One Track Mind: Sanford Clark, "The Fool" (1956)

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NICK DERISO: Produced by an actual working-class hero, touching listeners across every genre and making its case well away from the witheringly bright lights of the Sun Records myth, I’d argue that this record was when rock and roll finally came into its own.

Written by legendary Frank Sinatra producer Lee Hazelwood, Sanford Clark’s rockabilly ballad “The Fool” would hit all over — reaching No. 14 on the country singles chart, No. 5 on the black singles chart, and No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in ’56. Clark was then invited to open for contemporary music stars like Ray Price and Roy Orbison. Later he worked with Duane Eddy on the minor hit “Still as the Night.”

So whatever happened to Sanford Clark? A wonderous one-hit wonder, he nevertheless settled back into a day job, working in construction and, later, trucking. Once he got to retirement age, Clark then left hometown businesses in Arizona and Oklahoma to settle in northeastern Louisiana in 1994.

He’d never quite matched the direct, if pent-up, emotion so closely associated with “The Fool.” But few, in fact, did.

This tune, even today, is a powerful still-life image of a very adult regret, sung in a surprisingly modern slow-burn style that allows for unexpected (back then) irony —
“Gather ’round me buddies,
Hold your glasses high,
And drink to a fool — a crazy fool who told his baby goodbye.
Too late he found out he loves her,
So much he wants to die.
But drink to a fool — a crazy fool who told his baby goodbye.”

The truth is, Clark never stopped working, famously remaking this tune with Waylon Jennings later on — and then, in the last decade, appearing on “The Twang Gang,” a compilation that also includes Eddy. A late-1990s tour took Clark to the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and then overseas in England — a visit that had Clark reminiscing.

He might not get a second glance around West Carroll Parish but, in Britain, folks still remember Clark: “They were dressed in the 1950s clothes. They drove the ’50s cars,” he told me. “They had their hair greased. They had cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves.”

Born in Tulsa, Okla., Clark moved to Phoenix as a young man and quickly took to the tough new sounds of early 1950s music. He was primarily performing with guitarist Al Casey, a childhood friend. It was Casey who introduced Clark to Hazelwood and he soon was producing, managing and writing for Clark.

Through it all, Casey — who always had this satisfying flair for the bluesy aside — was Clark’s best collaborator: This partnership also produced the excellent “Usta Be My Baby,” and a fun take on the old Louis Jordan tune “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” (Both Casey and Hazelwood joined Clark on that 1990s summer tour through England, too.)

At first, however, “The Fool” went nowhere. So Clark went back to delivering Canada Dry soft drinks around Phoenix, a job he’d taken after getting an early discharge from the service. This disc jockey then got a hold of the tune, which was on the local MCI label, and sent it to Dot Records — where it was re-released and finally hit in the summer of 1956.

Thank goodness: As brilliant as it was, songs like this also provided the jangly sound and insouciant attitude that worked as infrastructure for the embryonic construct which would one day become rock and roll. This plays out, perhaps most famously, in the earliest recordings by the Beatles (Paul McCartney later played this tune in concert during some of his own mid-1990s outings) and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones — who has said he played Clark songs in his very first art-school band.

I still think Clark’s slow-boiling smash featured a sound of remarkable complexity and danger. Could everything that happened next be all that far behind?

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