In this story from March 1977, the beloved musician and actor shares how he came to understand where his talents came from.
People are always saying how important it is to believe in yourself if you’re going to get anywhere or accomplish anything. And maybe they’re right. But I’ve learned one more thing: Before you can really believe in yourself, you have to believe in Something much bigger than yourself.
I found that out one terrifying but wonderful night in a town in Arkansas named Conway. My life hasn’t been the same since.
To get the story straight, I have to go back about 16 years to the time when my wife Barbara and I were living in Maryland. I was playing small local clubs there, struggling along, yet refusing to give up on a boyhood dream to make it as a singer.
Ever since I was 16 and won a national banjo-playing contest, which included a trip to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, being a successful country-music performer was my one goal. But in 1960, at nearly 30 years of age, it really began to bother me that nobody had the foggiest idea who Roy Clark was.
One Sunday during this time Barbara and I visited a nearby church. We felt very much at home there, so much so that we filled out a card expressing interest in joining. We’d both been brought up in churches. Now that we’d been married a couple of years, we wanted to get back to hearing God’s word.
A few days after our church visit, a minister came to our home and talked with Barbara. I was out at the time.
“And what does your husband do?” the preacher asked.
“Roy sings,” Barbara said.
“Where does he sing?” he asked.
“Wherever he can,” Barbara told him. “Sometimes on radio programs. Sometimes in supper clubs.”
A long silence followed. “Well,” the preacher said finally, “that’s just not right, you know. I’m afraid your husband will have to change jobs if you plan on joining our church.”
Barbara was speechless. Nothing more was said, and finally the minister left.
When I got home later, I found Barbara really torn up. She was crying and all confused.
I put my arms around her and smoothed her hair. “I don’t understand either, honey.” I said angrily.
God had always been a part of my life, starting back when my father held me on his knee and read me Bible stories. But if this was what religion required... I’ll forget about the church and everything connected with it, I thought. I’ve got everything I need to make it on my own.
That scene provided the final push needed to drive Barbara and me from the East Coast. I was sure a change of place would bring me closer to my dream.
But out West, more disappointment awaited. In Las Vegas, where we stayed for several months, nobody seemed to notice that I was even alive. I played some small clubs, as I had back East, but I was always turned down for bigger things.
Los Angeles would be better, I thought. I was now thinking of recording, maybe even doing some television work.
A friend and his wife invited us to move in with them in their L.A. apartment. But even that turned sour. The landlady, who had rented the apartment to two people, didn’t cotton to the idea of twice that number staying there.
And my late hours, spent unsuccessfully trying to get record-industry people to listen to me, didn’t suit her either. One morning she spotted me coming home as the milkman was making his rounds. Soon after that she served notice; Barbara and I were to be out the following day.
By this time we barely had a nickel to our name. Fortunately Barbara’s mother came through and wired us some money. Just enough, we decided, to make it back to Maryland.
After piling all our belongings into a battered old Chevy, we went to a grocery store around the corner to do some last-minute shopping for the trip. Just as I reached into my pocket to pay for our supplies, Barbara slumped to the floor in front of the cash register.
I bent over her, terribly alarmed. “What’s the matter, honey?” I asked.
“I’ve got this pain,” Barbara said, holding her side. “The pain’s been coming and going the last few days,” she said.
We went quickly to a neighborhood clinic. The doctor there said it definitely was not appendicitis. He wanted to see Barbara again in the morning. In the meantime, he gave her a bottle of pills for the pain.
Later, Barbara insisted we keep to our schedule and take off immediately for the East. Pretty discouraged about everything by now, I didn’t put up too big an argument. “But what about the doctor?” I said. “He wants to see you again.”
“I’m fine,” Barbara assured me, swallowing a pain pill. “Really, I am.”
So, climbing into the Chevy, we began our 3000-mile trip back home. The more we drove, the more depressed I became. It was quite plain no one wanted me.
Brooding as the miles went by, I told myself that I just wasn’t cut out to be a singer. Once home, I would give up my dream and look for something else to do. For the first time in my life, I had completely lost faith in myself.
Since our funds were so low, we couldn’t afford to stop anywhere. Late one night, after driving across Texas and part of Arkansas, I suddenly jerked my head up. Dog-tired, I had nearly fallen asleep. I knew I couldn’t go another mile without some rest.
“Barbara,” I said, “do you think you can take the wheel for a spell?” I looked over at her. I’d been so wrapped up in thoughts of my dead-end career that I hadn’t taken much notice of Barbara during the trip.
Glancing down, I saw the bottle of pain pills lying on the seat beside her, nearly empty. But still Barbara refused to say anything was the matter.
“I’ll try to drive,” she said finally.
As soon as we swapped seats, I was out like a light. Ten minutes later, however, Barbara nudged me awake. It was nearly two a.m.
“I can’t go on,” she cried out in agony. “Something’s terribly wrong!”
Leaping out of the car, I ran around to the driver’s side. I floored the old Chevy and searched for a light–any light–along the deserted highway. Would anything be open at this hour? I had no idea. My heart raced wildly; I didn’t even know where we were.
Finally I spotted an all-night gas station and there was directed to the nearest hospital, 20 miles away in Conway, Arkansas. Incredibly, when we arrived at the hospital, a surgeon was still on duty. Dr. Fred Gordy was his name.
After examining Barbara, he told me that she was bleeding internally. “It looks very serious,” he said. “I’ll need your permission to operate.”
I stared at Doctor Gordy. Middle-aged, he had kind, compassionate eyes and an unmistakable air of competence.
“Whatever you say, Doc,” I said.
Everything was happening so fast it all seemed like a nightmare. I went to an empty waiting room and slumped down in a chair, exhausted, confused and terribly frightened. Here I was in a strange town, far from home. I had hardly any money, didn’t know anyone, couldn’t call anyone.
The person I loved more than anyone in the world was desperately ill, maybe dying. Never in all my days had I felt so alone, so afraid, so helpless. So crazily did my mind begin to spin that before I knew it I found myself praying.
“Lord,” I said, “being a successful entertainer doesn’t seem so important to me now. I love Barbara ... she means more to me than anything. She’s all I really care about. Please help her.”
The prayer sounded so peculiar coming from me, the big, thick-headed, obstinate guy who thought he had left God back there in Maryland.
Then a strange thing happened in that little Arkansas hospital’s waiting room. On the heels of my desperate prayer, a surge of warmth flooded my body, a feeling I’d never experienced before. It was like warm hands on cold flesh.
No longer did I feel alone in the room. Someone was there with me–a caring Presence.
Then came a Voice, a comforting Voice, and to this day I swear it was God’s. “Barbara’s going to be all right,” the Voice said. “Just wait and see. Trust ... believe...”
And with that I knew she was going to be okay.
Just as the sun came peeping through the waiting room window, Doctor Gordy came back from the operating room.
“Mr. Clark,” he said, “your wife had a tubular pregnancy. We almost lost her in there. I don’t know how she made it, but she did.”
Tears tumbled down my face, tears of relief and gratitude.
Looking at Doctor Gordy, I saw that he appeared almost as tired as I felt. I wanted to hug the guy.
“Thanks, Doc,” I said, pumping his hand. “Thanks a lot.”
A nurse found me a motel room where I slept till noon. Barbara remained in intensive care for a couple more days, but the worst was over. Soon she was transferred to another room with, of all people, a preacher’s wife.
Because of what had happened in Maryland, Barbara was a little doubtful about this. But I’d experienced so many fantastic things in the past few days that to me it seemed just another one of God’s wonderful workings.
And I was right. When the woman’s husband visited, and met us, we all got to talking about what the Maryland preacher had told Barbara. The Arkansas man said that he wouldn’t say anything against another minister.
However, he did tell us something that was the freshest breath of air I’d felt in a long time. “It’s God’s church, not any one person’s,” he said. “Only He can say what is right and what is wrong.”
When he said that, Barbara looked over at me, smiled and squeezed my hand.
Later, on the road once again, heading for Maryland with a beautiful, healthy, Barbara beside me, I thought about those words–what is right and what is wrong.
Doing right, I realized now, was following God and really listening to Him–not to one’s own blind ambition. That was the way to make it as a singer or as anything else–to put Him first.
I had turned my back on God temporarily, but God had never turned His back on me. Not in Maryland, not in Vegas, not in L.A., not in that hospital waiting room. It had taken a life-and-death situation to show me how very real and how very caring He is.
But that happens sometimes. It’s when we’re down at our lowest, I’ve found, that He makes Himself so known.
Through the years I’ve come to understand that whatever talent I have–to sing, to entertain–is God-given. I have faith in myself as a performer, sure. But only because I have faith in Someone Whose performance is always far greater than the human mind can even begin to comprehend–God Himself.
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