Hearing how an artist got their start in the industry is the norm, but the story of how the people behind the musical powerhouses got their start is a rarity. Meet Eddie Ray. He’s the first African American music executive at a major record label, Capitol Records. In his book The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray he recounts how he caught the music bug and starting from being a stock boy at a record store to rubbing elbows with the likes of Al Green , Sammy Davis Jr., and Lou Rawls to losing out on legendary acts like the Jackson 5.
Ray has an impressive resume, with experience in various facets of the music industry from record distribution, promotion, record production, artist development, and commercial music education to name a few. As a songwriter, Eddie Ray is the co-writer of the hit single “Hearts of Stone” which has been recorded by over 30 artists including Elvis Presley.
Eddie Ray has also dabbled in politics, as he was appointed by President Reagan to serve as a Commissioner of the U.S. Copyright Royalty Tribunal. He served in that role for eight years.
At 90 years old, there isn’t much that Ray hasn’t accomplished. Ray has served as vice chairman and operations director for the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. He is also a 2009 inductee into the museum.
I chatted with Eddie Ray a few years ago to talk about his journey from being a stock boy to a music executive and working with some of music’s biggest names; that interview in its entirety can be found on the Soul Train website.
Here is an excerpt from that interview:
Shameika: There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about racial discrimination, so with you being the first African American music executive at a major label, talk about the discrimination that you faced.
Eddie Ray: I was born in a time during Jim Crow where there was total segregation in public facilities in the south. I was born in the mountains and grew up in a small town called Franklin, North Carolina. We didn’t even have senior high schools for black kids. So my family had to go to schools down in the eastern part of the state just to finish high school. I went to a private boarding school in Laurinburg. In fact, Dizzy Gillespie, the famous jazz artist, graduated before I did.
Shameika: In your book, you talk about a time when you faced discrimination at a meeting in Atlanta among other executives. How did that make you feel that you were encountering that for the first time in your professional career?
Eddie Ray: At the time I was working with a company called Imperial Records, and we had Fats Domino, who was one of our major artists, and we had Ricky Nelson, who had a big television show called Ozzy and Harriet and their son Rick was on the label. He was with us from the time he was 16 to about 21, and we had a couple of country acts. I never visited my southern distributors for years and years, but I would meet them at conventions in cities like Chicago and New York. They wanted me to come down to the southern states, but the owner of the company did not want me to go. He insisted that everywhere I traveled I went first class on planes and first class hotels. I told him I’m familiar with the south so I’m just going to go. So in Atlanta, first it started at the airport when I came in from Miami, and the distributor had made a reservation for me at a nice motel on the campus of Atlanta University. I told them not to worry about picking me up from the airport because I wasn’t sure what time I was going to get in. I came in late at night and tried to get a cab, and couldn’t get one. So one of the bellhops, an African American, told me that I’d have to get a black cab, but they’d all gone home so he was just getting off work, so fortunately he drove me to the motel. So you see it started off bad. The next morning we had a meeting at the distributorship, and then started going around to the radio stations, a top 40, and country western, and eventually around noon we had a meeting at the Georgia Tech University, and I was wondering how we were going to handle eating lunch because the DJ and the distributor were white. So then the DJ suggested there’s a diner down the street, so why don’t we send out and order something so we can continue our conversation. That’s the way we got around that situation.
A couple years later, they were saying ‘you have to come back Eddie,’ and I did go back. They picked me up at the airport, first class hotel, and they took me to fancy restaurants, it was like a complete change overnight in public facilities. Things were desegregated. It’s amazing that I could go to places like Utah and Iowa to the country radio stations and never run into any racial issues, I never had any problems. They would see me with these country artists, and then I’d tell them, I have another kid that sounds just like Louis Armstrong, (laughs) and he sounded nothing like Louis Armstrong. So, then they’d want to take a listen, it was Fats Domino. Two years later, there wasn’t a truck stop in the country that didn’t have him on their jukebox or stations that weren’t playing him.
Shameika: One of the things that has come up in Rolling Stone articles is that Elvis Presley is the one that created rock and roll. What are your thoughts on that?
Eddie Ray: Back in those days the R&B artists would come out with a hit record. It’s like it is today, how they talk about hip-hop and rap when the white kids do it after the hip-hop artists do it. Back then, the record companies would start cutting cover records with the white artists. So what happened is that it became okay for the white kids to buy the hit records.
So really, they just changed the face, so people would buy the records. Elvis just recreated the sound of what he heard growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was one of the few guys, and I say this now just as I have said it before, but Elvis would sometimes make his cover records sounded as well or better than the original records. For example, the guy that wrote “Don’t Be Cruel,” Otis Blackwell, was from Brooklyn, New York and an African American; he sent it to Elvis sounding just like Elvis. We had him down to Memphis during one of the seminars, and asked him his thoughts about Elvis and his records. His position was, he’d never met him, which surprised everybody, but if I did, I don’t care if it’s on Main Street, but I’d kiss him wherever he wanted to be kissed because he made millions of dollars off that music! (laughs) Most of the covers I did, it really helped the artist out when the other artists covered the songs. Guys like Al Green in Memphis loved Elvis. He was a little bit different than most of the white guys that covered the black artists record. I think it was mainly because he grew up around black people in Mississippi.
Shameika: You started out as a stock boy, and worked your way up the ladder. What do you think about today’s microwave society where people want success instantly and don’t want to work for it?
Eddie Ray: It was different back then. I would have loved to have success fast back then. I think there are some advantages. As soon as I got involved in writing songs, producing, national sales and promotion, what I learned is that when I went to the major companies like Capitol Records I had a tremendous advantage over most of the other contemporary executives that worked there with me because they only knew that part of the business. I knew everything from the stocking, A&R, music publishing, and that gave me an advantage. I learned that you have to learn everything you can. Knowing that you have the ability to move up will help you build confidence in yourself.
Shameika: Since you mentioned Fats Domino, let’s talk about how you impacted the career of Pink Floyd.
Eddie Ray: Oh Pink Floyd! Now that is a story. Capitol Records was owned by an English company called EMI. The British Invasion is what we called it in the ‘60s. Prior to that, R&B and pop music were the hottest thing going. Capitol Records was handling artists like Nat King Cole, Barbara Streisand; the producers stayed and worked for the company, and things had changed so you had independent producers, and A&R got younger artists and younger songwriters and producers. We began to take the 30 to 40% of the total record sales from the majors which were Columbia, Capitol, and Warner Bros. EMI started sending stuff to Capitol and they started turning them down, they couldn’t hear that kind of music that they had been accustomed to and their sales people didn’t know how to sell that kind of music. So what happened is they started going to independents. EMI decided to start a new division at Capitol and they called it Tower Records and they named it after the building in Hollywood. They wanted someone that was the head of A&R that understood this new music and wanted to go through independent distribution, so they hired me. So the first thing I did was go through the catalog. I heard a record from Freddie and the Dreamers. I liked it and said I needed to check on it, and I found in an English newspaper that they were coming to America to do shows like Shindig. I picked them up when they released it and it was my first hit record. The next one I picked up out of Seattle was an Irish guy named Ian Whitcomb, and that record went to number one. I kept watching this group called Pink Floyd in England that was making noise and I picked them up, in 1965 and re-released two albums when they came to America. It’s strange how things happen. I had a reception for them in Santa Monica, I executives, distributors, and it was about 65 of them. Four years later, after Dark Side of the Moon and the other albums came out, there wasn’t a stadium they couldn’t fill. So really I saved them at Capitol, they would have lost them. They didn’t hit big until 1969, but I picked them up in 1965. If I hadn’t of done that, they would have gone to another label. So that’s why I say I saved Pink Floyd for Capitol Records.
Shameika: You also have a story about trying to sign the Jackson 5. How did that feel to see their career blow up like crazy under the Motown label?
Eddie Ray: I lost the Jackson 5 and I lost Janis Joplin. It was close. I went to Chicago to see the group perform. A guy called me- Henry Johnson, who went on to have a great career at Atlantic Records; he told me there’s a group on a small label making some noise from Indiana, so I went out there to hear them. There wasn’t probably even 35 people in that building but I was fascinated with these kids, especially the lead singer. I didn’t even pay attention to the other groups that performed that day. I talked to the dad, Joe Jackson and he said there’s some other label he had to get back to. I thought since Capitol was the major label, it was always between us and Columbia Records. Of course as history would tell it, the other company was number one to. It was Motown. He called and said they were going with Motown because they could offer them a television show appearance with Diana Ross and we couldn’t do that. I always say that we probably wouldn’t have done anything with Michael Jackson anyway (laughs)!
Shameika: What would you say has been the most challenging moment in your career?
Eddie Ray: Good question. I guess it would be switching from the record business into a television production company, but it was only for one year. However the most challenging one would be going from the music industry into government politics. I was the only guy on an independent agency that was not an attorney that had music industry experience that President Reagan appointed. His position was that it was time to have someone that had practical experience and knowledge and spoke the language of the industry. Not only did I do it well, but I dominated it.