Folks, there really is a music man and his name is Clay Howell!
Every once in a while, someone comes along that can truly be called a showman, blessed with an abundance of talent, superior charm, quick wit, and a strong desire to entertain and keep people smiling. From his humble beginnings in rural Nowata, Oklahoma, to many great stages and performance halls around the country, the Oklahoma country boy has lived his dream of making music and sharing his talent with others.
Like so many other southern musicians and entertainers, Howell’s first public performance at age two, was inside of a church. The family belonged to the Church of God, a Nazarene affiliation in the town of Nowata. It was there that he stepped onto stacked songbooks and sang “The Lord Knows the Way through the Wilderness.”
Even today, with his twinkling eyes and a smile resembling that of Will Rogers, another famous Oklahoman, Howell fondly remembers that old church and his performance.
“I loved it. I stood there on those hymnals and sang for the people, and I knew then I wanted to do it more,” he said.
In the Howell home, there was always music around, although it would be a few years before the family could afford a radio or television. His mother, a writer, took care of the family and was proud of her children. A sister played the accordion, younger brother Tim played the bass guitar and drums and dabbled in DJ work, while his father played the harmonica.
At age four, the young Howell started piano lessons with a degreed teacher, Mrs. Turner. “I started at four, but it really didn’t click until about age nine,” he said.
It was while performing in school and churches that Howell had his “epiphany.” “
“A little voice told me, you’re good. Do this!” he said.
At home he listened to old country and western music, a staple in rural Oklahoma where singers like the Blue Yodeler Jimmy Rogers and other “old-timers” were still on the radio. During his high school years, while still participating in sports that he loved, music began to be his calling card. Playing accompaniment for the school choirs and soloists, Howell began to get a reputation as an accomplished pianist and songwriter. At home he was listening to a lot of 60’s music and later while in college, listening to favorite groups like Yes and Electric Light Orchestra.
Toward the end of college as he prepared to be a math and science teacher, Howell was playing for Miss Texas and Miss Oklahoma pageants and rapidly gaining recognition in the music industry. Along the way the talented vocalist/pianist was writing songs and pitching them to various performers and friends in the industry. Playing with Johnny Fisher, piano player for the great Ella Fitzgerald, Howell learned from the master, “Sing pretty and make it real!” Making it real for Howell meant “busting loose and letting it rip.”
Finding his way to Houston in the early 1980s, Howell immediately began to make a name for himself and amass a huge following. Teaching, performing, writing, and recording music became his life. Very busy early on, he teamed with the likes of the great Marsha Carlton, a well-known entertainer in Houston area, and performed on stages around the country. Clay and Carlton became a hit sensation in and around Houston, performing from small clubs to grand venues. They were everywhere.
Howell was in high demand, from performing in the clubs in and around Houston, to being booked for private parties at the palatial homes of socialites Lynn Wyatt and Carolyn Farb. Everyone loved Clay Howell and wanted him at their soiree! He played Baja Sam’s, Rascals, J.R.’s, Heaven, and various straight clubs as well. Often accompanied by friends Juliana Wathen, Carlton, and sometimes the quick-witted Nancy Ford, Howell was the going thing!
When his schedule allowed, gigs included recording and performing in Indianapolis, Seattle, St. Louis, and various studios around the country. Writing songs, arranging string movements, and accompanying other artists in the studios and stage was certainly paying off and taking Howell far from his humble beginnings in Oklahoma.
He also sang with Alexandra Haas who, in Howell’s book, “could shame Bette Midler!”
“Oh my God, she was fantastic. Such quick wit and funny,” Howell said. “She knew how to work a crowd, gay or straight.”
In the gospel realm, Howell had already made a name for himself performing and writing music. He played concerts with Joyce Lampkin, who in the past had opened for the great Mahalia Jackson and with Louisa Smith. He was there with the Gaither Family at Gospel concerts as well as other groups, some already playing his musical compilations.
Over at the legendary, now-closed Houston cabaret Missouri Street Station, Howell was a huge hit and was asked to perform at Freedom Fest as well as other fund-raising projects. Always eager to give back to the community and pitching in where he could, Howell was a welcomed figure on any stage. Continuing to write music, he teamed with gospel singer Keith Caldwell and together they made a successful team, having three number one songs on the Independent Country Gospel chart, as well as number ones on the Christian Voice Magazine chart.
Since retiring from teaching, Howell has continued to perform, write music, create arrangements, and remain very active in the music world. These days, when not home working on projects, he performs at Michael’s Outpost every other Saturday night from 9:30 pm to 1:30 am. By popular demand, Howell now performs in Galveston at the popular 23rd Street Station Piano Bar. A huge contingent of Houston folks loves to visit the Galveston venue and see “their” Clay perform. (Friday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday, 9 p.m. to 12 p.m. Dates vary.)
Regardless of where you catch a performance, Clay Howell is a must-see. Following in the pattern of Nan Mason and her magical performances in Chicago and Rascals club in Houston, Howell sings his satirical renditions of popular songs, bringing the house to resounding laughter and huge applause.
An evening with Clay Howell promises all the things that real entertainment should include, so don’t miss him!