The bluegrass and banjo playing world has lost a great champion today, as we note the passing of singer and multi-instrumentalist, Roy Clark. The smiling face of the banjo for so many Americans as a host on Hee-Haw for nearly 25 years, Clark shared his musical skills widely during his career, appearing regularly on other TV programs, and helping to bring the phrase “pickin’ and grinnin'” into the English lexicon.
Clark was 85 years of age, and died from complications of pneumonia at his home in Tulsa, OK.
He had been inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame in 2017, and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
Roy got his start in the business in 1947, and by 1955 he was a regular performer on Jimmy Dean’s television show from Washington, DC. He was born in Prince Edward County, VA, but grew up successively in New York City and Washington, DC. As a young man he pursued both professional sports and musical entertainment, switching to music when he was able to play The Grand Ole Opry at only 17.
Later he worked in Vegas as a guitarist, supporting country star Wanda Jackson, when he was given the chance to host a daytime country-themed show for NBC. This led to the Hee-Haw program on CBS. The network cancelled the show after three seasons, but it went on to be a huge success directly syndicated to local stations.
After Hee-Haw, where Roy both played and sang, and performed in a recurring comedy routine with co-host Buck Owens using his banjo, Clark opened a theater in Branson, MO where he worked in the ’80s and ’90s, until his retirement and a move to Tulsa.
His prominence on Hee-Haw led to his serving as a semi-regular fill-in host for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
Though Hee-Haw was primarily a county music show, with live performances from the biggest stars in Nashville, Clark always saw to it that bluegrass was featured as well. Perhaps its most iconic segment was the Pickin’ and Grinnin’ bit, where he and Owens alternated corny jokes with a verse and chorus of Cripple Creek.
A memorial celebration will be held in Tulsa in the next few days, though details have not yet been announced.
R.I.P., Roy Clark.