Interview by Sandra Davidson & Wayne Martin | Photos Courtesy N.C. Music Hall of Fame
Edward Riley Ray, commonly known as Eddie Ray, is a North Carolina treasure and commercial music industry icon. Born in 1926 in Western North Carolina, Eddie worked his way up from stock-boy at a Milwaukee record distribution warehouse to the gilded executive rooms of America’s biggest record labels. A true innovator, Eddie relied on his gut instinct, appetite for work, and disregard for social and industry norms to build a career that contributed to the success of musicians like Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and Pink Floyd. Eddie dabbled in distribution, promotion, songwriting, production, A&R, and music education. Though his accomplishments are many, some of the key moments of his career are as follows:
Now 92-years-old, Eddie reflects on his career in this interview.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where in North Carolina are you are from and what was your musical upbringing like?
I’m from the State of North Carolina. I was born up in the Great Smoky Mountains about 75 miles on the other side of Asheville, North Carolina in a little town called Franklin. We listened to all kinds of music, but I grew up mainly listening to country and bluegrass. I didn’t hear much blues until I left North Carolina because I was up in the mountains listening to WBT, WSB, and WSM out of Nashville – the Grand Ole Opry and all that. I always loved music.
I left Franklin when I was 16 years of age to finish high school at Laurinburg Institute, which at the time was one of the best and one of the very few boarding high schools in the country for African American kids. A lot of very important people graduated from that school. Dizzy Gillespie graduated a few years before I did!
When I graduated from Laurinburg, the war was just about over. I had three brothers. One was in the tank destroyer battalion that went up into Germany, the other was in the Air Force that [flew] out of Italy and went into North Africa, and the other one was in the Navy, so I wanted to go into service. There were often special senior high school students [who went into] Army Specialized Training Programs and I took the test [for that] after I graduated in June of 1944. I was working in a ball bearing factory in Connecticut when I got a notice that I had passed. I was one of 133 other African American high school students [who passed]. They sent me to Howard University in Washington, D.C. until I became 18, and then I had to come back to North Carolina to do my basic training. It was there they discovered the formation of cataracts on both eyes. I was honorably discharged, and then I didn’t know what to do!
I decided to go to college. I contacted a lot of universities, but I liked the pictures of the campus of University of Delaware. I made the decision based on what I saw on the campus, but for some reason [before I left] I saw an ad saying “Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” and I cancelled my plans and went to Milwaukee.
I went to get a job and was sent to a factory. I weighed about 125 or 130 pounds, and they said, “Get out of here you can’t do this work.” I didn’t argue with them, but I went back and they said, “There’s a distributing company for a record company named Decca Records here. They are looking for somebody to work in the shipping department.” The job was the lowest job there is – stock boy, and I took it. That was the start of a career I’ve been doing ever since. I learned everything there was to learn about the music business.
You’ve credited your success to two things: you have good timing and you know how to recognize talent. Will you talk about what it takes to recognize talent?
I think it came from those days when I was invited to go to sessions at Aladdin records. I would pay close attention to what was happening between the arranger, the producer, the engineer, and the artist, and I noticed one thing that I thought was a mistake [from] most A&R people.
And an artist is funny when they first start out in a session. They want to satisfy me. They want to satisfy the record company because we’re putting the money up. We’re doing everything, and A&R people had the tendency to want them to do what they were unable to do.
[When] you sign up an artist, you sign them because you detect the talent that they have. The uniqueness. The diversity.
[I remember] they [would] say, “Eddie how should I do this? How do you want me to do this?”
I’d say, “You’re kidding me. If I knew how to do it, I’d do it myself. I wouldn’t need you or to hire somebody else to do it. I want you to do what you feel. I don’t give a damn what the arranger wants.”
And they can understand that. They’d never had that kind of relationship with the A&R people before.
A lot of people ask me how would you want to be remembered. I’m never concerned about those kinds of things. I’m not the one that needs to be credited with anything that’s happened. For me it’s those talented artists I’ve worked with who should get the claim, not me.
Will you tell us about your relationship with Mike Curb who helped revitalize the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame with you?
It’s a very strange thing. I was with Imperial Records, but I had made a commitment to Capitol Records. Capitol was owned by EMI, an English company. They had started losing a lot of their English acts because the A&R staff and the marketing staff at Capitol Records had no experience with those kinds of artists. [We were in the middle of] the English Invasion as we referred to it in the industry, and those kind of artists were more closely attuned to what independent companies had been doing, which I had been doing. So, I made a deal as A&R head for the new company at Capitol, and I was getting ready to leave Imperial, and the secretary came and said there’s a young man here to see you. I said, “Who?” She said, “His name is Mike Curb.” I had a rule that I never would see anybody unless I had a previous appointment. I had a lot of rules but thank God I was the type of guy who would break rules. For whatever reason I said send him in. This kid walks in. He’s about 17 and he told me about a group and he said, “I’d like to do an audition for them.”
I said, “Okay.”
I thought he had a demo. I reached my hand out, and he said, “No, I want to do a live audition.” I said, “Live? I don’t do live auditions,” but for some reason I said, “Okay.” He goes out to the car and brings in these three girls. He sets up at the little piano and they perform songs he produced.
I told him that I would be leaving the company in a month, and I forgot all about it. I really did.
First day at Capitol – first DAY - they called me and say, “There’s a young man here to see you.” I said, ‘Send him up.” We started talking and I was more impressed with him than I was with any of the [artists he presented]]. I talked to the President and I told him I wanted to hire him as a fulltime producer. He said, “Eddie if you feel that way about him [do it].” [At that time] they had A&R old guys who were producing Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand – no young producer like Mike. He was all excited about it and started the contract to the legal department. He would’ve been by far the first young person Capitol ever hired.
Mike came by one day and said, “Mr. Ray I want to talk to you. I want to thank you for all you’re trying to do for me, but I think I’m going to try it on my own at least for another 10 years.” I had more respect for him then than ever.
Then he brought me another guy who took an old song called “Apache” and redid it and called it “Apache 65” and I said, “Mike why don’t you put this out locally on your own and if it starts making some noise I’ll let you use my promotion man on the west coast. And I want an option on it for Capitol.”
He said, “How do I do that?” I told him how to do it. Press about 500 records – he didn’t know how to do that, so I called the pressing plant for him. It’s the first record on Curb Records. We broke it in Bakersfield, California of all places. Then I picked it up for Capitol and [it became] his first Billboard record on Curb Records. Then he came to me with another thing. He goes to AIP – American International Pictures – and he tells them he’s got a deal with Capitol Records for soundtracks, and he wants to produce soundtracks. They were doing motorcycle movies and surfing movies and Nancy Sinatra Peter Fonda movies. He tells them he’ll do the soundtrack for all the movies, and he had guaranteed distribution through Capitol. He comes to me and tells me he’s got the deal with AIP. He ain’t got the deal with either one of us!
Then I say how much is it going to cost me. He gave me a figure that was unbelievable. It was nothing. This deal went on for three years and we had about six or seven albums, but that’s why I got my vice presidency with Capitol Records. Of course, I picked up Pink Floyd – that helped.
But that’s the story of Mike and I. Later on, I get this call from Mike, he must’ve been 24 or 25. He’d just been hired as President of MGM Records and wanted me to come work as Senior Vice President, and I did. It’s a hell of a story. We’ve been friends ever since.
Will you tell that Pink Floyd story?
See I came a little too early. This was in ’66 I believe. I picked up Freddie and the Dreamers and they went number one. I started hearing all about Pink Floyd doing so well in England, so I went over. And then I checked to see what Capitol was going to do [with them]. They had first refusal rights on all EMI products for Americans [and] for Mexico and South America. They only had two months left on the option to pick it up, so I decided to pick them up. I brought them over and we did the master of the tape there at Capitol. We had the Beatles [who] were hot as a pistol then. They are all excited about – did the Beatles use this studio?
Then I had Mike Curb help them master the album. He tells me years later, “Eddie I didn’t know how to master.” He’d been working with those damn high school students! But anyway, they came and it was unbelievable. We had a pre-release party with local distributors and DJs for the first album, and I think only about 90 people showed up. Two years later they came out there and they filled the stadium after Dark Side of the Moon. But what I did is save them for Capitol. They would have lost them.
What wisdom do you like to offer people interested in going into the business?
Students [often] ask me to offer advice, and I say, “Whatever success I’ve had – if I had it – has nothing to do with you. It had to do with me. I can’t transfer that. I want you to be certain about what you want to do. Is this what you want to do? Do you think you’re somebody? Do you think you’re an artist? If you think that, then you go out and get it done. I want you to please that voice inside you. That’s the only thing that counts. Learn everything there is about the industry and about what you’re doing. Everything there is.”
Why was it important to you to be a part of revitalizing and building the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame?
I think it’s especially important for the artists that came from here that had to go away and they never got any recognition! Look at the jazz artists that came from here. Look at the bluegrass. Look at the country. Look at the gospel.
People that have contributed in other ways - like in the textile industry or in basketball - people in all the other industries that brought economic success to the state [are recognized]. Music and arts bring some of that too, but it brings other things that are more personal. It has to do with the emotions. It has to do with so much of the total enjoyment of life. Why shouldn’t it be recognized and publicized and honored the same way you honor Duke Industries for all the things that they have done? Or the medical field?
One of the things that I preach to the board is I don’t think of the induction ceremony as being a money maker. This is one of our reasons for being here -- to honor these people. To recognize, to honor, and to promote them because they were never given that honor before. I think it’s so important.
If you'd like to learn more about the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, visit their website here.
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.