Throughout his 60-year career in the music industry, Eddie Ray helped promote hundreds of artists – from B.B. King to Fats Domino to Pink Floyd.
However, he shied away from telling his own story.
Now, after decades of requests from family and friends, the Kannapolis resident, with co-author Barbara Jackson Hall, has released his memoir, “Against All Odds: The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray.”
The authors of the 200-page paperback say it will help preserve little-known facts about the music industry. The 86-year-old operations director and vice chairman of the Kannapolis-based N.C. Music Hall of Fame, calls the book his last hurrah. He was inducted into the hall in 2009.
“Ray was a behind-the-scenes African-American who … rose to a decision making position that helped shape the music industry,” said Hall. “This is a book about people, people he influenced and who influenced him and, because of his positive influence back then, are still part of his life today. It’s about the early days of the record industry.”
‘The golden era’
Ray takes readers on a journey from his hometown, Franklin, N.C., in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to his time as a stock boy with Decca Records in Milwaukee to his steady climb to the top. At 39, he became the first African-American vice president of a major record company, Capitol Records.
His account of the burgeoning record industry in 1950s and 1960s gives readers insights into record distribution and production, promotion and sales. He also writes about songwriting, artist acquisition and development, commercial music education and federal copyright administration.
Ray, who worked on the book with Hall for more than a year, said he’s already been contacted by universities for permission to use the book in music courses, as well as courses about African-American history.
Ray has held top-level executive positions with MGM Records and Capitol Records and has won more than 200 awards.
Before that, Ray worked in tobacco fields. He used the money to attend Laurinburg Institute, a historic African-American preparatory school.
After graduating, Ray planned to go to college but made an impromptu trip to Milwaukee, where he found a job as a stock boy for a Decca Records’ distributor. Three months later, Ray left for Los Angeles.
“When I got to California, I asked a black porter on the train about renting a room. … I had no idea the street he recommended was known for bums, degenerates and wine-os,” Ray said. “It was the worst thing ever. I celebrated by 19th birthday, alone, broke and looking for a job.
He arrived in California with nothing, took up odd jobs and eventually became an assistant shipping clerk for Consolidated Record Distributor before landing a similar job with Aladdin Records, near Los Angeles City College.
Aladdin’s owners, Leo and Eddie Mesner, encouraged Ray to further his education and he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“I weave in those kind of stories, yet I make it an informative book about commercial music in the ‘Golden Era of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’”
Maverick of music
Ray said he regrets not saving more memorabilia but thinks readers will be inspired by how he overcame racial barriers and ignored the status quo. Born Dec. 21, 1926, Ray was one of eight children of Andrew and Grace Love Ray. He is the grandson of a former slave.
“I came up during the Jim Crow days,” Ray said. “We didn’t even have a senior high school, and I couldn’t even go into a library.”
Ray said his gift was recognizing people with unusual talents and abilities and knowing how to market them.
“They say I had an ear, but I have no musical heritage in my family anywhere, never played an instrument and don’t know one note of music,” Ray said.
He often traveled for weeks at a time to radio stations throughout the nation.
“At one time I knew every single major radio station in America and that was before FM,” said Ray. “And when they added FM, I got to know all of those too. …
“I might start a trip across the country and go from San Francisco to Seattle to Denver, then to Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland on to Pittsburgh, Buffalo to Boston to New York to Washington and back home.”
Ray was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as a Commissioner of the US Copyright Royalty Tribunal in Washington, D.C. He served for roughly eight years and served as chairman or acting chairman for four years.
His company, Eddie Ray Music Enterprises, helped create and operate The Tennessee College of Recording Arts & Sciences, which specializes in commercial music business education.
Ray also is a co-author of “Hearts of Stone” a national hit song by the Fontaine Sisters, The Charms and Red Foley. The song was recorded by 32 artists – including Elvis Pressley and John Fogerty – and can be heard in several movie soundtracks, including Martin Scorsese’s “Good Fellas.”
A mentor to others
Mike Curb, chairman of Curb Records, met Ray when he was still a teenager. He gave a recording of his college band to Ray when he worked with Imperial Records.
“He told me that he was leaving Imperial and he was joining Capitol Records … and I should visit him when he assumed the new position,” Curb said. “On the day he assumed that position at Capitol in 1963, I went … and told him I had my group, which included three African-American female singers, and that we were ready to audition for him.”
Ray, who never saw anyone without an appointment, made an exception. He later got the girls a recording contract and offered to co-produce their record with Curb.
Curb said Ray was a mentor, who showed him how to promote his band, The Arrows, through his own label. Curb Records turns 50 this year and is the oldest record company still being operated by its original owner.
“Eddie taught me – at an early age – the importance of understanding the totality of the industry, which made it possible for me to start my own company,” said Curb.
In 2008, The Mike Curb Family Foundation restored the former jailhouse that houses the hall of fame in Ray’s honor.
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