If you ever have the opportunity to
speak with a legend who has lived an honest, successful, and fulfilling
life, make darn sure you don't pass on the chance. While you're at it,
you might want to seriously listen to what this person is saying -- with
any luck you'll learn a little about yourself.
Ray Walker is easily one of those legends. Needless to say, I did listen
and learned a little about myself.
And a bunch of other interesting stuff, too.
XMFan: What is your earliest
Ray: My earliest musical memory
is around two years old. My dad was a minister and I can remember
singing, "Jesus Loves Me". My mother said I was carrying a tune almost
from birth, and I would crawl and scoot around the house humming - even
though I didn't know a song.
XMFan: Your family moved around a
bit during your childhood. How did that influence your music and life in
Ray: I'm seventy years old now
and have finally realized I am, you know, an airhead. I must be, because
we looked at moving from place to place as a reward, like a Christmas
present. I was never afraid of the schools, even though I was a shy kid.
I never minded the moving and we were extremely fortunate, especially
since my dad always took the hard churches. He was an evangelist, and
would always go to the places where they were fussing and fighting... By
the time he left they would all be having picnics in the park together.
As the Lord would have it, the educational systems got better and better
every time we moved. More things were added. We started singing
four-part harmony when I was in the third grade in Paragould, Arkansas.
At that time the schools were divided by grades one through six and
seven through twelve - they didn't have any other divisions at that
time. Around seventh grade we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, and I
had the chance to learn about electricity, drafting, shop, mechanical
arts and woodworking. I had six years of learning these skills in school
before we moved to Jacksonville, where I graduated high school. I can
build my own house thanks to an education that kept getting better.
I went off to David Lipscomb College in June of 1952 and graduated in
1957. I've lived in Nashville ever since.
How did your wife Marilyn fit in during all of this?
Ray: We met when we were fourteen
years old in Jacksonville, and daddy was the minister of the church they
attended. Our churches always had youth groups with young people
learning and training, little parties for them, and dad believed the
youth really needed that type of experience. We dated for a year and it
was all she wrote once I really got to know her. In 1950 she had to go
back to Detroit with her dad, who was a skilled machinist. We wrote for
about a year and then got separated a bit. I lost touch with her until I
got a letter the end of the next year.
When I went to college in Nashville in 1952, I was studying for my final
exams one day in December. I put my book down on my desk and told my
friend Gary I just had to know where Marilyn was. He asked me the last
place where I knew she might be, and I told him she had been living in
Detroit but was thinking of joining the Navy. He told me there was a boy
in his Bible class from Detroit - he was the only one from Detroit out
of 2,200 students that year - and he would have the boy come speak with
me. Later that day I spoke with him, his name was Charles Black, and he
told me Marilyn was a member of the church where his daddy preached. Out
of 52 Church of Christ churches in Detroit at that time she could have
attended, she went to that one. He agreed to ask if she'd send her
address so I could write.
After the holidays I wrote her and got an airmail letter back! Soon
after she came down to visit thirteen of us at Lipscomb that had all
gone to church in Jacksonville together. We were dating by the time she
left, and were married a year and a half later.
XMFan: I would imagine the pace
of your life changed when you joined
The Jordanaires in 1958...
Ray: It slowed down, actually. My
pace has been about 20 hours a day for as long as I can remember. I have
always been involved in youth work, volunteering time as a deputy
sheriff, working 72 hours a week on campus in college to make my way
through, and so on.
I was teaching school after I graduated in '57 and one day we were
having our free period. This was in the spring of '58. I called Lipscomb
in reference to a medal I had won for a song leaders contest while I was
there but had never received. When I called in to the music hall my
former choral director Buddy Arnold answered the phone. Now Buddy had
never been early for anything the four years I knew him, but happened to
be there early that day. He told me Gordon Stoker had just called him to
let him know The Jordanaires were looking for a bass singer. Buddy asked
me if I'd be interested, and I told him they were the one group I would
consider singing with. He called Gordon right back and gave him my name.
Gordon called me later that day and asked when I could come down to sing
with them. We agreed I would come to the studio at WSM that night around
eleven, where they would be wrapping up a show. So I went down to WSM,
on Seventh Avenue, and sang with them. I was able to do everything they
needed me to do - I already knew their number system and had a lower
range than the bass they formerly had. When I got home my wife asked me
if I had been given the job. I said, "Yeah. They haven't told me so, but
we worked well. I'll get the job."
They called me the next day at school and asked if I could go to
Hollywood with them to do four singles as
The Jordanaires and Four with Tommy
Sands for Capitol Records. I got a suitcase and took off for
Hollywood. After that I came back to school, and it was getting close to
finals time in April of '58. They called to ask if I could travel with
them to do Dick Clark's show that weekend and I told them no, because my
students had to have substitutes while I was gone and I needed to get
them ready for finals. Gordon said, "What if I told you that if you
can't go on this trip, we'll have to take our next choice?" I said,
"Then you'll have to do it, because if I break this contract to go with
you, I would break yours to go with somebody else." He asked when could
I start coming to the Opry to get used to things, and I told him, "This
Saturday." So I did that, and completed the school year. I officially
took the Jordanaires job on June 1, 1958, after school ended, but
started working with them in April.
Every major turn in my life has never been planned. I have never filled
out a job application in my entire life. And I've never worried about it
- I know the money will be there, I know the job will be there, I knew
my children were going to be healthy.
You have an interesting Elvis
story to tell from before you even met him.
Ray: While I was teaching school
we had a thirty-minute free period in the mornings. For the back of my
classroom I bought an overstuffed sofa and chair, a rug and a table, and
a record player, tape player, and radio. I had magazines back there too
-- everything from Bugs Bunny comics to Harper's Bazaar and National
Geographic. When the students would finish their deskwork to their
satisfaction, they could turn in their paper and go back there while the
others finished their studies. Well I brought some music down there,
including an Elvis Presley record I wanted them to hear. All the kids
liked him so I brought the records. I was actually a DJ when Elvis came
out in '54, '55, '56, before he even came to RCA, so I had his first
One of the teachers down the hall did not like me playing the Elvis
records and made a complaint to the school board. They came out to see
me, and I asked what this was all about. They said, "Well, we understand
you're playing Elvis Presley records in the morning." I told them I did
during the thirty-minute free period. They mentioned it was bothering
some, and I asked, "Bothering who? It's not bothering the parents." They
wouldn't say which teacher had filed the complaint and told me not to
play the records anymore. I told them ok, recorded the records on tape,
and started playing the songs on tape.
Of course the teacher reported me again and the board came back out. I
told them, "I'm not playing Elvis records. I'm playing tapes." They told
me not to play the tapes either, and they didn't really want to hear
about this again. I said to them, "Look, I know exactly what I'm doing.
I'm young, but I know what I'm doing. You see this man (Elvis)
as a threat, but I see him as part of a culture coming on. If we don't
get used to it, our kids are going to be off the deep end. We'd better
learn to fit him in to our lives somehow, because he's going to be
around a while." They still told me not to play him and I agreed.
At that point I started to turn the radio on, and they would always play
one or two Elvis Presley songs. Finally the board told me not do any of
it, even the radio. I informed them that they had drawn their line, and
I had drawn mine. I was going to continue playing the radio and if Elvis
happened to be on it was their tough luck. I also challenged them to
look at my student's grades at the end of the school year - and that the
teacher down the hall should mind her own business.
XMFan: How about the first time
you actually met Elvis?
Ray: Everyone was nervous during
my first Jordanaires session with Elvis. We were looking the other way
when Elvis came in. When I turned around, he stuck his hand out and
said, "I'm Elvis Presley." I said, "I know who you are. I'm Ray Walker."
Elvis replied to me, "And I know who you are." We stood there and
talked, and the minute I looked in to his face all his fame left. I saw
one of the nicest guys. I'm not really one to keep my mouth shut most of
the time, as long as I know there's no harm, so during that all-night
session I said to him, "You know, your heart's going to take a beating
in this business. And I've only been in it three weeks." (Laughs)
I really liked him right off.
There was just an aura about him -- you knew he was around -- and he was
one of the most impressive people I have ever met in my life. He knew
exactly what he wanted but would not go past what he could do -- he
would while he was playing around, but would never put it on a record.
He was just a good man, and I never changed my opinion of him.
XMFan: How was life on the road
during those early days of rock and roll?
Ray: We always flew when we
traveled. During my first year we were doing an average of two sessions
a day, five days a week in the studio. Then, for the next twenty to
twenty-five years, we were doing two to four sessions a day, seven days
a week. We recorded all the time, which is why we couldn't go to the
hotel with Elvis. We were on eight out of the top ten songs on the chart
several times. At one time, we had a part in nine of the top ten songs
on the chart, and would have had all ten if one of our songs wouldn't
have dropped out when another came in! On another chart we had
eighty-two out of the top hundred songs where we had done backgrounds.
I've gotta find that chart -- it was unbelievable.
XMFan: The list of artists you
have worked with over the years, like
Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves,
is just incredible...
Connie Francis -- over 2500
performers. You just name 'em.
XMFan: How did it feel to be a
young man singing in front of such large crowds? Any Butterflies?
Ray: No, I have always performed
to full houses. We had a school that would hold 1,100 in one auditorium.
In college we had an auditorium that would hold around 2,500. I've been
in front of people since I was six years old, and started teaching
children's song classes when I was nine. The bigger the crowd the better
off you are, because you can't pick out anybody that hates you. (Laughs)
We did Hawaii with Elvis, which was incredible, but everywhere we went
there was a full crowd. When you're up there doing your work you don't
have time to calculate crowd sizes.
XMFan: In how many live
performances have you participated over the years?
Ray: Well, I've been in the
public eye for over sixty years so probably at least 3,000-plus
performances easily, besides church services. I'm in the public
somewhere, at some kind of a gathering, every week. And it's been that
way for over fifty years.
XMFan: As a singer, then later as
the host of your own local show, how did you enjoy the perils of live
Ray: It's a funny thing. We just
did what we were supposed to do and never had any disasters that I can
remember. As singers we never knew how we sounded going out on the air
as far as balance, because we all shared on mic, but would usually sound
better with one mic anyhow.
XMFan: Have you saved any
memorabilia from your incredible journey?
Ray: Yes, I've got a lot of
things in a storage unit that I'm due to do something with - I really
need an extra room in my house. I still stay busy as the music minister
at my church, among other things, and just don't have the time.
XMFan: What were a few of the
last things you remember saying to Elvis?
Ray: One of the last things we
ever did was take a walk in the back yard by this round house in Beverly
Hills - I called it the "donut house." We talked about God and the
presence of God, and discussed the different religions. He was one of
the best-read people I have ever met on the subject of religion.
I also remember the last thing we did live with him, which was at RCA
Victor around September of 1970. This was when we met Priscilla. He had
just come off the road after three weeks and was unhappy with a live
album that was in the works, so we were called in to redo some of the
country stuff. I got to the studio early, and the big "A" studio is 75
feet wide, 150 feet long, and probably about 50 feet high. He normally
worked at RCA "B", but was in "A" this time. The control room is way at
one end and the door where we loaded in is on the other end. Elvis was
sitting in a metal chair in the control room, listening to a demo and
facing where I came in. I came in the back door - and it was a bright
day - so I'm sure it caused some sunspots there in the room. Suddenly I
saw this rushing figure coming towards me. Elvis ran up to me, grabbed
me and lifted me under the arms, and just started to swing me around. He
said, "I'm so glad to see you! Are the other guys coming?" I said,
"Yeah, they'll be here in a little bit."
So we walked back to the control room and talked a little. He was really
hyper after being on the road for three weeks and doing two shows a day.
The control guys told me later they wished I could have seen the look on
Elvis' face when I came through that back door. They said as soon as I
walked though that back door Elvis stood straight up, stepped over the
back of the chair, stepped over the railing that divides the people from
the control panel, went through the first door, and before that door
could even close had the other door open and was running for me. I look
back now and it means more now than it did then, because I was just so
surprised at the time and it really honored me greatly.
I remember one of the conversations we had in the hallway during that
session. I told Elvis I was sorry we couldn't be working with him in
Vegas, but that we had our families to... He interrupted me and said,
"Listen, don't you apologize. I wish I had as much reason to stay home."
That's exactly what he said to me. We would of course chitchat with
other people around, but that is probably the last personal thing he
ever said to me.
XMFan: How did you hear the
dreadful news on August 16, 1977?
Ray: I was driving from a
recording session in east Nashville and was coming around town on the
loop. It was raining so hard I couldn't see the end of the hood on my
car. I was listening to the station I always did to hear how our songs
were doing. I'll never forget the voice that came over the air and said,
"It is official. Elvis Presley is dead at the age of forty-two." I don't
even remember hearing the rest of it. I said out loud, "Would The
Colonel pull something like that? Surely he wouldn't do something like
this for publicity." By the time I got to my office in Green Hills,
which was about another ten miles away, there were reporters waiting
from the different networks. I didn't believe it - I didn't know, and I
didn't believe it.
Someone at the office asked me what my one wish about Elvis would be if
I knew it could be true. I said I would wish he could be around long
enough to know how people really loved him. Him. Not his music, not his
life, not his image. Him. The
person wondered how I would know that, and I said, "Look, when Elvis
Presley got so big, the young ones from fourteen on down loved him -
little babies too - and the grandmothers and granddaddies. They were the
ones that weren't afraid of him. They were the ones that really knew
him." And that's true.
I have never felt him gone at all.
XMFan: What are a few
observations you have made with the entertainment industry today versus
fifty years ago?
Ray: Fifty years ago there were
only three music charts, then as the music came along they had to make
other charts. Country turned in to rock and roll - Elvis thought he was
singing country when he first recorded. So did Conway Twitty. Disc
jockey Alan Freed in Cleveland
mentioned he didn't know what was happening, but kids were rocking and
rolling in the streets. This is where the term "Rock and Roll" came
from. Of course now you've got metal, rhythm and blues, you've got
bluegrass - so many different varieties, it's unbelievable. Same thing
with cars. You used to be able to identify them when there were only
three or four companies making them, but now look at what you've got.
The one thing I have really detested is the deterioration of the subject
matter in the songs, and what the "Me, me, me, I've got my rights" is
doing to this country. I gave talks just about every week in the
eighties about how we have started fighting about rights and stopped
fighting about principles, and we are writing ourselves in to bondage.
Who would have ever thought that in this electronic world, when we could
all be enjoying things so much, and serving so many people... You have
to remember, the crooks have use of the same improvements. We have not
appreciated the progress that man has made. I believe if you don't do at
least one thing for someone else every day you aren't much of a human
XMFan: As a close personal friend
of Elvis, what final words do you have about him?
Ray: I know how Elvis felt and I
know how he thought. I'll tell you this... The Bible says, "...the sons
of darkness are wiser after the things of this world than the children
of light." Elvis did not know how to think like a son of darkness; he
just didn't. He always had the same beautiful heart that he ever had.
Look at the opinions about him now - look at the records he's selling.
It's not because that music is any better than it used to be. But it's
Elvis man, it's Elvis... Look at the way he affected people's lives. You
don't do that with just talent - you do that by being the person you
I'll tell you one more thing I believe about Presley. If Presley is
anywhere around... Well he's giving the Devil a fit. His heart was so
good that if he's around the Devil, I pity the Devil. (Laughs)
Ray Walker and The Jordanaires can be
heard on 50's on 5, 60's on 6, 70's on 7, America, Nashville, Hank's
Place, The Village, Spirit, and The Fish.