Born Raymond Eugene Smith, 31 October 1934, Melber, Kentucky
Although he is completely ignored in the Escott / Hawkins book about the history of Sun Records (“Good Rockin’ Tonight”, 1991), Ray Smith was an important artist on Sun. He had five singles released on the label, equal to Billy Riley, Sonny Burgess and Warren Smith, and, unlike these artists, he scored a major hit, with “Rockin’ Little Angel”, although not on Sun. He was always in total control of his powerful, flexible voice. Sam Phillips called him “the most intense person I ever recorded. He was totally wrapped up in what he was doing”.
Ray Smith grew up in various places in Kentucky where his father supported his large family (six daughters, two sons) as a sharecropper and a sheet metal worker. His mother taught him the rudiments of piano playing and encouraged his interest in music. Ray left home at the young age of twelve and worked several odd jobs before joining the Air Force in 1952. The next year he got married and started to think seriously about a musical career. In 1954 he was transferred to Metz, France, for a year and a half. It was there that he first heard Elvis Presley’s Sun records on AFN. Smith was strictly a country music fan and at first he hated Presley’s music (“I wasn’t used to that kind of material”), but he soon got to like it and it’s fair to say that Elvis was his main influence.
Returning to civilian life in 1956, Smith formed his own band, Ray Smith and the Rock & Roll Boys. They got their first gigs in and around Paducah, Kentucky, performed on the radio and even had their own weekly 30-minute TV show, starting November 1956. His talent was spotted by Charlie Terrell, a Missouri businessman who was also the manager of Onie Wheeler. When Wheeler recorded for Sun in December 1957, Terrell played Sam Phillips an audiotape from one of Ray’s TV shows. Sam knew when he heard talent and he signed Ray Smith to a Sun contract without having met him.
Ray did four sessions for Sun in the first three months of 1958, but only two songs were released, both written by Charlie Rich. “So Young” was chosen as the A-side, but the side that really mattered was “Right Behind You Baby”, an exuberant rocker with a fantastic guitar solo by 18-year old Stanley Walker, the main man in Ray’s band. Smith recorded with his own group, augmented by Charlie Rich on piano and Stan Kesler on bass. In Britain “Right Behind You Baby” was covered by Vince Taylor on Parlophone, though Ray’s single was not released in the UK. Probably because US sales were disappointing, in spite of Ray’s appearance on American Bandstand with “So Young”. The second Sun single, released in October 1958, coupled the ballad “Why Why Why” (another Charlie Rich composition) with the rocker “You Made A Hit”. Next came the gimmicky “Rockin’ Bandit” (written by 13-year old Ira Jay Lichterman), with “Sail Away” (a duet with Stanley Walker) on the B-side.
Though Sam Phillips wanted to keep Ray on Sun, manager Charlie Terrell felt that a label move was necessary. Sam’s brother, Jud Phillips, had started his own label, Judd Records, in 1958. The first Judd session, in August 1959, brought Ray the hit that he was so desperately hoping for. “Rockin’ Little Angel” peaked at # 22 in early 1960. But the follow-up, “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey”, stalled at # 91 and would be Ray’s last chart entry. (On the pop charts, that is.) Backed by members of the Nashville A-team, he recorded two more good singles for Judd and an album (“Travelin’ With Ray”), but in October 1961 he was back at Sun. All four songs from that Nashville session were released, on two singles, but Joe Public wasn’t interested.
Charlie Terrell was soon looking for another deal. During 1962-1966 Ray recorded for Zirkon, Infinity, Smash, Warner Bros, Vee-Jay, Tollie and BC (Terrell’s own label), with no success. Stanley Walker, his long-time guitarist and companion, left him to work with Jean Shepard.
In 1967 Ray decided to move his family to Canada (Burlington, Ontario), where he would stay for the rest of his life. His music was now moving back towards country. He kept on recording, but he was fed up with travelling and concentrated on working the club circuit in Ontario. In 1973 he had a modest country hit (# 70) with “Tilted Cup Of Love”, on the Cinnamon label. In 1978 and 1979, Smith toured the revival scene in England and other European countries. His performance in Eindhoven, Holland (April 1979), was released on a Rockhouse LP. Prior to that, he had an album release on the Canadian Wix label, on which he played piano for the first time. Wix also released two singles in 1978, the first of which was “Break Up”, which had been one of the first songs Ray recorded at Sun in 1958. When Jerry Lee Lewis heard the tape, he wanted to record it and Ray’s version stayed in the vaults until 1988. That was the year in which his unreleased tracks from 1958 were first issued, on the LP “I’m Right Behind You Baby!” (Sun LP 1009). Among them were two great rockers, “Willing And Ready” and “Shake Around”.
On 29 November 1979, at the age of 45, Ray Smith committed suicide at home with a handgun. A sad ending to a great talent.
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/raysmith.html
Discography : http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.nl/search/label/Smith%20Ray
Acknowledgements : Martin Hawkins, Colin Escott, Adam Komorowski, Craig Morrison.
CD : Ray Smith, Rockin’ Little Angel : The Sun Years, Plus (Bear Family BCD 16936, 2009). 34 tracks, complete Sun and Judd recordings, 1958-1961. Accompanied by a 54-page booklet, with a biography by Martin Hawkins.
Dik, May 2016
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