Ray Smith

TrackSingle / Album
So YoungSun 298
Right Behind You BabySun 298
You Made A HitSun 308
Sail AwaySun 319
Break-UpRockabilly Classics (1958-1961)
I'll TryRockabilly Classics (1958-1961)
Willing And ReadyRockabilly Classics (1958-1961)
Rockin' Little AngelJudd 1016
That's All RightJudd 1016
I'll Be Comin' HomeTravelin' With Ray

Ray Smith photo 1

 

 

 

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Ray Smith playlist

 

ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #28

Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared. One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.
 

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Those rockabilly guys just keep on coming! I have a tendency to ignore Ray Smith which is totally unfair because he was one of the rare artists in the second tier at Sun who actually had a hit record, and I mean genuine national hit rather than just selling a few copies in the Memphis area. It’s entirely possible that Ray doesn’t get quite the same coverage as guys like Warren Smith and Billy Lee Riley because, although he recorded at Sun for not one but two separate periods of time, his hit came while he was elsewhere, or to be precise, with Judd Records founded and run by Sam Phillips’ brother Jud.

The hit? Rockin’ Little Angel, a teen type ditty but with definite touches of rockabilly. For more on the record, see later and there’s a bit in the footnotes too. The US public certainly liked the concoction since they gave Ray a #22 chart hit in the spring of 1960 following its release over six months earlier. London American were quick off the mark in negotiating a deal with Jud Phillips to release his records in the UK and “Little Angel” hit these shores in February 1960 (but I have absolutely zero memory of it setting Radio Luxembourg alight and I was an avid listener). Many years later I wrote in “London Rocks”:

“London gave us a rockabilly goodie in February 1960 – “Rockin’ Little Angel” from Ray Smith. Ray’s flip was even better – I’d go so far as call it an unknown classic. And the song wasn’t Elvis’ “That’s All Right” which you suspected it might have been.”

It definitely was not. That’s All Right was an abbreviation of That’s Alright With Me, a song written by local Memphis composers Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch which would appear on the debut single from Ral Donner in October 1959 (though the jury is out on when it was actually recorded).

The Donner version was good but the Smith take was brilliant (see also comments in the Ral Donner Toppermost). Of the two it sounded much more as if it was cut in Memphis. But it wasn’t. Jud P had only gone to the expense of using the RCA Victor studio in Nashville with the A team of Chet Atkins, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer etc. laid on. In comparison the Donner recording was made in Orlando but it did have Sun regulars Charlie Rich and Bill Black on board. Take a listen to Ray. He and the boys are on top form on this one; there’s a controlled but still manic energy running through it. I stand by my words, an undiscovered gem:

Raymond Eugene Smith was born on 31st October 1934, in Melber, South West Kentucky and, no, I’d never heard of the place either. According to Wiki, two notable people were born there: Ray Smith “rockabilly musician” and Andy Melber “early postmaster”. Ray was raised in Paducah, to the north of the state, did his spell in the US Air Force and on return to civvy life, decided to form a rock and roll band even though the music wasn’t really his thing; he claimed that he was more into country. The ultra-imaginatively titled Rock & Roll Boys backed Ray on gigs in Kentucky and neighbouring states. They were good enough to get themselves their own radio show and followed that in 1957 with a weekly TV show on WPSD, Paducah. Missouri businessman Charlie Terrell, who was already managing country singer Onie Wheeler, took Ray on board as a client and, before too long, negotiated a contract for him with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. According to the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame: “Ray Smith is the only artist Phillips ever signed without hearing them in person first”.

But Phillips was less than enamoured with the early work from Ray in the Sun studios. It took three sessions, from January through March 1958, until he got cuts that he saw fit to release. The studio team consisted of a mix of Ray’s band and Sun studio stalwarts, with Charlie Rich on piano, a regular on all the sessions in Ray’s first period with Sun. He provided both songs too. So Young was more of a hillbilly boogie than rockabilly with the guitar of 18-year-old Stanley Jenkins from Ray’s Rock & Roll Boys effectively duetting with Ray, and Charlie providing much of the propulsion. The result isn’t as immediately impactful as some Sun offerings but it’s a grower.

However, if you wanted impact, the flip side had plenty. Right Behind You Baby was a punchy rocker with Ray throwing in vocal attributes associated with some of Sun’s big name stars and young Stanley getting the opportunity to stretch out a bit on a double length break. While neither side attracted too much attention at the time, Right Behind You Baby has continued to vacuum up praise from the rockabilly cognoscenti. Compilers and documenters of the genre, Martin Hawkins and Colin Escott, included the track on The Sun Story 1952-1968, the prestigious double LP released in 1974 which was one of the key albums that kickstarted the whole seventies rockabilly revival.

You can run like a rabbit, fly like a bee
No matter what you do, you’ll never get away from me
Because I’m right behind you, baby

Two Sun singles followed and I’ve opted for the flipside of each in terms of selections. The rocker You Made A Hit, if anything, found Raymond even more assured than hitherto, basking in a nest of coruscating axe work from Master Jenkins. The second B-side, Sail Away, another Rich composition, was something different, a jogalong ballad with country overtones, it sounds anything but memorable at the outset until Charlie’s piano enters with a simple ascending phrase which locks everything in place. This is winsome Charlie, and Ray demonstrates that he’s highly capable of catching the right mood. We’re told by Dik de Heer in the Blackcat Rockabilly feature on Ray, that the person duetting with him is the multi-talented Stanley Jenkins.

The A-sides? A Charlie Rich penned big ballad Why, Why, Why and the novelty rocker, Rockin’ Bandit complete with gunshots and overdubbed vocal chorus. For the latter, Ray adopts a vocal style which, to these ears, is distinctly similar to J.P. Richardson aka the Big Bopper. He’s good at it and this is a more than decent record (with more great piano work from you know who) but his tendency towards something of a chameleon approach might have hampered his attempts at stardom. See further comment later.

The released Sun tracks from Ray’s first period with the label could well be regarded as the tip of the iceberg. Sitting in the vaults and not seeing the light of day until the rockabilly revival I’ve already made reference to, were recordings that were often just as good. The rockers like Shake Around and Little Girl will all have their cheerleaders but top of the bunch by far is Ray’s version of Charlie’s Break-Up, a track which also got left on the shelf. Although Charlie is on Ray’s cut too, the versions are like chalk and cheese, with the ever so slight jazzy tones disappearing to be replaced by much more of an adrenaline rush driven along at full tilt by either staccato but dampened bass guitar (or possibly guitar). While one misses the Rich voice which is always welcome, it has to be said that Ray serves as the perfect foil for the rhythmic engine underneath and if you think those are Jerry Lee tropes particularly in aspects of timing and emphasis, well you could be both right and wrong at the same time. According to Dik de Heer, Jerry heard Ray’s tape and was so impressed he decided to record the number. This is the Killer and this is Ray’s Break-Up:

I’m not going to perjure myself and state that I don’t prefer the Lewis version of the three – and Keith Shackleton quite rightly in my view includes the track in his Sun ten in the joint JLL Toppermost – but Raymond definitely gets an A star for effort.

A more surprising goodie within the unreleased material was I’ll Try, a cover of the flip side of Conway Twitty’s big seller It’s Only Make Believe and, like the A-side, written by Twitty and his drummer Jack Nance. The song is a kind of rock/ballad hybrid with a strong Presley influence and the Smith version benefits from being more stripped back and in a way, honest, than the Twitty original.

Even more unusual was Willing And Ready. With the benefit of knowing what came after rock and roll I’m inclined to view it as a kind of devil’s merger of hillbilly and funk. Whatever, it swings like the clappers possibly aided by the presence of Jerry Lee’s drummer, Jimmy Van Eaton. Messrs Jenkins and Rich provide excellent support as usual and according to the Praguefrank discography, Billy Lee Riley is somewhere in the mix.

At some time between summer ’58 and summer ’59, Ray switched from Sun to Judd Records. Dik de Heer comments: “Though Sam Phillips wanted to keep Ray on Sun, manager Charlie Terrell felt that a label move was necessary.” Which motivation for a switch does seem a little vague in light of the big star names that had been developed by Sun, and the totally unproven nature of Judd which had only released its first record in August 1958, and for which Rockin’ Little Angel would be their best selling single by far. One wonders whether it was the fact that the bulk of Sun promotion money at that time was being lavished on Jerry Lee, with the others hardly getting a look in was part of the rationale; a subject that other artists, notably Billy Lee Riley, have complained about.

But it worked. Surprisingly perhaps. Rockin’ Little Angel might have been the most Sun-like single ever to come out of the RCA studios other those on which Elvis, Scotty and Bill appeared. The attention-grabbing intro from Grady Martin didn’t harm its case when getting radio plays and nor did the intelligent use of the Jordanaires. Remember that Sam Phillips wasn’t averse to the usage of overdubbed backing vocals and his assistant producer Cowboy Jack Clement saw it as a regular tool to be used in the creation of records.

Whether Judd single #2 from Ray, Put Your Arms Around Me Honey, signalled a deliberate change of direction or was semi-accidental we don’t know, but if Rockin’ Little Angel might have been labelled easy listening for teens, its follow-up could just as well have been described as easy listening for their parents. Chameleon Ray had put on his best Dean Martin voice for this 1910 song. I’m afraid the hackles rise very quickly with me when hearing this effort. The process of blandifying Elvis was going on in the background driven by Colonel Tom Parker, aided and abetted by RCA and their production guys. The appearance here is that Charlie Terrell plus Jud P plus RCA, felt they could do it via one record. It didn’t sell for which I’m pleased. End of rant.

Further Judd singles – there were four in total – didn’t help to repair the situation but there were some interesting tracks tucked away on the LP that the label issued, Travelin’ With Ray. These included another rocker penned (and recorded) by Charlie Rich, Rebound, which very nearly made the ten; it was only the considerably less polished but far more emotive original from Charlie which caused me to stay my hand, “Yes. I’m lonely for you”.

Also present on the album was a countryish ballad entitled I’ll Be Comin’ Home which, for me, works very well. It could even have been a Jack Clement production from Sun; there’s a hint of him on guitar in the backdrop and the pianist sounds like Charlie (though of course it’s Floyd Cramer doing an excellent job). Ray’s ballad voice has never sounded better than on this track where, for once, he’s not trying to sound like anyone else. The wonder of the track is that it never topples over into schmaltz and the reason for that is Ray himself; credit where it’s due.

Patience evidently wasn’t Charlie Terrell’s second name and he moved Ray again, this time to Infinity (and yes, that was the label name, I wasn’t making some sort of existential jibe, and Infinity was actually part of the Howard Hughes empire). The first of the two singles released on the label, After This Night Is Through was a reasonably attractive folk poppish ballad with Ray sounding a little like Buddy Holly. After no success from this one or its successor, our man was back in the arms of Sam Phillips and Sun. But this was Sun in its new second home in Nashville with Ray backed by the local pickers supplementing Stanley Jenkins who was reunited with his erstwhile boss. There was no Charlie Rich this time; his place was taken by Hargus “Pig” Robbins. While Rich wasn’t present his spirit seemed to be since the four tracks cut – which resulted in two singles – managed to prefigure the white soul Charlie of the later RCA and Smash periods. The most extreme example might have been Hey Boss Man about which the writer on 706 Union Avenue opined “for all intents and purposes, this is a Charlie Rich record”. The most sales-oriented track out of the set might have been Travlin’ Salesman but if I had any selections left I’d have gone for the Elvis/country sound of the flip, I Won’t Miss You (Till You Go) from the pen of Stan Kesler. It was a track that harked back to the days in the Union Avenue studio with only the distant brass telling you that things had moved on.

There were to be more switches of label and, in 1967, a switch of country – he moved to Burlington, Canada alongside Lake Ontario – but no return to chart glory for Ray Smith. While, perhaps predictably his record output moved to more of a country mode, that didn’t stop him performing his rocking stuff in gigs and in the second half of the seventies he took advantage of the rockabilly revival in the UK and Europe. The Dutch label Rockhouse released two LPs from Ray entitled The Country Side and The Rocking Side with the second comprising a concert in Eindhoven, Holland in April 1979.

In November that same year, Ray committed suicide with a handgun. A tragic end. According to the Wayback Attack article on Ray, “he was in good spirits as far as anyone knew” and “his best friends and relatives weren’t sure what motivated such a drastic move”.

Ray Smith was a talented man but you’d have needed to be mega-talented to compete with the big boys at Sun. The move to Judd was a good idea but with hindsight it appears that there was no one around who had the ability to parlay his initial success there into a career which might well have included the termination, or at least cutting back on, his tendency to sound like another artist each time he recorded. We’ll still remember the rockin’ little angel though.

Rockin little angel come down from the sky
Down from the sky, come on down from the sky
Rockin little angel come down from the sky
Come on down and stop a-teasing me

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Rockin’ Little Angel has its origins in a traditional song known as Buffalo Gals. This is Pete Seeger performing it. In the early days the song was known as Lubly Fan and here’s a version under that name. During the 1959/60 period, the song seemed to see a resurgence of popularity. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman used the main melodic theme for the song Plain Jane which was released by Bobby Darin in January 1959, and in November 1960, the Olympics used the same theme in Dance By The Light Of The Moon. If you’ve played any of those clips you’ll have realised that Rockin’ Little Angel (released roughly equidistantly timewise between that pair) uses the same melody line. The writer of the song is listed as Jimmie Rogers but he’s not to be confused with either country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers or blues artist and writer Jimmie Rogers who worked for a spell in the Muddy Waters band. SecondHandSongs lists only one other song as written, or in this instance co-written, by Rogers and it’s Buddy Holly’s Midnight Shift. His co-writer was Jeff Daniels who also crops up under his real name, Luke McDaniel, as the writer of You’re Still On My Mind which was performed by the Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo with Gram Parsons on vocal (and features in the Parsons Toppermost).

2. In the 45cat entry for Ray’s Rockin’ Bandit track, the contributor Recordholic states: “The A-side uses the exact same gunshot sound effects that were used in the Olympics’ Western Movies”.

3. Stan Kesler was a musician/producer and song writer who started out as bass man on sessions at the Memphis Sun studio circa 1955. He played behind several of the big names including Lewis and Perkins and was present on some of the Ray Smith records during the latter’s first stint at the label. As songwriter he wrote I Forgot To Remember To Forget (with Charlie Feathers), I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone (with Bill Taylor) and Playing For Keeps amongst others.

4. In terms of Ray’s move to Ontario, Wayback Attack suggests that he was following the example of Ronnie Hawkins who moved to Peterborough, Ontario in 1964.

5. In my comments on the track, I’ll Be Comin’ Home, I say “Ray’s ballad voice has never sounded better than on this track where, for once, he’s not trying to sound like anyone else”. Listening to it again I do wonder if there’s a touch of Charlie Rich in there. He does seem to have haunted this essay.

6. Which leads me to a final comment. Maybe I should I offer an apology to those fans of Ray who might be feeling that there’s as much in here about Charlie as there is on Ray. I’m aware of that but felt that the opportunity to say more about Rich in his ‘lesser’ roles as song writer and accompanist couldn’t be spurned. Charlie, of course, was another man who left Sun though in his case he did have a solitary hit while still at the label; Lonely Weekends made #22 in 1960, the same year and chart position as Rockin’ Little Angel.

 

 

Ray Smith ad

 

“Well, to say something about Ray Smith, you’re talking about a man who had as much to do with the foundation of rockabilly music as anybody I knew. Ray Smith should have been, and was, in the hearts of people like me, and his fans, one of the truly great rockin’ talents who came out of the fifties years. He will never be forgotten. When men go on and leave what Ray Smith left us to love and cherish, it’s a treasure that man cannot take away. It’s something you bury in your soul and you live on with it, and through our livin’, Ray Smith will never die.” Carl Perkins

Ray Smith (1934–1979)

 

Rockabilly Hall of Fame: Ray Smith

Ray at Rocking Rebels Rock ‘n’ Roll Club

Ray Smith at 45cat

Ray Smith biography (AllMusic)

Charlie Rich (Toppermost #535)

Billy Lee Riley (Toppermost #832)

 

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds, #2 James Ray, #3 Richie Barrett, #4 Mickey & Sylvia, #5 Scott McKenzie, #6 Blue, #7 Chris Kenner, #8 Dawn Penn, #9 Shep and the Limelites, #10 The Poni-Tails, #11 The La’s, #12 Thomas Wayne, #13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford, #14 Carl Mann, #15 Duncan Browne, #16 Harold Dorman, #17 Ned Miller, #18 Gary Shearston, #19 The Fendermen, #20 Jimmy Radcliffe, #21 Joe Dolce, #22 Sanford Clark, #23 Bob Luman, #24 Jessie Hill, #25 Ernie K-Doe, #26 Irma Thomas, #27 Barbara George, #28 Ray Smith

 

Dave Stephens has written over one hundred posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. 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

TopperPost #921

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Dec 10, 2020

    Dave, thanks for yet another brilliant introduction to someone I hadn’t really heard of before. Some great stuff in here. Thanks again…

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