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Roy Clark, Legendary Country Guitarist and ‘Hee Haw’ Star, Dies at 85

Roy Clark, the legendary guitarist and singer, Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member, Grammy, ACM and CMA award winner and co-host of the “Hee Haw” television series, died on Thursday due to complications from pneumonia at home in Tulsa, Okla. He was 85.

His starring stint on the at times deliberately corny “Hee Haw” television show belied his stellar musicianship and deep pedigree as a country-music pioneer, particularly the “Bakersfield” sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s in which he was deeply involved with fellow picker Buck Owens, who also appeared on the show. With the later rise of country stars ranging from Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, Clark’s vast influence has received its proper due. (The biography that follows is an edited version of one provided by 2911 Media.)

Born Roy Linwood Clark on April 15, 1933 in Meherrin, Virginia, Clark moved to Washington, D.C. when he a young. His father played in a square dance band and took him to free concerts by the National Symphony and by various military bands. “I was subjected to different kinds of music before I ever played. Dad said, ‘Never turn your ear off to music until your heart hears it — because then you might hear something you like.'”

His first guitar, a Sears Silvertone, came as a Christmas present when he was 14. That same year, 1947, he made his first TV appearance. In the fertile, diverse musical soil of cosmopolitan D.C., he began playing bars and dives on Friday and Saturday nights until he was playing every night and skipping school — eventually dropping out at 15. “Music was my salvation, the thing I loved most and did best. Whatever was fun, I’d go do that.”

He soon went on tour with country legends such as Hank Williams and Grandpa Jones. After winning a national banjo competition in 1950, he was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, which led to shows with Red Foley and Ernest Tubb. Yet he’d always return to D.C. to play not only country but jazz, pop, and early rock’n’roll. In 1954, he joined Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats, appearing in clubs and on radio and TV, and even backing up Elvis Presley.

But in 1960, he was 27 and still scrambling. An invitation to open for Wanda Jackson at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas proved to be his big break. It led to his own tour, on the road for 345 straight nights at one stretch, and when he returned to Vegas in 1962, he came back as a headliner and recording star, with his debut album, “The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark.” The next year, he had his first hit, “The Tips of My Fingers,” a country song that featured an orchestra and string section. “We didn’t call it crossover then but I guess that’s what it was,” he said. “We didn’t aim for that, because if you aim for both sides you miss them both. But we just wanted to be believable.”

He first television appearances in 1963 on “The Tonight Show” and “American Bandstand” showcased his easygoing attitude and rural sense of humor. “Humor is a blessing to me. My earliest recollections are of looking at something and seeing the lighter side,” he said. “But it’s always spontaneous. I couldn’t write a comedy skit for someone else.”

Throughout the ’60s, Clark recorded several albums, toured constantly, and appeared on many TV variety shows. “I was the token bumpkin. It became, ‘Let’s get that Clark guy. He’s easy to get along with,'” he recalled.

Then came “Hee Haw.” A countrified comedy show with music, shot in Nashville, “Hee Haw” premiered in 1969. Co-starring Clark and Buck Owens, it was an immediate hit. Though CBS canceled the show after two-and-a-half years, despite ranking in the Top 20, the series segued into syndication, where it remained until 1992. “I long ago realized it was not a figure of speech when people come up to me and say they grew up watching me since they were ‘that big’.”

The show launched him into stardom, and over the years he had 23 Top 40 country hits, including “The Tips Of My Fingers,” “I Never Picked Cotton,” “Thank God And Greyhound You’re Gone,” “Somewhere Between Love And Tomorrow” and “If I Had It To Do All Over Again.”

From his home in Tulsa, where he moved in 1974 with Barbara, his wife of 61 years, Clark continued to tour extensively. “Soon as you hit the edge of the stage and see people smiling and know they’re there to hear you, it’s time to have fun,” he said. :I keep a band of great young people around me, and we’re not musically restrained. It’s not about ‘let’s do it correct’ but ‘let’s do it right.’”

He was the rare entertainer with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, who performed at the Grand Ole Opry and Carnegie Hall.

“Roy Clark made best use of his incredible talent. He was both a showman and a virtuoso, with a love of music that beamed across air waves and into millions of living rooms, where families gathered to watch and listen,” Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young said.

Clark is survived by Barbara, his wife of 61 years, his sons Roy Clark II and wife Karen, Dr. Michael Meyer and wife Robin, Terry Lee Meyer, Susan Mosier and Diane Stewart, and his grandchildren: Scott Fearington, Brittany Meyer, Michael Meyer, Caleb Clark, Josiah Clark and his sister, Susan Coryell.

A memorial celebration will be held in the coming days in Tulsa, Okla., details forthcoming.

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