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Issue 1084

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Dobie Gray R.I.P - 26th June 1940 - 6th December 2011

Dobie Gray @bluesandsoul.com
Dobie Gray @bluesandsoul.com Dobie Gray @bluesandsoul.com

Soul legend Dobie Gray has sadly gone to the big gig in the sky, after losing his battle with cancer. He died at his home in Nashville on Tuesday 6th December, aged 71-years-old. Heâd had cancer for some time, but kept the news private. He recently underwent surgery, and âcomplicationsâ are said to have claimed his life in the end. Charlie Andrews, Gray's attorney and friend, said that Gray died at home in his sleep early on Tuesday, and had been in declining health for several months.

An icon among Northern Soul fans, Dobie had a massive global hit with âDrift Awayâ in 1973, which sold over a million copies and has since been recorded by many stars including Roy Orbison, Rod Stewart and Ray Charles.

The most contemporary version was by American rock-rapper Unkle Kracker, who covered it on his âNo Stranger to Shameâ album. The 2003 track, was collaboration with Dobie Gray himself, who featured in the video. It reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, and topped the Adult Contemporary chart for a record-breaking 28 weeks. It placed nineteenth in the Billboard year end Hot Singles of 2003.

The rocker/rapper commented on Dobieâs passing on his Twitter page. âMy heart goes out to Dobieâs family this evening. RIP Dobie Gray. Thank you for the music. You will not be forgotten.â Other stars marking his death, include Hip-hop producer Timbaland, who paid tribute to Gray on Twitter: "RIP Dobie Gray". Charlatansâ front-man Tim Burgess said: "Sad to hear of the death of Dobie Gray. Out on the floor. Rest in peace."

Dobieâs follow up to âDrift Awayâ was âLoving Arms," written by Tom Jans, and produced by Mentor Williams. Since covered by everyone from Elvis to Ray Charles. Then he released Northern Soul fave, âOut On The Floorâ in 1966. His first Top Twenty US hit (# 13) was âThe âInâ Crowdâ in 1965. âThe In Crowdâ was written by Billy Page, based on an idea suggested by Dobie. It reached number 25 in the UK, and covered by many others, including the Ramsey Lewis Trio. That 1965 instrumental version was an even bigger hit than Dobieâs. Bryan Ferry resurrecting it in 1974.

Dobie said in the 70s, that he had not received any royalties from his own version of âThe âInâ Crowd.â His biggest record, âDrift Away,â reached number five in the US chart, but was not released here, even though most UK soul fans have it in their collection. He also gave us "See You at the Go-Go." Citing management problems, his singing career was put on hold when he took a job in the LA production of the musical âHair,â for over two years in the late 60s. He also sang and recorded two albums on the Prophecy label, with the band Pollution, during his stint in Hair. Now rare and sought-after collectibles.

He was a versatile singer and song-writer, and had success with material including soul, rhythm-and-blues, country, Tex Mex, disco and gospel. Often described as âa singerâs singer - a songwriterâs songwriter.ââ¨â¨He moved from LA to Music City, Nashville in 1978 to be among songwriters, and had success penning hits for other artists. These included Ray Charles (âOver and Over, Againâ), Julio Iglesias (âIf I Ever Needed Youâ) and George Jones (âCome Home to Meâ). Plus; Etta James, Nina Simone, Brook Benton, Paul Rogers, and a number of other talented Artists. Gray owned a studio in Nashville, Quadrafonic Studios, on 18th Avenue, which is part of what is known as âMusic Row.â It was here that he recorded three albums for MCA Records.

In the 70s, he performed in South Africa only after persuading the apartheid authorities to allow him to play to integrated audiences, becoming the first artist to do so in that country. His popularity in South Africa continued through subsequent concert tours. He had eight gold singles, four platinum albums and an unprecedented nine concert tours in S.A.

After his career was revived by âDrift Away,â he used his fame to help support political causes. He campaigned for Jimmy Carter in his 1976 presidential race.

Country superstars The Dixie Chicks cut some of his songs on their multi-million selling albums, Dobie guesting at massive US arena shows, singing with them on songs he wrote. They were huge fans.

Dobie honed his strong, soulful tenor voice with years in the gospel choir at the Texas Baptist church, where his grandfather was minister. His early life is a little uncertain. Various sources give his date of birth as 1940, 1942 or 1943. The day is not disputed: Sept. 26th. His birth name was probably Lawrence Darrow Brown, listed in the Fort Bend County Birth Records, as being born in 1940 to Jane P. Spencel and Jethro Clifton Brown. Other sources suggest he may have been born Leonard Victor Ainsworth, a name he used on some early recordings.

He was born into a sharecropper family outside Houston, at Simonton, Texas. (His music publishing company Simonton Music, named after his birth place.) He left Texas in the early 1960s for Los Angeles, to pursue an acting career and using his singing talents to earn extra money.

He met Sonny Bono, then an executive with Specialty Records. Sonny got him a deal with the small label Stripe Records. He made several records under the names Leonard Ainsworth, Larry Curtis and Larry Dennis.

He adopted the name Dobie Gray as advised by Sonny and his new label. His first minor hit, âLook at Me,â was on the Cordak label in 1963 â his seventh release. His new name came from the then-popular TV comedy series, âThe Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis.â But his debut album âLook,â on the Stripe label in â63, failed to sell.

Dobie never married. His regular songwriting partner George âBudâ Reneau, shared his house in Nashville for many years, where Dobie had his own recording studio. It is believed he has a surviving brother and sister. It is understood that Dobie willed much of his property and future earnings to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

A disco track, "You Can Do It" was Dobieâs last Top 40 US hit in 1978. He cut two albums for the label Infinity the same year, but the label went bust and closed. So Dobie quit recording and focused on his songwriting. He re-emerged as a country music recording artist for Capitol in the mid-1980s. In 1997, he released the album âDiamond Cuts,â including both new songs and re-recordings of older material. Since then, there was âSoul Daysâ on the Memphis label in 2011, âDobie Gray: The Ultimate,â in 2011 on Universal Hip-O, âSongs Of The Seasonâ also in â01, on Dobieâs own Dobie Gray Productions label. The last release is: âDobie Gray: A Decade of Dobie (1969-1979)â in 2005, on UMG/Select-O-Hits.

In 2000, Wigan casino DJ Kev Roberts, compiled âThe Northern Soul Top 500,â which was based on a survey of Northern Soul fans. Gray's "Out On The Floor", a 1966 recording which had been a British chart hit in 1975, was placed in the Top 10.

Ironically, Grayâs last website update was in March 2010, where he paid his respects to several deceased stars, including Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger and Patrick Swayze. In a personal message, the singer wrote: âHereâs wishing all of you the very best of everything that life has to offer. From strength to strength! Live every day to the fullest and stay lifted. Better days are ahead!â

Gray released 14 hit singles over a 24-year period, and many of them remain on the play-list of radio stations all over the world, and a staple of Northern Soul DJs nightly offerings. But, the latest "Virgin Book of Hit Singles" describes Dobie Gray as "US, female vocalist (Lawrence Brown)".

In his early years, Dobieâs voice was heard on a number of motion picture soundtracks: âUptown Saturday Night,â âCaseyâs Shadow,â âThe Commitmentâ and Dick Clarkâs teen musical extravaganza, "Out Of Sight,â among them. In the last few decades, his compositions have been used on many film and TV soundtracks.
Dobie sums up his musical objectives, in his official Bio: "My goal is to create the kind of music that makes memories for my audience - music that they will want to revisit time and again. Songs from the heart!"

Sheffield-based blues and soul singer, songwriter and guitarist Frank White was a friend of Dobieâs, having first met him in Nashville in 1991. The pair stayed in touch over two decades. He last spoke to Dobie in the summer, on the telephone at his Nashville home. As he explained: âHe seemed fine. He was in good spirits. He didnât mention his health at all. I was talking about him coming over here to perform, but he said he had no immediate plans to do so. He said he was working with, or about to work with Michael McDonald on a record. I do not know if that ever happened.â

âI was in Nashville in 1991 performing and song writing, and a mutual friend told me Dobie had invited me to his home. My wife and I went, and he sat us down at the mixing desk in his studio, played us his latest songs and apologised for the quality. We laughed, as here we were, sat hearing new stuff from our favourite singer, a legend, and he is saying sorry for the quality.â

âI went to his house again a few years later, about 1996, and then we kept in touch by telephone and letter. He was very open, very friendly, a great singer. Such tone and phrasing. It was a shock to me to be told at the weekend he had gone. It is only a couple of months since I spoke to him. I am very sad.â

Frank revealed he had been helping Dobie chase up potential missing royalty payments for tracks featured on various UK compilation CDs. âI told him of some CDs I had with him on, and he had no knowledge of them, so he asked me to send him copies, which I did. He asked me to track down any more, and so I began to look out for them and send him any I found.â

Dobie used to send Frank new songs he had written, in demo form on cassette tape, for him to select any he wanted to sing and record. He still has those demos, which were recorded at Dobieâs home studio. He would also send Frank a copy of any new recordings he had released. âThere was absolutely no ego to the man. None of that nonsense. He was a very nice, down to earth, gentle man. A huge talent and he will be greatly missed.â

He was said to be working on an auto-biography back in 2007/08/09, called "The Other Side Of The Mountain", but it is not known if that book was ever finished.

* I had asked Dobie if he would grant me an interview for Blues & Soul magazine. We were hoping to speak early in the New Year, on the telephone. I began communicating with Dobie a few years ago, and then last year, asked him if he would sing on an album I had been asked to produce. He agreed to do it, much to my personal delight as a huge Dobie Gray fan myself.

He was fishing out songs for me to hear, and had sent me some via email, to see if any were suitable for the project.

I had already used one of the songs he wrote, called âLove To Burn,â a few years ago when I produced US blues legend Sherman Robertson. I told Dobie I had cut that song of his, which I love, and he asked for a copy which I sent him. Since then, Etta James has recorded it. Dobie told me earlier this year, he himself had re-recorded the song for his next CD.

He was going to sing his part on the track I was producing, at his home studio in Nashville and email me it back to me. Earlier this year, I tried to tempt him to come over to the UK, to allow me to set up some media promotion and live appearances, so he could record his vocal here at the same time.

But he was not keen to leave the US. I now assume he already knew he had cancer then, but did not wish to reveal that as the reason he could not leave the US at that time.

Here is an extract from one of his recent emails to me:

âOf late, I've been travelling much more than I care to, owing to ongoing family issues down in Texas and being in the midst of a new CD.â

âI have had some offers from promoters in the U.K. to come over, but have thus far shied away from. That's not to say that I will continue to do so but it is not yet in the foreseeable future for me.â

âAfter some thirty-odd years out there, I have reached the point of seldom leaving the U.S. I would love to see Merry Old England again, though - so you never know. If there is a change of heart on that matter you will be the first to know.â

âThere are many fine Musicians over there and it would be a terrific boost to my career and to my ever-dwindling, well-being. I have been dealing with a bit of depression - nothing very serious, but nevertheless, unsettling...â

Talking about his contribution to my recording project, as ever; a modest, unassuming man and artist, he promised: âI will try my best to do it the justice it deserves.â

He signed off, âBlessings, Dobie.â

So in the end, I did not get to work with Dobie on the recording, or get to interview him formally before he drifted awayâ¦â¦â¦â¦â¦

"Give me the beat, boy, and free my soul; I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away." RIP Dobie. Thank you for the musicâ¦â¦â¦â¦.
Words SIMON REDLEY

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