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(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above - Ray Whitley at one of the 1970s film conventions.

by John Wright

There's a line of a song that claims: "They needed a new star up yonder, and they couldn't find a brighter light to shine . . ."

On February 21, 1979, that condition again prevailed in Cowboy Heaven. That was the day Ray Whitley was called home.

For almost a week before that day, I'd been feeling down: I knew, somehow, that somewhere something wasn't right. Then toward the end of that month the news came by way of a short note from my good and valued friend, Gerald Vaughn.

It isn't easy to express now the feelings I had then. How do you react to the news that a man you've admired since childhood, with whom you have only recently become personally acquainted, a man who has proved to be so very much more than all you've ever believed, has died? It's not easy, and perhaps not even necessary. And so I won't try.

February, 1979, Ray's son-in-law, Hal Bracken, had invited Ray to join him on a fishing trip down in Mexico. Ray was elated, and as Eddie Dean later recalled, Ray phoned to tell him about 'his last great fishing trip', promising to bring back some big ones. On the flight down to Mexico Ray suffered a diabetic shock which brought on a heart seizure. He died shortly after the plane landed.

And the world lost not only a great performer, a great songwriter, but also a man who was, in every sense of the word, just that --- a man. A gentleman.

Probably very few at the conventions, which Ray attended, had any idea of his health problems. Even fewer were aware of the heart attack he experienced not a year before. Watching him on stage, listening to the appreciative reactions of his audience, it would have been very difficult to guess at what he had just been through, or to know, for that matter, that at one of his most successful performances, he was not at all well. Ray never advertised these sort of things.

At one time Ray told his close friend Gerald Vaughn that if he hadn't done enough and meant enough to his friends for them to remember him pretty well, then no memorial service would make any difference. And so it was that he expressed no desire for a fancy funeral or such a memorial service.

But there was a memorial dinner. Held not by the family, but by a number of Ray's close friends in the business. On February 28th, a week after his death, about forty friends gathered for a very private dinner, where each told either of what Ray had meant to him or her, or otherwise recalled some story concerning Ray.

At the dinner were people like Bob Nolan who, when rising to pay his tribute was quite incapable of concealing either his great sense of loss, or his tears. Jimmy Wakely was there, Stuart Hamblen, Tex Williams. Ray's dearest friend, Eddie Dean, Wesley Tuttle, Hank Penny, Doye O'Dell, and others. The men stood and sang "Back in The Saddle Again", along with other Western classics such as "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds", and later Stuart Hamblen sang "It Is No Secret". Jimmy and Eddie lent their voices to a few spirituals ... and Bob Nolan, he wept.

A sad occasion? On the contrary. The evening was a very positive affair. A testimony to a life, which had been full and meaningful, which had reached out to others, and in doing so, left those it, touched so much richer. It was a life of courage, of faith, compassion and love. Somewhere, even as this is being written, someone is watching a Ray Whitley movie or listening to one of his songs. Others will be recalling old times with Ray, while those who were privileged to have met him at conventions will be telling of that experience. They have to, you see. Meeting Ray Whitley simply had to be an unforgettable experience, one to be recounted over and over again, with enthusiasm, with delight, and yes --- with love.

Ray was survived by Kay, his partner for 56 years, three daughters, and a legion of friends and fans.

Gone? No, sir! Ray Whitley is with us still --- in movies and in songs, and where it really counts. In our hearts.

A few weeks after Ray died, in an audio letter to me, Miss Kay told of how, when driving home after attending a funeral, Ray told her that he never wanted to put her or his girls through that sort of stress. Thus it was, in accordance with his wishes, Ray Whitley was cremated, and in private.

On September 23rd, 2000, Catherine Kay Whitley was promoted to Heaven. Miss Kay had joined the Neptune Society, as it was her desire to be cremated just as her loving husband. Her ashes were cast among a rose garden.

(Courtesy of John Wright)

Above - photo from the 1981 Nashville Songwriters Foundation Hall of Fame awards ceremony which was sent to John Wright and his wife Carol from Kay Whitley.

Above from L-to-R are: Claire Wartenberg (daughter), musician Frank "Pee Wee" King, Ray's widow Kay Whitley, Dodie Bracken (daughter), Judy Kay (daughter), and Sue (Claire's daughter).

Following is the homepage for the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.  When you get to the site, click on 'Hall of Fame' and you'll find a mini bio and other info on Ray Whitley:

by Les Adams

I've been fortunate enough to meet a lot of kind and gracious people in the entertainment field over the last 35 or so years, but none more so than Ray and Kay Whitley.

I was one of those front-row kids in the 40's who "discovered" Ray Whitley. I mean that in the context that as a 6-7-8-9 year old, there was something about Ray Whitley's screen presence that just jumped off of the screen and grabbed me, despite the fact he was very limited in the amount of screen time and dialogue he got. As far as I am concerned, he had one of the finest voices to listen to on the screen, both speaking and singing, and that was probably what I thought then made it such a child-hood pleasure for me when he came on screen. I certainly wasn't too versed in film pecking-order in 1941-44, but even as a kid I wondered why he wasn't playing leads, and I don't mean instead of Tim Holt, who I also savored watching.

Later, I thought it was because he had such a good screen presence that made me such a fan of his.

Flash forward 30 or so years and one of the great pleasures I've ever had in meeting somebody face-to-face came the first time I met Ray Whitley. And, then I knew what it was about him that caught my attention as a kid. The Ray Whitley that I had watched on the screens of the Lyric, Arcadia and Cactus theaters was the same Ray Whitley that I met, and came to know both as a hero (and my list is short) and a friend.

He was real - there is no other word - and it showed through on the screen, even to a seven-year-old kid in 1942.

In addition to the letters that came later, from both Ray and Kay, I treasure about 60 minutes worth of video tape I made with Ray that is just basically him talking about Ray Whitley ... who he was, where he came from, what he thought, what he loved and stories that transcends bio data material.

One of the stories Ray tells on my tape concerns the filming of GIANT. He and director George Stevens were long-time friends from their RKO days, they officed next to each other, and Ray says he got a call from Stevens saying there was a role in GIANT (as James Dean's manager) that he wanted Ray to play. Small, but pivotal, and he only wanted Ray, and Stevens would get him a pretty good weekly salary for the role that should only require a week of his time. Ray's part was completed in less than that, but Stevens kept him on salary for 16 weeks. Ray, as was his nature, told Stevens he didn't feel right about getting paid for doing nothing but, according to Ray, Stevens just basically said shut up and cash the checks, "I've told the studio I'd be needing you some more". (Which, of course, he wouldn't and didn't, but just Stevens' way of showing appreciation to an old friend from the old days.)

I have more than a 100 such tapes that I made over the years as a one-on-one (and I usually worked hard to and managed to stay out of the way of the person on the tape) and I'm quite certain that the one with Ray Whitley has been viewed the most if, for no other reason, because it makes me feel good. As mentioned, he was real.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from L-to-R are Elvira Rios, Ken Card and Whitley in a scene from the Whitley short, CUPID RIDES THE RANGE (RKO, 1939). The Saturday matinee kiddies must have been really excited with that film title.

A blowup of the guitar in the above photo shows:

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from L-to-R are Elvira Rios, Whitley and Glenn Strange in another scene from CUPID RIDES THE RANGE.


  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on Whitley:

YouTube has videos of Ray Whitley doin' songs:

There's a website on the famous Phelps Brothers --- Norman, Earl and Willie. There's info and a variety of images documenting the period when they were doing westerns as members of the Ray Whitley and the Six-Bar Cowboys group:

Whitley was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981.  When you get to the site, click on 'Hall of Fame':

There's info on Ray Whitley and his Gibson Super Jumbo 200 (SJ-200) guitar:

You may also want to go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral, and check the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). There you will find a record for Raymond Whitley, born 12/5/01, and he passed away February, 1979. There is no record in the California Death Records database since Ray passed away in Mexico.

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