(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Raymond Otis Whitley
1901 - 1979
|John Wright and Les Adams knew Ray Whitley and his wife Kay. John authored two articles on Whitley which were published 20+ years ago in Under Western Skies and Screen Thrills fanzines, and we thank John for providing these for use on the Old Corral. Thanks also to Les for his remembrances of Ray Whitley as well as the filmography and song listing.|
Sad news: John Wright passed away in 2008 and Ray's daughter Judy Kay passed in 2010.
(Courtesy of John Wright)
Ray and Kay Whitley, 1955.
(Courtesy of John Wright)
Above - Whitley at the 1977 Nashville Film Convention.
(Courtesy of John Wright)
Above is a 1948 re-release poster of the 1942 Whitley short, RANGE RHYTHM.
by John Wright
Meet him at a film collectors' festival, a country music show --- listen to his songs, or better yet, watch again the movies in which he played, and there will be no doubt at all, that although it has been some while since he stepped before the cameras, Ray Whitley is still all the things he ever was. And probably a great deal more.
When the late Ray 'Crash' Corrigan spoke at a festival a few years back, he took time out to pay tribute to a fine actor, a great singer and songwriter. And not least, a very fine gentleman. Crash also insisted upon revealing a few of the things which Ray Whitley had done for others, but of which he never spoke. But then, talk to anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Ray and you'll hear nothing but compliments and praise for a man who, for lack of a better description, must be hailed as an all-round nice guy.
Like many others, my first encounter with Ray was via the short features he made for RKO. I was a small boy back then who'd earned the price of admission to the old Popular Bioscope by selling umpteen empty bottles to Chinese merchants. I'd also skipped school that Friday to do so, fully aware of the consequences when later my truancy would be discovered. No longer can I recall the movies which had seemed important enough to warrant the risk of punishment. And certainly I had no way of knowing about the surprise the Pop was to spring on me that morning.
They seldom ever advertised supporting programs in those days, and one grew somewhat accustomed to having a cartoon, the newsreel and maybe a comedy short tossed in with the double bill. And, of course, the current episode of a serial. So when the RKO trademark started to fade and a western scene began to take over the screen, it came as something of a jolt. Then suddenly a beautiful, clear voice broke through the speakers, and the strains of the El Capitan Yodel filled the theatre. (It took over thirty years for me to discover the title of that song!) I spent seven hours in the Pop that day, and still I'm incapable of recalling either of the feature movies.
Much has already been written about Ray Whitley, and still, in my opinion, hardly enough. This though, is not intended as a detailed career summary, but simply a few columns that will hopefully introduce the uninitiated, and remind again those already well versed in the history of the Hollywood Western and country-western music of a man who made a number of mighty important contributions not only to the above fields, but also to the careers of other star performers.
Ray was born on December 5, 1901 in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up on a farm in Alabama. There it was that he would acquire certain skills that would later become important assets in his movie career and his many personal appearances. Not the least of which was extreme skill with a bullwhip. Right-handed or left-handed, it appears to make no difference to him, and today he's still able to pick up the whip in either hand and remove a cigarette from your mouth.
The years 1919 to 1922 saw Ray in service with the U.S. Navy. During this stint he took a fall from a destroyer's mast that resulted in a back injury which all his life would cause him pain. During 1923, a talented singer, dancer and actress named Catherine (Kay) Johnson of Philadelphia became Mrs. Ray Whitley, and has remained so ever since. The union has been blessed with three daughters --- Claire, Dolores, and Judy Kay --- of whom Ray and Kay are justifiably proud.
In his pursuit of a livelihood, Ray worked as a Texas ranch hand, a taxi driver, electrician, and later a steel worker on construction projects as the Empire State Building. It was dangerous work where a single mistake could cost a man his life. But it was work at which Ray was very good, and because of his readiness to undertake some of the more risky jobs, was seldom without work even during times when any kind of employment was scarce. Then the 1930's Depression found him searching for another field from which he could extract a living, and it was at this time that he turned his fine voice and skill on a guitar in the direction of a musical career.
Like many singers before and since, Ray initially patterned his singing on the lines of a performer he greatly admired --- the legendary Jimmie Rodgers. It was inevitable though, that his own style would emerge, and that it would be this particular style of performing that would lift him to the top of his new-found profession.
Before Hollywood beckoned, Ray would perform in such places as New York's Stork Club, at world championship rodeos, and after only three years of making the decision to become a professional singer, was already well-known as a radio performer and recording artist. When called to Hollywood he was to play bit parts in movies with headliners like Bill 'Hopalong Cassidy' Boyd, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, but the parts were slow in coming, and once more Ray headed for New York. However, his movie work had not gone unnoticed, and in 1937 he was contracted, along with his Six-Bar Cowboys, to star in a musical short for RKO Radio Pictures. If the first proved successful, others would follow. And they did. Between 1937 and 1942 eighteen were released, and every one a grand piece of entertainment. Each would be introduced by the El Capitan Yodel, while in between songs and instrumental solos, a light and usually amusing story would unfold. It is my sincere belief that the passing years have not diminished the entertainment value of any of these short features, and that if screened on TV today, they'd certainly prove superior than the majority of current series shows.
During his career in the movies, Ray appeared in about sixty films, usually as a sidekick to George O'Brien, Tim Holt or Rod Cameron. All three were top Western stars at that time, and Ray's appearances and the music he provided only added to the entertainment quality. In the Tim Holt series, Ray was usually known as 'Smokey', and as such became a firm favorite of fans. Without any intention whatsoever to detract from Tim Holt's performances or popularity, I would venture to suggest that there were a great many like myself who were drawn to a specific movie house essentially to see Smokey.
Why RKO remained blind to the talent they had under contract and why Ray Whitley was never provided with the opportunity to star in his own full-length series, must remain one of those mysteries of Hollywood. For sure RKO had everything needed to produce full-length musical Westerns, and Ray had all that was required to more than adequately fulfill his part of a contract. Today, when you watch Ray on stage and consider what might have happened had RKO, or indeed the other studios, removed their blinders for just a little while ... well, it makes for some mighty interesting speculation.
During one festival question session, Ray remarked that if they took away his guitar and his singing, he had little left to offer --- that he was no great shakes as an actor. Which is nothing more than just another aspect of his character --- a full measure of genuine modesty. Had he not possessed real ability, it's highly unlikely that he'd have been selected to play the part of James Dean's manager in GIANT (1956). Ray's performance was equal to anyone else in the cast, along with Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and several other fine actors.
Movies, though, were only part of the many activities in which Ray Whitley would be involved. As a songwriter he produced a commendable list of hits, including "Lonely River", "How Was I To Know?", "Foolish Pride", "Between the Lines", and so many, many more. Some of these songs were co-written with other luminaries such as Jimmy Wakely, Fred Rose, and Gene Autry. And, talking of Gene, there's a story which is pretty well-known by now, but still worth re-telling ...
Ray was scheduled to report to the lot early one morning in 1938, when at 5:00 a.m. he was awakened by a demanding telephone. Returning to his bedroom, he smiled at his wife, Kay, and said, "Well, I'm back in the saddle again." Then he went on to explain that the telephone call had come from the studio, requesting him to produce a new song for the George O'Brien feature, BORDER G-MAN, in which Ray was starred. "You've got a title for one right there", Kay informed him. "I'm Back in the Saddle Again." Ray sat down on the edge of the bed and dashed off the verse --- and performed the song in the movie only hours later. When Autry heard the number he went for it in a big way. Getting together with Ray, they rewrote it, though the changes appear to have been very slight. The rest is history. "Back in the Saddle Again" was first featured by Gene Autry in his 1939 movie, ROVIN' TUMBLEWEEDS, and has been identified as Gene's theme song ever since. Later, Autry recorded a number of Whitley compositions, including "Ages and Ages Ago", "Rocky Canyon", "Lonely River" and "I Hang My Head and Cry". Tex Ritter, Johnny Bond, Sonny James and others were also to make profitable use of Ray's material.
If Gene Autry was not aware of Ray's ability and his potential, both as a singer and an actor, Art Davis, who then worked for Gene, was to make him so. It was Art who suggested that Gene, instead of concerning himself over the competition offered by Tex Ritter, take a look in the direction of Ray Whitley.
In 1937 Ray acted as manager for The Sons of The Pioneers, and negotiated the contract that landed them roles in a series of Charles Starrett features. However, Ray later told that he was disgusted with what Columbia had offered the Pioneers, and that he'd told them (Columbia) the Pioneers were the best, and at least worth ten times the $200 a week they'd been offered. Ray fought for a two week minimum when the studio indicated that they expected the Pioneers to complete their shooting in a week. But even after succeeding, Ray refused to sign the contract himself, still believing the group to be worth more. Even if the amount does smack of small beginnings, it was most assuredly a move that would aid the musical group in their assent to stardom and world recognition. Between 1948 and 1949 Ray also managed Jimmy Wakely, and it was Jimmy who, in an interview not so long ago, confessed that he'd 'borrowed' a little from Ray's style of yodeling.
During World War II, Ray entertained servicemen in hospitals and camps both at home and abroad, traveling some 70,000 miles by sea and air to countless small outposts. At one time he was second only to Tex Ritter in terms of personal performances.
With his Rhythm Wranglers, a western swing band, Ray performed at the Venice Pier Ballroom, Baldwin Park, and Culver City, attracting crowds from 8,000 to 11,000 at any one time. So good was the group that it quickly became evident that they now had to be considered as serious rivals to Bob Wills, then acclaimed the King of Western Swing. An extremely lamentable fact about this part of Ray's career is that not a single commercial recording was made of his swing band group.
It was Ray Whitley also who suggested that the late Fred Rose, who was then experimenting in the country music field, move to California. 1940 and 1941 saw Fred Rose living in the Whitley home , and there, often collaborating with Ray, the genius of Fred Rose as a composer of country music surfaced. Not long afterwards, Fred Rose teamed up with Roy Acuff to form the Rose-Acuff Music Publishing Company in Nashville. Fred invited Ray in as a partner, but Ray declined, believing that his future lay in Hollywood. Because of other commitments, Ray also declined with thanks Fred's invitation to manage Hank Williams.
(Courtesy of John Wright)
Above - Whitley with music composer Fred Rose.
Until Ray 'Crash' Corrigan stood up at that festival and told of some of Ray's behind the scenes activity, it was probably known to very few that the guitar most of the Singing Cowboys would use, and most country performers afterwards, was the brainchild of one Ray Whitley. Crash told how Ray, using his own money and time, had designed a guitar which he took to the Gibson people, explaining to them the features and benefits of the instrument, and how, by building such guitars and presenting them to the Western stars of that era, they'd really put the Gibson name on the musical instrument map. That was in 1937, and the Gibson SJ-200 series has been used by most top-liners ever since, the most recent of which is Emmy Lou Harris.
Ray's original guitar can now be seen on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and its arrival there provides yet another tale. It would seem that when the guitar was presented to the CMH, it was discovered that the insurance cover to have it travel by air to Nashville was more than somewhat high. The problem was solved by Johnny Bond purchasing two air tickets, one for himself, the other for Ray's guitar, and riding shotgun with it down to Nashville.
When I started writing this I said it was not intended to be a detailed career summary. Others, such as Gerald F. Vaughn, are better equipped and skilled to do so. But at this point I would add a few personal notes. Call it an indulgence if you will, I make no apologies.
I was a kid when first I heard and saw Ray Whitley, and the initial impact stayed with me ever since. That day something more than just an abundance of talent flashed across the screen. Something seemed to reach out and touch me, and I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that, if ever given the chance of an adult friend, it had to be Ray Whitley. A child's fantasy? Maybe. But I'm not about to explain my emotions that morning. Whatever it was, I obtained an indelible impression of the man behind the screen role. I knew exactly what kind of person he would be.
It's a long road back to the Popular, but many of the things discovered there are with me still. A few years ago a door was suddenly and unexpectedly opened and I had the opportunity of getting to know Ray and Kay Whitley. Perhaps the most gratifying thing about that was the discovery that the picture conjured up as an impressionable child had not been the least bit inaccurate. They are a warm and devoted couple, Ray and Kay, and most of all, they're real people. A star? I doubt that Ray knows the meaning of the word unless it's applied to a heavenly body. Listen to a recording made at a casual get-together at a Nashville home where are gathered a few friends and fans, and you'll know what I mean. Hear Ray and Gerald Vaughn perform a duet at Ray's home --- or Ray and Kay singing and laughing at yet another private gathering, and you obtain an even better idea.
Ah yes . . . the voice is still as great as ever. And passing years have failed to blunt either his skill or his talents, nor has time created any reluctance to extend the ever-ready hand of friendship.
Ray Whitley is not only all the things mentioned here, he is a great deal more. He is also one of the people who helped popularize C&W music the world over --- one of those who provided a most valuable and worthwhile contribution. This year, Ray, through Arzee Records, released a seven-single, "Slightly on the Angel Side", backed by Worlds Apart. For millions of his fans it was an occasion for celebration. It is, we all hope, merely the forerunner to a complete album, or albums.
Yep, it's a pretty long and dusty trail back to where a kid sat in eager anticipation and the El Capitan Yodel burst forth through the theatre speakers . . . but once seen, once heard . . . you don't forget the man who stands among the all-time greats --- Ray Whitley. A star by any man's measure. Then and now!
(Courtesy of John Wright)
Above - Whitley and Gene Autry circa 1947.
(Courtesy of John Wright)
Above - Whitley, Gene Autry and Jimmy Wakely at a Sons of the Pioneers show circa 1978.