‘It’s gonna take time, a whole lot of precious time ….’ (Rudy Clark/James Ray)
‘A true message always gets through – sometimes it just takes a while’ (Immortal Jukebox)
On 7 February 1964 Pan Am Flight 101 took off from London’s Heathrow Airport bound for New York City.
Thousands of young women, barely controlled by massed ranks of British Bobbies in blue, screamed and sobbed as the plane took off.
For this was no ordinary flight.
No, for Pan Am 101 was carrying a very special group of passengers whose arrival in America that day would change the course of History.
Those passengers were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – The Beatles!
When they touched down at JFK they were greeted by scenes of pandemonium as fans and the media pushed and shoved to get their first glimpse of the Fab Four.
The ‘British Invasion’ had begun and from that day on for the rest of the decade there was no question about who the most popular and successful group in the world was and who were the most famous and instantly recognisable faces on the entire planet.
But, before an invasion there is usually a reconnaissance.
You send a scout ahead.
And, for The Beatles, the scout was George Harrison.Embed from Getty Images
For though The Beatles didn’t land on the soil of the Promised Land until February 1964 George had spent two weeks there in September 1963.
Well, George was the youngest of the three Harrison siblings.
Brother Peter was three years older than George but Sister Louise was 12 years older and long before The Beatles were even a madcap dream in the minds of John and Paul she had left the grim austerity of post War Liverpool to travel the world with her mining engineer husband.
And, in September 1963, she was living at 113 McCann Street, Benton, Illinois a coal town with a population of under 10, 000 souls.
After the release of ‘She Loves You’ in Britain in August 1963 Brain Epstein decided that in view of the immense workload they had already completed and the even more taxing plans he had for their future it was time The Beatles took a break.
John went to Paris while Paul and Ringo jetted off to Greece.
George, with brother Peter, went to Benton to visit Louise, arriving there on September 16th.
His time in Benton would be for George, as Paris and Greece would be for his fellow Beatles, the last time they could ever walk the streets of any town or city without being instantly recognised and/or mobbed.
George would always remember his first, incognito, exposure to American culture and wonder at the freedom of being able to wander at will wherever he pleased.
On that trip he bought a Rickenbacker at the Fenton Music Store at 601 South 10th Street, Mt Vernon, IL for $400.
He would play this on the pioneering UK TV Show, Ready, Steady, Go’ on 4 October.
Along with Louise he hitchhiked to Radio Station WFRX and presented them with a mint copy of, ‘She Loves You’.
He also hooked up with a guy called Gabe McCarty a member of a local group called the Four Vests and on 28 September George took the stage with them at The Veterans Hall in Eldorado.
The patrons that night were the first Americans to hear George rip into, ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Matchbox’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.
George flew back to England on October 3rd.
In his luggage, along with the precious Rickenbacker, was more treasure in the form of vinyl.
George, a true fan of music as well as a musician, had haunted the record stores in Illinois and NYC looking for gems that were hard to find at home.
No one in the stores had ever heard of The Beatles but the shelves groaned with records that George had only ever read about in magazines or heard about from American musicians he had met in Hamburg.
He bought a lot of premium Blues and R&B sides by the likes of Booker T and the MGs and Bobby Bland.
His eye was particularly caught by an LP bearing the name of James Ray on the Caprice Label.
He knew the name because The Beatles had been regularly featuring Ray’s hauntingly other-worldly, ‘If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody’ since Paul had found a copy at Brian Epstein’s NEMS Record Shop.
Spinning the platter back at 113 McCann he became especially fond of one track in particular – ‘I’ve Got My Mind Set On You’ and his love and admiration for the song would survive the madness of Beatlemania and the glory days of his solo career.
George could instantly recognise that there was a keening, spiritual, quality in James’ voice that gave a profound allure to everything he sang.
Sing it James!
The song was written by Rudy Clark who had written, ‘If You Gotta ..’ and would go on to write, ‘Good Lovin’, ‘Its in His Kiss’, and, ‘Everybody plays The Fool’ among other Hits.
The, ‘Let’s try everything we can think of’ arrangement was by Hutch Davie who had played the piano on, ‘Green Door’ and arranged Santo & Johnny’s wonderful guitar instrumental, ‘Sleepwalk’.
What lifts the track beyond a novelty of its time is James Rays’ stunning vocal.
James can really sing.
There is a yearning, as long as I’m singing this song I can make it through, quality to James’ voice which makes me hit the repeat button repeatedly every time I play any side he ever cut (and tragically there are probably less than 30).
You get the sense that there are ghosts hovering round James whispering secrets from beyond the veil and that James can’t help but hear even though he knows those voices are calling him to follow to the lands across the Styx.
We know so little about this wonderful artist.
It seems he was born James Ray Raymond in Washington D.C in 1941 and that he served some time in the Military.
He first appears on record in 1959 as, ‘Little Jimmy Ray’ (he was all of 5ft tall on tip toe) but it is not until he hooked up with Rudy Clark and Gerry Granahan at Caprice Records that he made anything that stirred the airwaves or set the nickels flowing on The Jukeboxes.
‘If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody’ has been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Ben E King, Lou Rawls and Bobby Gentry – superb artists all – yet not one of them has approached the spectral grace of James’ version (I plan to write a dedicated Post on the song later this year).
It seems that James had a drug problem and that when he was, ‘discovered’ by Rudy Clark he was homeless and finding such shelter as he could on apartment block rooftops.
He only recorded one LP and even the date and place of his death and where he is buried are unknown.
It seems likely that he was already dead when The Beatles landed at JFK.
In a business filled with tragic tales James’ tale is among the most tragic.
Yet, thanks to George Harrison and the other luminaries his name lives on at least for those who read sleeve notes and song writing credits.
George recorded his take on ‘I’ve Got My Mind Set On You’ some 24 years after he first encountered it back in Benton.
His version is considerably more upbeat in tone than James’.
The song was recorded in George’s home studio within Friary Park his 120 room neo-gothic mansion.
Stellar musicians like Jim Keltner on Drums and Jim Horn on Saxophone feature on a characteristically multi layered production by Jeff Lynne who also provides creamy backing vocals.
This record is very much a 1980s record with a big sound that along with the winning video demolished all hesitation in the record buying public.
A Number One Hit!
It is not inconceivable that many seeing the song on MTV did not know this George Harrison fellow’s History!
Certainly not one in 10,000 who bought the record knew anything about James Ray.
But George did and I can’t help but think he had a thought for James as he recorded it and when he played it live.
Talking of live action here’s George giving the song the full lash in Japan backed by Eric Clapton’s ensemble.
Now, I love George’s version but it’s not the one I sometimes wake up singing.
No, it’s James Ray’s version which lingers like morning mist in my imagination.
James Ray’s voice was stilled some sad day in the mid 1960s but the eerie sound of his voice will always echo on and on.
Sing it James.
Notes and Call for Information!
There’s an excellent website toppermost,co.uk (Twitter @AgeingRaver) which publishes highly informative and entertaining top 10s on many artists beloved by The Jukebox.
The entry on James Ray written by the learned Dave Stephens (Twitter @DangerousDaveXX) is excellent.
The only CD I can find for James Ray is, ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody – Golden Classics’ on the Gotham Label. Only 12 tracks and poorly presented but every track demands your attention.
If anyone knows anything more about James Ray’s life and death please let me know.
Also there’s surely a great documentary to be made about George’s time in Benton and about the fellow passengers on Pan Am 101 – again anyone who has any stories let me know!