With his pianos, then keyboard, Johnny Clem kept the instrument prominent in Detroit country-western and rock’n’roll bands during the 1950s through the dawn of the 21st century.
Johnny Clem and them
After a lifetime of playing music in Detroit, Johnny Clem’s recollections form a winding trail through Detroit nightclubs, bars and lounges whose past existence is now only evidenced by photos and stories, such as the time he worked with bandleader Danny Richards at a barn dance staged in the legendary Graystone Ballroom during the 1950s, or when he recorded for Joe Von Battle in the back of Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street.
From Alabama to Detroit
Tiny Elkmont, Alabama, near the southern border of Tennessee, sits almost the same distance from Nashville to the north, and Birmingham to the south. The Delmore Brothers, renowned for making hillbilly blues and boogie woogie popular during the 1930s, were born there, as was Johnny Clem on September 7, 1929, the year that the Delmores started their act. A few years later, during the Great Depression, Clem’s father took a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and moved the family to east Tennessee.
Clem’s friendly personality and ability to learn multiple musical instruments led him to sit in with many groups at a moment’s notice. In 1946, Clem picked electric guitar for the Golden West Cowgirls (Gladys and Ann) during early morning radio broadcasts at WROL Knoxville. He joined the U.S. Navy the following year, and after completing two years of service, moved to Detroit to work in Chrysler’s facilities on the east side of town. (Clem remained active in the navy for another six years.)
While living in a dense area of the city populated by thousands of people who had arrived from the South for work, Clem found loads of opportunities to play music in local bars. Jeff Durham, a guitarist, singer, and comedian, led a band at a nightclub on Jefferson Avenue and St. Jean, where Clem played his first Detroit gig, strumming a Hawaiian steel guitar in the group. “Jeff would do comedy, and put makeup on his face,” remembered Clem. “Then he shined a black light on himself, to make his face glow.”  Durham also had a reputation for finger style (or Travis) picking, as he had grown up in Muhlenburg, Kentucky, and had been acquainted with guitarists Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. (Watch for an upcoming story about Jeff Durham and his brother Bob.)
An eager participant in country-western jamborees held at bars such as Ted’s Ten-Hi [you can see him in the group photo at the front of the chapter on Eddie Jackson in the “Detroit Country Music” book], Clem also taught himself how to play piano. “I never learned to read music, but I still got pretty good,” he said. “[Piano] became my main instrument for many years.”
According to Clem, his early gigs in Detroit included:
ca. 1950 — Al Dorman’s Bar, with Pioneer Playboys: Johnny, Chuck, Bill, and George Upton (14800 Mack, near Alter)
1950 — Caravan Gardens, with Eddie Jackson (Woodrow Wilson and Davison)
1951 — Torch Bar, with trio (East Jefferson Avenue, across from Hudson Motor Car facilities)
1951 — [Unknown club], with Waldo Walker (East Jefferson Avenue and Kitchener)
1952-53 — Torch Bar, with Swannee Caldwell (bass) and Red Peterson (guitar) 
A tattle on Von Battle
In 1953, Clem worked briefly with African American record shop owner Joe Von Battle. In the back of Joe’s Record Shop at 3530 Hastings, Von Battle built a recording studio. Clem said he often visited a restaurant across the street from the shop, and he got to know Von Battle by running into him there. “After our gigs, after the clubs closed, the boys and I’d go to the Checker Bar-B-Q near Hastings Street,” said Clem. “I don’t remember how we met, but [Von Battle] wanted me to cut a country version of a song called, ‘Another Soldier Gone.’ Eventually, we visited the studio he had in the back of his shop and cut it. I sang and played piano on it. I don’t think it was released, but Joe gave me a dub of it on a record.”
From around 1948, Von Battle had been recording local blues, jazz, and gospel performers. He had just cut “Another Soldier Gone” by a vocal group called the Violinaires, issued on the Drummond label of Detroit, and he wanted to explore the idea of making a “crossover” record of it with Clem. At the time, record companies often directed their pop and country-western artists to remake popular rhythm and blues songs, and vice versa. While the artists and instrumental style of these records differed, the songs themselves often appeared on multiple charts.
Clem’s version of “Another Soldier Gone” wasn’t released commercially. But the memory of this small episode in Clem’s career provides us with one of the earliest accounts of black and white musicians collaborating in Detroit.
Astronaut of Detroit rock
When it came to music, Clem approached it with an open heart and mind, and his reputation kept him working. More bookings included the following with local bandleaders:
Not surprisingly, Clem was an early adopter of rock’n’roll, which was popular in the city from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. One of his first rocking gigs was at the Shamrock Bar on Third Street and Selden, a rough area in 1957-59, but each musician (Sonny Croft – drums, vocals; Leon Chessire – lead guitar) earned $20 a night, which amounted to big bucks in those days.
After Casey Clark ceased production of the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in the union hall at 12101 Mack Avenue in 1957, Clem, vocalist Randy Sea and six other musicians worked dances there on weekends.
Clem’s next move was to play piano with vocalist Carl Parker. They had a steady gig at the Scenic Inn (Fort and Miami) with a man named Ted on saxophone around 1960, reportedly earning $300 per week. Then he joined Randy Sea, with Norm Sands on drums, and Leon Chessire on guitar at the Rose Bar (Vernor and Morell). Clem’s own band, Johnny and the Astronauts, worked Joe’s Bar at Jefferson and Chene, from around 1960-64, and for a while included guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Johnson, who later worked in Nashville with the Louvin Brothers, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Dickens and others, and spent four years on the “Grand Ole Opry” (Johnson died in 2014).
Clem also worked at Joe’s Bar with guitarist Bill Merritt, who played in town for many years. From there, Clem gigged at Ted’s 10-Hi on Jefferson and Fairview with Deano DelRay, and then to the O’Mack Bar (Mack and St. Jean) with Waldo Walker and Whitey Franklin. From about 1964-68, Clem worked the 509 Club downtown with Franklin and his brother Jimmy.
With Clem on piano, Carl Parker cut some recordings for which they didn’t find a commercial outlet. The recording presented with this story was made during a gig by guitarist Al Allen and the Sounds at Jerry’s Show Bar in 1960, and features Parker, with Clem on piano, sitting in with the band.
Some country recordings were put on tape with Jay Preston for the Clix label, based in Troy, Michigan, which seem to be lost, as well as a session at Fortune Records in Detroit. Although Johnny Clem didn’t release records of his own, he made a contribution to the Detroit scene, like many others who shared space on local bandstands (for another example, see Happy Moore’s story). Through the decades, Clem worked with vocalist Danny Richards at the Red Robin on Jefferson Avenue and at the Hazel Park Eagles with Richards and guitarist Chuck Oakes. In 1978 Clem had a steady gig at Rose Lounge on West Vernor with bandleader Jimmy Kelley (Luke Kelley’s son). He played at the Clinton Gables Hotel on the Clinton River near downtown Mount Clemens, with Tony Gee and the Continentals during the 1970s, as well as Castaways near 23 Mile and VanDyke with Jay Preston and guitarist Dave Morgan.
During the 1990s, Clem moved just north of Palm Beach, Florida, and entertained crowds of retirees “as much as I could stand it,” he said with a chuckle. As of this writing, Clem is back in Michigan to be near family, and retired from entertaining.
Update: Johnny Clem passed away June 3, 2018.
- John Clem interviewed by Craig Maki in January 2016.
- Many nightclub owners booked extended contracts with bands for weeks of steady entertainment.