Most people who have received
tragic news of any kind, be it personal or global, can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time
they heard it. Folks who are old enough to remember President Kennedy's assassination or John Lennon's murder can attest
to this. Likewise, I will always remember what I was up to when I learned that Clay Cole had passed away.
Clay Cole, for those unfamiliar
with his lengthy and multifaceted show-business career, was a television host, performer, emcee, singer, disk jockey,
actor, recording artist, dancer, writer, producer, movie star, and author who was in the public eye almost constantly during
the heyday of rock 'n' roll music - 1953 to 1968 - a decade of which was spent in New York hosting his popular dance show
before he resigned at the ripe old age of 30 and turned his attention to behind-the-scenes work. After some
forty years spent out of the limelight, Clay resurfaced in 2009 with a brand-new book, Sh-Boom! The Explosion of Rock 'n' Roll (1953-1968), which brilliantly documents that golden era and the role he played in promoting its performers and players. Ironically,
Clay's comeback was fueled by a message-board post he had read a few years previously after "Googling" himself -
in which Participant A wondered "Whatever
happened to Clay Cole?" and Participant B
(a guy named Dave, according to Clay) responded authoritatively, "Clay Cole died about ten years ago."
This particular report of his
death being greatly exaggerated, Clay - who had not died but had merely dropped off the public radar years before
and was now retired and living in North Carolina after a lifetime of radio and television work - decided to stick
his neck back out, so to speak, and to tell his story while he was at it. This way there could be no further doubt
as to his whereabouts or to the status of his immortal soul.
This was a big part of the
reason why the news of Clay's actual death, which occurred exactly two weeks prior to what would have been his 73rd birthday,
was such a shock - and so sadly ironic. Much of Clay's modus operandi for the past two years had been based upon
the premise of documenting his life story while he was still around to do it, letting people know that he was alive and
well, and reconnecting with old friends and fans. He started a web site; he joined Facebook; he even had a Twitter profile,
on which his brief "bio" gleefully announces: "I'm alive!"
Clay was not only alive but in
apparent good health, still another reason why his family, friends and fans were so stunned. His passing was sudden
and completely unexpected. Christmas was just one week away. It was a Saturday and I was idly fiddling around
on the computer, mentally gearing up to tackle some tasks and run a few errands. I was checking my friends'
status posts on Facebook's home page when one particular post caught my eye - and my heart fell to the floor. It was
an anguished status message by a mutual friend of mine and Clay Cole's, praying that it was not true that Clay had just
died. No, this couldn't be right; there had to be a mistake. I'd had an email from Clay just two days before, on
Thursday. He'd posted on his Facebook page on Friday. How could he be gone, so suddenly, on Saturday?
Still in denial - word of Clay's
passing had not yet reached the major news outlets, and I was finding nothing online save for the single Facebook post -
I nonetheless felt duty-bound to email another mutual friend, who had appeared on Clay's TV show back in the day.
Perhaps it was wishful thinking that compelled me to word my email very carefully, stating only that I had heard Clay had
died but was unable to confirm it. It hadn't been too long ago when I had emailed this same friend to let him know
of the death of a well-known songwriter-producer with whom he had once worked, only to learn afterward (to both my relief
and mortification) that the deceased was just as suprised by the reports of his demise as everyone else. This hadn't
been my fault - the news reports had been based on misinformation - but I certainly wasn't eager to repeat
the same experience. Although, inside, I was praying that it would be the same experience; that Clay was still
alive and the early reports were wrong.
Sadly, in Clay's case there was
no mistake. Within the hour, it had been confirmed by a very reliable source. My friend also emailed me back after
verifying the news with others.
Clay Cole passed away the
morning of December 18, 2010, at home, of an apparent heart attack. He was 72 years old.
untimely passing marks the end of an era. It's bittersweet to know that he had only just resurfaced, after so many years
out of the public eye, told his story, reconnected with old friends and fans (some of whom he hadn't seen or spoken to
in forty or more years), and - even more poignantly - was happy and at peace with himself. As he wrote in
his autobiography and reiterated in audio interviews: "I am now, probably for the first time in my life, the
person I have always wanted to be." Certainly, the last few years of his life brought Clay happiness, and the past couple
of years were downright joyous. It's difficult to think of all this and not feel a tug at the heartstrings, especially
when one considers his excited exclamation over recent events: "What a way to end my life!" It was as if Clay
wanted to leave all of us a part of himself before departing this world for a better one; it was like he had reemerged
after four decades behind the scenes to say goodbye. The fact that he passed away just 14 days prior
to what would have been his 73rd birthday is telling; Clay, whose birthday was January 1st, came in at the beginning of a
New Year, and left just before one ended. Also of note is the fact that he both was born and died on a Saturday
- and, in between, as Clay himself points out in his book, that day of the week was his TV time slot.
I was honored to call Clay Cole
my friend, and, even though we hadn't been acquainted for too terribly long, I felt as though I'd known him all my life.
Yet, compared with so many others, I only knew Clay about five minutes. During the past year and a half, in the wake
of publicity for his book and the personal appearances Clay was making to promote it, there were kudos from people who'd
been friends with him for twenty or thirty or fifty or ninety years. That's almost not an exaggeration.
Clay was so beloved that anybody who became his friend remained his friend, for life, even if decades passed from
one meeting to the next. He never forgot a soul, and nobody ever forgot him. I know I certainly won't.
The world won't be quite
as bright now with Clay gone; he left a void that can never be filled. Thankfully, we do have his wonderful autobiography,
and audio interviews, online videos, and countless photographs as mementos of his life. But to keep his memory alive,
we have only to look inside our own hearts.
From all appearances, Clay's
end was a peaceful one. There was no long illness, no suffering; he merely transitioned to another realm, where he is
now master of ceremonies for some glorious heavenly concerts. Life imitates art ... and, sometimes, life imitates life.
Just as he did many years ago, when he quit his successful and still highly rated TV show, Clay left at the top of his
game. Clay Cole loved show business, and he was a showman to the very end. The consummate entertainer exits
the stage while the applause is still going strong and the audience is on their feet and the cheers are still ringing in the
rafters; like that old show-biz axiom says, "Always leave them wanting more." With his untimely, unexpected
death, Clay Cole has done exactly that. Rest in peace, Clay. Yes ... you were something.
*Note - Clay Cole's site has been disabled; however,
there is a "snapshot" of it on the Internet archive, and many photos/links are still active. Click on the link to access
Jersey Girls Sing - fantastic site by Clay's friends Denise Ferri, Bernadette Carroll, and Ronnie Allen. Click on the link at the top
of the JGS homepage to see a wonderful and poignant slideshow dedicated to the memory of Clay Cole.
The Clay Cole Theater - ditto. Check out the various destinations on the page, including the link to sign the petition to get Clay inducted
into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Ronnie's Radio Page - also on the JGS website. Check out Ronnie's fantastic 90-minute interview with Clay, recorded in October of 2009,
as well as his tribute to Clay on Pop Shoppe Oldies with Stu Weiss on 24 December 2010; just scroll down the page for the links
The Harmony Street Show with Mike Miller - click on the link to hear another fantastic 90-minute interview from November 2009. Just click on
the player to listen
Studio 10 - live interview from 10 Feb 2010 (click on the link below Clay's photo to view the video)
Clay Cole, legendary 1960s rock 'n' roll teen guru who
introduced Rolling Stones, dies at almost 73