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Happy Times - Remembering Clay Cole

A Loving Tribute

Clay Cole

Clay Cole
January 1, 1938 - December 18, 2010

Author's note: The following was written over a period of several weeks following the passing of legendary New York television host Clay Cole (nee Albert Rucker, Jr.).  Perhaps the writing could have been completed more rapidly than it was, but it's difficult to write when one is emotionally involved with the subject and is still, to an extent, in denial of the reality.  It's also pretty hard to write while fighting a persistent lump in the throat.  Clay was one in a million, and I wanted this tribute to show just how special he was.
The words on this page reflect my own thoughts and feelings, as well as the bare facts about the life and death of a man who was loved by so many people.  Those on the pages that follow constitute a timeline of this man's incredible career, which began with stage and radio work in his youth and encompassed just about every facet of show business, behind the mic and behind the scenes, over a period of some fifty years.  I referred to several sources including Clay's incredible autobiography as well as a couple of audio interviews, to which I have listened so many times that I can almost recite them ... yet, if I were asked whether I've been replaying them over and over to assist me in my research or to hear Clay's voice again, I wouldn't know how to answer.
Clay was more than just a public figure, of course - he was the eldest of four children, and my thoughts and prayers are with Jim, Rick, Tama, and the entire Rucker family.  Clay left us much too soon and much too unexpectedly; it will take time for the grief to heal.  But we can all be grateful for the time we had with him and the impact he made on us as individuals, and on the world.

Remembering Clay Cole
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.

Clay Cole and Laura Pinto
Clay Cole with Laura Pinto 11 Feb 2010

Happier times: Clay Cole with me, Laura Pinto, on 11 February 2010
To see all the photos from this book-signing event, click here

Clay's 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.


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Here are a few Clay Cole videos on YouTube; the side arrows can be used to toggle through the selections.  Or click here to watch the playlist on the YouTube site

Below is a wonderful video of Clay Cole's book signing in New York City on 18 April 2010.  The event was coordinated by Clay's longtime friend and fan-club president, Marcia Habib.  (The video can also be viewed directly on the Vimeo website by clicking here.)

Clay Cole Book Signing NYC April 18, 2010 from craig sachs on Vimeo.

Clay Cole - official site*
*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 it.
Clay Cole on Picasa - Photos galore
Clay Cole on Flickr - More photos
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.
Clay Cole: Tributes to a Legend - on the Jersey Girls Sing website
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)
Beach Beacon writeup from the week of 08 Feb 2010

Paperback edition

Kindle edition

New York Daily News (David Hinckley) -
Clay Cole, legendary 1960s rock 'n' roll teen guru who introduced Rolling Stones, dies at almost 73
The State Port Pilot - Music loses true friend
Star News Online - Former teen dance party host Clay Cole dies
WWAY News Channel 3 - Friends remember TV, music legend Clay Cole
The New York Times - Clay Cole, Host of Teenage Dance Shows, Dies at 72

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