Wednesday 23 May 2018

Charlie and Ray

I’m excited to announce that the paperback version of David Bowie Made Me Gay will be issued in the UK on July 12. To celebrate this, I am starting a new blog.

I’m incredibly proud of David Bowie Made Me Gay, but I’m also aware that, due to various constraints, there are a number of LGBTQ artists I was unable to include. Some of this was down to length, some down to the amount of time I had available for research, but some simply because I could not include everybody. If I’m honest, some of this was also due to only discovering some incredible LGBTQ artists after I had submitted the manuscript. The principle aim of this blog is to highlight those acts that were missed in the book, or perhaps deserve more coverage than I was able to give them at the time.

And I’m kicking everything off with Charlie and Ray, who I first discovered, if memory serves, at J.D. Doyle's essential Queer Music Heritage site.

Charlie and Ray were a vocal duo from New York, who initially came to prominence at the famous Apollo theatre in Harlem. The Apollo held a regular amateur night; one evening Charlie and Ray decided to enter and so popular were they that they not only won that night, but they topped the audience vote for the following four weeks. The duo’s breakneck delivery, high camp falsetto and general onstage presence won them a huge local following, and although it was no secret that the pair were gay, their audience either ignored the fact or simply did not care. Bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll, Charlie and Ray were performing what we as doo-wop years before the term had been coined.

In late 1954 the pair signed to talent agency Shaw Artists, who immediately placed them with the Broadway-based Herald Records, established in the summer of 1953 by Al Silver, Jack Angel and Jack Braverman. Angel had his own publishing company, Angel Music Inc., and signed Charles Jones (the Charlie of Charlie and Ray) as a songwriter. The duo’s first single, I Love You Madly was issued in October 1954. Within 10 days the initial pressing had completely sold out, with Detroit, Nashville, Los Angeles and New York record stores reporting healthy sales, and other acts were scurrying to get cover versions out: white vocal act The Four Coins scored a hit with the song in early 1955, but sadly although the original sold well, Herald did not have the distribution necessary to make Charlie and Ray’s version a national hit.

Charlie and Ray would issue seven 45s (their earliest releases were also available on 78) during their career, and despite the fact that they’re all wonderful, sadly none of them would trouble the charts. Like many other songwriters, Charles Jones often fell foul to unscrupulous people within the music industry: in March 1955 he registered the copyright of four songs, Certainly Baby, Dearest One, Guess I’m Through With Love and Oh Gee, Ooh Wee, yet when Certainly Baby was issued as the plug side to the duo’s third single, the label credit claimed that the song had been penned by Frank Slay Jr. and Bob Crewe. Crewe and Slay certainly produced the track, and the pair also received writers’ credits on other Herald releases, but in this instance it seems they were given the credit in lieu of payment for their production services. It was a neat trick that would not have cost the Herald team a cent, but meant that Charles Jones would never see any royalty payments for his composition.

Charlie and Ray were “easily the most unique duo of the nineteen fifties and light years ahead of their time,” according to music historian C.J. Marion, who saw them play at the Rockland Palace in Harlem, in early 1955. “I was a bit taken aback by the hip rolling, pocketbook swinging entrance (being all of 14 years old at the time), but once the music started and the crowd got into it, what a show! I remember writing a letter to Alan Freed and asking a gender-oriented question about Charlie and Ray but never receiving an answer…”

Although none of their discs were national chart hits, many of them received heavy radio play, and this in turn lead to some lucrative live engagements for the boys. In June 1955 the duo performed at the Apollo as part of Tommy (Dr. Jive) Smalls’ six times daily rock n’ roll package. The opening show found the crowds lined up in double columns around the block, and similar demonstrations of the line-up’s popularity took place at most of the other shows throughout the week. Jack Schiffman, son of the owner of the Apollo Theatre, said that ‘everyone connected with the show is well pleased with the results and we definitely would not hesitate to book Tommy Smalls back in the very near future.’ As well as Charlie and Ray, Dr. Jive’s imposing roster included The Moonglows, Herald stable mates The Nutmegs, Bo Diddley, the Four Fellows, and Buddy Johnson. Dr Jive brought a similar package back to the Apollo in August, and shortly after that they were off with Lou Krefetz’ “Big Ten Review”, a 40-date tour which kicked off in St Louis on 26 August and visited cities throughout the east, midwest, south and southwest, with Faye Adams, Big Joe Turner, The Clovers, Bo Diddley, Gene and Eunice, and Etta James and Her Peaches among others.

No sooner was that tour over than they were playing a 15-hour spectacular at the Carnegie Hall (October 29), the venue’s first ever rock ‘n roll show, with Faye Adams, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Joe Turner, the Clovers and more. A week later they were on Cashbox magazine’s list of the Most Promising New Vocal Combinations of 1955. Between these tours and jamborees Charlie and Ray managed to fit in regular headlining dates in Atlanta and at the Apollo. Over the next few years they would continue to be a popular live draw, although their discs failed to break nationally. In May 1957, in a last ditch attempt to have a hit, Herald reissued I Love You Madly (this time backed with a new song, Sweet Thing) but it again failed to chart and the duo were dropped. The following month they began a week-long booking at the Apollo, part of Dr. Jive’s big rock and roll show, playing until the Fourth of July alongside acts including Donnie Elbert, the Sensations, the Heartbeats, the Charts, the Jesters and Roy Brown and his band.

It seems as though, disillusioned by their lack of success, Charlie and Ray decided to part ways – or stop touring together – for now, at least. They issued one more 45, for TEL Records around 1959, but when this too proved to be a flop they stopped performing altogether. Then, out of the blue, in late 1964/early 1965 the duo resurfaced, playing the All Gold Oldies Show at the Apollo with Screaming Jay Hawkins, but that was the end: a disc that appeared on Josie under the name Charlie and Ray was by a different act.

It’s a huge shame that Charlie and Ray are all but forgotten these days: they deserve our attention not only for making some truly great vocal sides, but for being that rarest of things, an openly LGBTQ act at a time when so few performers dared to be so honest. Says C.J. Marion: “Charlie and Ray were unabashedly gay and black, which taken in the context of the first Eisenhower era, made them an act apart in more ways than one. They presented themselves as not drag queens, which was a popular method at the time, but as straight looking singers with a singular delivery. Add to this mix the fact that they could produce some of the hardest rocking tunes of the time and you get an unforgettable pair of performers.”

Most of their sides were collected on the compilation I Love You Madly, sadly the final two TEL sides are missing from that collection, and they do not appear on YouTube either. So here you go: here are both sides of the final Charlie and Ray 45, just for you!


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