He was originally lined up to perform "Ducktail", but the shows producers no doubt still mindful of the national furore caused by Presley's early television appearances became nervous of further controversy. Joe ended up switching to the more restrained "Only You" which was felt more palatable for the mass American public.

The RCA contract was not renewed and having played his small part in Rock 'n' Roll history Joe returned to New Orleans and became C.J. Cheramie again. The name of Joe Clay dissolved into a memory and the C.J. Cheramie Trio supplemented their day jobs by playing the 544 Club and other night spots on Bourbon Street, occasionally backing local celebraties such as Dr. John, Frankie Ford and Smiley Lewis.

Nearly thirty years later America had forgotten Joe Clay but in Europe, where old Rockabillies are sometimes treated with respect and reverence, his old records changed hands at alarming prices and reissues on RCA Great Britain and Bear Family introduced his name to a new audience born too late to rock the first time around. C.J. Cheramie carried on singing on his school bus and in Europe interested parties poured over the only known photo of Joe - a faded, indistinct, black and white print of Clay standing alongside Presley at the Louisiana Hayride - and wondered if he was dead or alive.

After years of searching, an English Rockabilly fan returned from the States bearing news that Joe Clay had been seen playing guitar in a local band in New Orleans. After weeks of frustration, the British Rock 'n' Roll Promoter 'Wild' Willie Jeffery was able to arrange a concert tour with shows in England, Holland and Sweden. While in Europe Joe met Mac Bouvrie of Mac Records Belgium, who had been a fan of Joe Clay for as long as he can remember, and they became friends. This new friendship resulted in a recording session for Mac Records and in 1989 a 45 was released on MAC 131 with two brand new songs written by Thomas Luvius of Billy Wiggle And The Wigglers. This well known Dutch rockabilly band also did the backing on these recordings titled "Rock Little Lilly" and "Be Bop Boogie Bop."

By Ian Wallis, June 1986
Additions by The BlackCat, 1999

Joe next to Elvis MAC 131