MyBestYears.com caught up with Jimmy recently. From his home in the
Houston area, he answered questions in his trademark sometimes-humorous,
often-serious, and always lively manner that has sustained him through a
roller-coaster career that has spanned a half-century.
MBY: Tell us about the early years that led to your million-selling hits.
JC: I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Like so many kids then and now, I played in
a band while in high school, The Rockets. We paid a lot of dues back then doing local
dances, clubs (which often became orchestrated fights), and a radio show called “Teen-
MBY: What was the big break that took you from paying dues to hitting the big time?
JC: In 1958 I went with The Rockets to New Orleans to make our first record at a
studio owned by Cosimo Matassa. He liked me enough to take me to an audition for his
friend, John Vincent, the president of Ace Records. Almost overnight Mr. Vincent signed
me as a solo artist to his label and a management contract.
MBY: Things started happening quickly, right?
JC: Right. By the summer of 1958, “Just a Dream,” a song I wrote and recorded for Ace
Records, literally transformed me from a little-known Louisiana teenager singer into an
overnight national success. In a matter of weeks, that single sold over 1,750,000
copies, and I was standing in the “American Bandstand” studio, receiving a copy of my
first gold record from Dick Clark on national television.
MBY: One can only imagine how drastically your life changed…
JC: It was a whirlwind that is still hard for me to believe, even after all these years.
Elvis Presley, after hearing “Just a Dream,” invited me to Graceland for a visit.
MBY: That was the start of a long-term friendship, wasn’t it?
JC: He was a very special person, and it was a long-lasting friendship that endured a
lot of ups-and-downs for both of us.
MBY: Suddenly you were thrust into a glittering world…
JC: It was quite a change. After “Just a Dream,” I was living a dream, packaged on
rock `n roll shows with the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Drifters, Chubby
Checker and Brenda Lee.”
MBY: Rock `n roll history is filled with “one-hit wonders,” so were you concerned about
JC: I really didn’t even have time to think about it. Within the next few months, I had two
more hits with “A Letter to an Angel” and “A Part of Me.”
MBY: Then, on February 3, 1959, something happened on a snowy Iowa cornfield that
changed both you and rock `n roll forever…
JC: It’s still known as “the day the music died.” Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J. P.
Richardson died in an early morning plane crash. I was shell-shocked when I heard the
news, but I didn’t have much time to grieve. I was pulled off a tour I was on at the time
and sent to perform with what remained of the Holly troupe that included Dion and the
Belmonts and what was left of the Crickets.
MYB: That had to be difficult—not only to deal with the deaths of legendary performers,
but literally having to step into their shoes…
JC: To say the least—we were all pretty broken up over it. Most of the audiences on
the remainder of the tour had purchased tickets to see Buddy, Richie, the Big Bopper
and Dion. They came to the concerts, as much as anything, out of curiosity, to see how
the rest of us would handle things. I played Buddy’s guitar and did several songs in
memory of him. We just all survived, somehow. I don’t even know how guys like Waylon
Jennings and Charles ("Carl") Bunch (Buddy’s bassist and drummer) kept going.
MYB: It had to be surreal, traveling on the same bus that Holly, Valens and Richardson
had been sitting in.
JC: Surreal is the word. Their clothes and instruments
were still on racks in the back of the bus. It was unreal.
And here we were, just a group of young guys trying to
deal with all these emotions and stardom—all at the
same time. It’s a wonder any of us survived those days.
MYB: You kept going, though, and by the end of 1959
had become a headliner with another chart hit, “My Own
True Love,” with your photos plastered on all the teen
idol magazines. Then came the lead role of Johnny
Melody in Go Johnny Go, a blockbuster United Artists
movie. What was that like?
JC: It was amazing. Chuck Berry was in the movie.
MYB: “Go Jimmy Go” was the next record hit that sold a
million and a half copies, then another United Artists’
flick, Teenage Millionaire. Did you sometimes pinch
yourself and wonder if it was real?
A CALL FROM UNCLE SAM
JC: The next year was awesome with more tours with name stars and more hits,
including “Another Sleepless Night,” “Come Back” and “What Am I Gonna Do?” Uncle
Sam, though, brought me back to reality, and I was drafted into the Army.
MYB: You served two years, but it had to feel as if your career was over, didn’t it?
JC: I really did figure it was the end. Strangely enough, a song that was released while
I was in the service, “Venus in Blue Jeans,” became one of my biggest hits, with over a
million and a half copies of the record sold.
MYB: When you were discharged from the Army in 1962, you had to wonder what you
could do to get the career going again…
JC: I remember being booked on a Dick Clark package tour. The opening date was in
New Jersey. There were 10,000 screaming teenagers in the audience. Six acts were
ahead of me, and by the time I was supposed to go on stage, I was literally sick. I
honestly didn’t think any of the fans would even remember who I was.
MYB: What happened?
JC: I finally heard my name announced, and as I walked out on stage, the kids began
screaming and singing, “Go Jimmy Go!” There were “Welcome Back” banners in the
audience. I almost lost it. What a night!
MYB: It would have been a perfect comeback, except on the other side of the Atlantic
was a growing phenomenon called “Beatlemania.” How did that change things?
JC: It changed everything. I had another hit during 1963, “Darkest Street in Town,” but
rock `n roll was moving on, and another generation of artists were coming to the front.
“Good ole boy” acts like me were quickly swept away and replaced by the English wave.
It’s the nature of the biz. Things are always changing.
MYB: You were also going through some changes in your life, too…
JC: I got married to Roxanne in 1962. Between 1962 and 1969, I kept busy with our
growing family of three girls, and I was still traveling all over, including a Hawaii tour with
the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. In 1969 I had another chart hit, “Curly.”
MYB: The end of the Sixties also brought about a resurgent interest in rock ` roll, as a
new generation rediscovered the “oldies but goodies” through the movie American
Grafitti and TV’s “Happy Days.” How was your career affected?
JC: It was good. Dick Clark and Richard Nader put together some tours, and I was
suddenly appearing in major auditoriums, including Madison Square Garden, on the
same bill with old friends. That led to a number of bookings on most of the major
television shows—“The Merv Griffin Show,” Wolfman Jack’s “Midnight Special,” and
“Dick Clark’s 23rd Anniversary of Rock `n Roll.”
MYB: How did you go from that to a Las Vegas-type act?
JC: During the early- and mid-1970s, more and more opportunities came to do the
big glitzy shows in hotels and resorts, the time seemed right.
MYB: Our research reveals some wonderful reviews at the time. The Hollywood
Reporter called you “truly a star in any era.” Italy’s D’Informanzione raved that you were
an “extraordinary artist…completely amazing…magnificent by comparison with…the
younger singers today.” Variety gushed, “This ageless entertainer sings as if he were a
universe of music…he demonstrates wonderful insight, intensity, a sweeping command
of his audience, and extraordinary communication—all to an overwhelming degree.”
JC: It was fun doing those shows. It was also strange, at times. One time I was fired from
a really big job because the club owner didn’t like it that one of my band members was
African-American. During the time off from that gig, I happened to be home and watched
a Christian television program. It was a real miracle, because where we lived at the time
in Pennsylvania, our home was in a valley, and there was no cable or anything. We didn’
t have a satellite dish or anything. Television with the “rabbit ears” was spotty, at best.
Anyway, the person on the TV really spoke to me. My wife Roxanne and my girls had
been praying for me for some time, and their prayers were definitely answered. Before
the television program was over, I prayed to accept Jesus Christ into my life. It was the
beginning of so many new directions.
A NEW LIFE
MBY: How did your life change?
JC: I continued doing shows. I still do some. As long as performing is as much fun as it
still is, and as long as people want me to sing and play, I'll keep doing it. But mostly my
lifestyle began changing. I looked around and saw so many of my rock `n roll friends
getting sick and dying, and it was a wake-up call.
JC: That was a wake-up call to everyone, wasn't it? Not only was it sad because he was
a very special friend who encouraged me a lot, especially during the early years, but
because it reminded all of us that we were human and definitely not immortal.
MBY: How did this new direction in your spiritual life affect the other areas?
JC: I went through a lot of changes. Roxanne had been making so many positive
changes in her life. The actor Bob Cummings was very influential to us eating and living
healthier. Spiritually, we became part of Pastor John Osteen's Lakewood Church in
Houston (now pastored by his son Joel). He and Dodie really took Roxanne and I under
their wing and mentored us from knowing very little about the Bible, to walking in more
and more faith. I kept thinking I should preach or teach in a more traditional sense, but
he encouraged me to shine where God placed me.
MBY: Tell us about the very special word John Osteen gave you.
JC: It is very special. We were in a service, John 28, 1981, and he told me to stand, that
God had a word for me. Every word spoke directly to my soul, and it was so powerful
that I had to go back and get a recording of the service to fathom it all. Mainly he said
that I wasn't being called to preach, but that I was a minister, and that God would give
me gifts that would bless people abundantly wherever I went.
MBY: How does that fit in with what has happened to you health-wise?
JC: The rock `n roll success has always been a door-opener, but there is obviously
more that I have been given to do. I went through a lot during all the changes. I went
from a very destructive lifestyle that included alcohol abuse, very wide mood swings,
tobacco abuse, and just about everything bad that a person could do to himself.
Thankfully God and my family were very patient. It took a lot of time to get cleaned up,
and I'm still a pilgrim on the path, so to speak, but God has sure done a lot for me.
This is what the audience came to see. Sixty-year-
old men and women—teenagers once again, if
only for a few moments—sing along with the words
that are indelibly imprinted in their memories.
The song ends. More applause! Suddenly the
tempo changes. The crowd is transfixed back to
an era of bobby sox and duck-tail haircuts.
“She’s Venus in blue jeans, Mona Lisa in a
People see him smiling and singing. What they
don't know is that is story is an unusual as it is
legendary. What the audiences don't always know
is his upbeat faith and the lifestyle.
|Click here to
"Now that God Is
on My Side"
and Bobby Darin
...More Than The Applause
The spotlight moves slightly, cascading an amber sheen on the silhouetted singer. For an
instant, a breathless hush falls over the crowd. Momentarily, time is suspended.
Then the gentle downbeat of the orchestra begins. The slow syncopation wells.
“Just a dream…just a dream…”