|Track||Album / Single|
|You Need To Fall In Love||Galliant 1001|
|If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody||James Ray / Caprice CAP-110|
|It's Been A Drag||James Ray / Caprice CAP-110|
|Itty Bitty Pieces||James Ray / Caprice 114|
|You Remember The Face||Caprice 114|
|A Miracle||James Ray / Caprice 117|
|I've Got My Mind Set On You||James Ray / Dynamic Sound 503|
|One By One||Congress CG-203|
|We Got A Thing Goin' On||Congress CG-218|
|Teach Me Tonight||James Ray|
JAMES RAY: ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #2
Contributor: Dave Stephens
Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared. One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.
Chances are, if you were around in the early sixties and are reading this, you’ll have heard this song. Maybe not by this artist though. Manchester’s answer to the Fab Four, Freddie and the Dreamers, covered the number on their debut single in May 1963, and the UK public rewarded them with a #3 chart position. The Beatles themselves had already been featuring the song in their live act and Lennon included the original record in his famous “John Lennon Jukebox”.
If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody sung by James Ray (with the Hutch Davie Orch. according to the original label) released by Caprice in October 1961, and then by Pye International in the UK in February 1962. The US record hit made #10 in their R&B Chart and then crossed over and reached #22 in the Pop Chart. It was clobbered in the UK by diminutive dancing Fred.
Basic but intelligent lyrics which were more suited to a blues than a near upbeat pop number, highly unusual (in pop or R&B) usage of 3/4 time, imaginative arrangement with harmonica to the fore over tuba and brass section, plus the smooth Mr Ray emoting above it all. The kind of record that gets labelled bitter sweet.
The song was written by a gent called Rudy Clark and over the years it’s attracted covers from Timi Yuro, Vanilla Fudge, Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Maxine Brown and more. The last two in particular stripped it back to an agonised soul anthem. Both are well worth digging out.
THE ALL TOO BRIEF STORY OF JAMES RAY
He was born James Ray Raymond in Washington D.C. in 1941 and died circa 1964 but date not confirmed. He signed with NYC record label Galliant and released one single, Make Her Mine c/w You Need To Fall In Love. It was issued under the name Little Jimmy Ray. The “Little” was due to James’ height or lack of – he was only five feet in his socks.
Both sides of the single are of interest. The A-side, penned by Richie Barrett, another one hit wonder, is a slow but urgent blues ballad – doo wop on the cusp of turning into soul music was my first reaction. Ray sounds assured and his technique of repeating a phrase at the end of the line adds emphasis.
The flip is even better. Essentially a medium tempo twelve bar blues, the producer and/or arranger had evidently heard Little Willie John’s Fever but that doesn’t do it any harm – in a comparison of vocal strengths with the other little master Jimmy doesn’t come off second best. A glance at the composer credit, “Raymond Ray”, tells us that he wrote the song too.
Which didn’t sound a bad start at all but unfortunately that was it at Galliant. History doesn’t inform us whether James/Jimmy was let go or not but from the fact that Galliant only released five more discs before they shut up shop, it looks highly likely that they went bankrupt.
James is next spotted near destitute living on the roof top of a New York apartment building while still performing the occasional club gig. He was befriended by Rudy Clark who was hoping to break into the music business as a song writer. Rudy’s day job was mail carrier, which I assume is American for postman. He regularly delivered demos to Gerry Granahan at Caprice Records and used the opportunity to plug his own songs. Granahan wasn’t struck with Rudy’s voice but liked the songs. The obvious then happened. Granahan loved James’ voice, to the extent, we are told, that he bought him a new set of clothes. A recording session was set up and If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody plus a song to go on the flip, were the first tracks recorded.
The single started gaining traction in both the R&B and the US Pop Chart. It was encouraging enough for the team to go back into the studio and record more than enough tracks for an album which was subsequently released, titled simply, James Ray. Tracks from the album plus others were subsequently released as singles and EPs.
And that’s almost where the story ends. Wiki reports “Ray died from a drug overdose soon after his chart success, possibly as early as 1962, though other sources suggest around 1963, 1964 or later in the decade”, and I’ve not managed to dig out any other information.
AND THE MUSIC?
One of the reviewers of the re-released and imported James Ray album (now sub-titled If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody, surprise, surprise) on Amazon UK, compares James vocally to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, which were also my initial thoughts, but continued listening also brought Little Willie John to mind. Let’s stick with Ray and Sam though. It’s a fair comparison though James lacked some of Mr Charles’ idiosyncrasies and the extremes of sweetness that we sometimes heard from Sam Cooke. Like both these gentlemen, Cooke in particular, he recorded a not insignificant amount of lounge material, and/or brought such phrasing into other material. Bear in mind that this was still the very early sixties and that Caprice was a tiny white record label, not a big one like Atlantic which had been targetting the R&B sector since the early fifties, and had built up experience and understanding of the black market.
Before moving on to the music itself, I should comment that James seems to have had minimal attention from later generation compilers. All we have are the reissued James Ray album and a few tracks that found their way on to a label compilation (Pye International). Thus I’m strongly reliant on individuals who’ve uploaded tracks to YouTube which implies pretty low fi in most cases, and, in some, no representation of a track at all.
Let’s take the Rudy Clark penned songs first. I’ve Got My Mind Set On You may well be familiar to readers via the George Harrison version. It was the fourth single from James, coming out in December ’62. The Ray recording sounds ‘of its time’. The producer would seem to have been bending an ear to releases from elsewhere; there’s something of a Bert Berns feel about the arrangement, with an unusual stringed instrument – a banjo? – appearing about ¾ in. And there’s also a late entrance from a high pitched chorus who might have been doubling for the Raelettes. For me, a warmer and more interesting arrangement than George’s, topped off by that great voice. Here are both:
The femme chorus and the mouth harp guy appear on the single Itty Bitty Pieces which is essentially little more than medium tempo blues with some splendid icing for topping. That icing includes a neat orchestral and harmonica phrase on the turnaround. The song received the compliment of covers from Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, the Rockin’ Berries and others.
Moving on to flips, It’s Been A Drag is proto-soul mingled with hints of lounge. Evocative of things like Ray Charles’ Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’ but perhaps not quite in the league of that effort:
You Remember The Face has an attractive melody line and, with a different arrangement, could easily have been seen as early sixties mid tempo soul:
There’s another Rudy Clark flip but the fi is so low on the upload that I’m not including.
Moving on to the supper club stuff, none of it is as bad as that descriptor might imply. Indeed several were jostling for selection. I’ve gone for the slow ballad Teach Me Tonight which actually underplays the explicit lounge tropes in favour of a piano and restrained background strings leaving the attention very much on the superb Ray vocal. The slightly later Dinah Washington version throws in more swingtime references but that great voice carries all before it.
Other standards include Lazy Bones, St James Infirmary and Come Rain Or Come Shine. All have merit and I’m including the clip of the last named as an example;
Two James Ray ‘standards’ that I couldn’t find anywhere were The Masquerade Is Over (which has been favoured by several soul singers) and Irving Berlin’s Always which was actually the A-side to James’ I’ve Got My Mind Set On You.
My last grouping of James Ray tracks I’ll call, merely, “others”. It does include two medium to up tempo soul dance numbers, both of which would seem to have found favour with the Northern Soul crowd. The tracks are One By One and We Got A Thing Goin’ On, released in December ’63 and July ’64 respectively. Both are excellent examples of the genre and unlike anything that had come before from James. Their presence leads me to wonder if these were recorded not long before their release which would move the date of James’ death into ’64.
My final James Ray selection is the sort of song we heard a lot of in the sixties and seventies – more pop than soul, and not the sort of thing I usually like. However in this instance I’m totally won over by the Ray vocal. And give credit where it’s due, the arrangement is good too. The number is A Miracle and it was the A-side of the third Ray single.
When I embarked on this Toppermost the relatively small number of extant tracks from James suggested I’d be ending up with something less than a top ten. How wrong I was. The quality of his work plus the consistency of the Caprice production team gave me the opposite problem – what to leave out?
There’s a world out there that deserves to hear more of the James Ray voice. So, come on Ace Records or whoever. Give us a proper compilation of the man’s oeuvre including all those singles. Who knows, maybe there are more still in the can.
1. The Caprice label was founded by Gerry Granahan in 1960. Granahan had had a minor hit himself with No Chemise Please in 1958. The man was either astute or lucky enough to have a hit with a couple of his early records, Triangle from Janie Grant, and Til from the Angels.
2. If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody marked the first success for songwriter Rudy Clark. Clark would later go on and write a host of songs including It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song), and Good Lovin’ first recorded by the Olympics, then the Young Rascals.
3. The arrangement on If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody was reportedly a joint affair between Gerry Granahan and Hutch Davie. The last named had already achieved a (very) minor claim to fame as pianist on Jim Lowe’s 1956 hit “Green Door”. (Source: Black Cat Rockabilly Europe)
4. In my book “RocknRoll” I do ponder whether the inclusion of harmonica on If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody was a result of it being present, played by Delbert McClinton, on Bruce Channel’s hit, Hey Baby. Release dates look similar so one can’t draw anything conclusive from that, however Channel and McClinton had been appearing together for years before the release of their single and Bruce had reportedly written the song in 1959. So, all one can say is that it’s unlikely the influence went the other way.
The mouth harp duty on Fool plus other James Ray tracks fell to one Buddy Lucas, a highly experienced session musician and artist in his own right, who played tenor sax as well as harmonica, in addition to skills in both singing and song writing – more info here. It was Buddy who provided that scorching sax solo on Dion’s The Wanderer.
5. I have included more clips than usual because I’m only too well aware that Our Esteemed Editor is going to find very little on Spotify.
6. It’s worth noting that I’ve embarked on these One Hit Wonder toppermosts usually knowing little more than said hit from the artist concerned. Consequently these exercises are likely to be as much discoveries for me as for the reader.
7. I am extremely grateful to Toppermost writer Cal Taylor for unearthing another piece of James Ray miscellanea. There’s no mention of a song called On That Day, which was the flipside of We Got A Thing Goin’ On, in my main article. That’s because it’s not on YouTube, or Spotify, or the album I make reference to, or to sum things up, because I hadn’t heard it. There was a James Ray album released in 1983, entitled Itty Bitty Pieces which contained the same songs as the known album plus a tiny handful more. On That Day is one of those extra tracks. The redoubtable Cliff White wrote the sleeve notes and this is what he said about that track:
“ … but the real gem has got to be ‘On That Day’, a superb wailer (as we old soul fans are apt to say) in the mode of ‘I Found A Love’ and ‘If You Need Me’. With the right promotion by the right record company, ‘On That Day’ could have easily been a big enough soul hit to revitalise Ray’s career. As it is, though, aside from Congress catalogue numbers listed by MCA Records (the present owners of all these recordings) I have no evidence that ‘On That Day’ and some other 1963/4 tracks were ever issued, let alone promoted.”
So it would appear that I’ve missed an absolute treat. I did discover a copy of the single selling for £150 but that was some way beyond the Stephens budget. If anyone out there has it can I request he or she to upload to YouTube.
Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on One Hit Wonders in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.