Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ray Griff: The Entertainer, coming on Sept. 2, 2014

Ray Griff has written and recorded more country hits than any Canadian country artist in history. By his reckoning, his songs have been recorded over 700 times by many of the biggest names in country music: George Jones, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Mel Tillis, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, etc. 

Griff wrote Sheb Wooley's 1966 hit "I'll Leave the Singin' to the Bluebirds," which I love. It doesn't appear to be on YouTube, so I can't add a link to it. Anyway, after listening to that Sheb Wooley song earlier this year, I went looking for a Ray Griff anthology on Amazon and was surprised when nothing came up in the search results but his old vinyl releases. Why no greatest hits collection?

Looking at Billboard's Top Country Singles book, I saw that Griff charted 24 US country hits from 1967 to 1986, but they were released on seven different record labels, including MGM, Dot, Capitol, and RCA. A greatest hits anthology with recordings from that many labels would be prohibitively expensive to license, which is why no one has ever done it, I assumed. 

Then I talked to Ray and his people and found out that he owns all of his master tapes! He always recorded and produced his recordings independently and then leased the masters to the labels while retaining ownership. He also handled his own management, publishing, and public relations. That's why he was able to change labels so frequently: He did everything himself, so the labels that released his records were just imprints—they didn't have much input into what he was doing beyond pressing his records. He was a free agent; if a better deal came along, he just switched teams. 

I asked Ray if he was interested in doing a career-spanning greatest hits collection, and he said yes, so I contacted my friends at Real Gone Music. Real Gone had recently done an excellent job with their Ronnie Dove anthology and had also released the Bearns & Dexter Best of the Golden Voyage anthology that I compiled earlier this year. 

Real Gone said, "Let's do it!" and we did. Ray mastered the 24-track anthology, The Entertainer: Greatest US and Canadian Hits, himself. For a few songs, Ray wanted to use re-recordings that he thought improved upon the originals, but we wanted to use original chart hits exclusively, so he agreed to do that. As a result, the collection has 23 of Ray's 24 original US country hits as well as his signature tune, "The Entertainer," which was a big hit in Canada in 1969.

Ray came to be known as "The Entertainer" after this song became a hit, because of his incredible stage show. In Canada, in particular, he was a huge concert draw and frequently set attendance records. Women reacted to Ray in concert like they did to Elvis.

The only change Ray made to the track list that I compiled was to replace his first Canadian hit, "That Weepin' Willow Tree," with the minor US country hit "The Hill." "That Weepin' Willow Tree" is a great Elvis Presley-styled rocker that reached the Canadian country Top 10 in 1965 and got Griff into some hot water with Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, because Parker thought that it sounded too much like Elvis. Parker allegedly convinced Ray's label at the time, Groove Records, to stop plugging the single.

I was disappointed to see that song go, but Ray says that he's going to put together a collection of his early rock and rockabilly recordings in the near future. In the meanwhile, here's "That Weepin' Willow Tree":

Billboard's review of "That Weepin' Willow Tree"

Ray moved from Canada to Nashville in the 1960s and worked hard to break through with the American country audience. Even though he charted 24 singles in the US, only a few of them cracked the Top 20. He thinks that he was hampered a bit by never having had a manager. Doing everything himself gave him a lot of freedom but limited the amount of effort he could put into promotion.

Nevertheless, he was a mover and shaker in Nashville. Billboard magazine tracked his every move, and he won an incredible number of awards from the song publishing agencies ASCAP and BMI.

Ray's biggest US hit was "If I Let Her Come In" in 1976. His falsetto on the chorus is awesome. 

The Entertainer: Greatest US and Canadian Hits will be released by Real Gone Music on Tuesday, September 2, 2014. I interviewed Ray for the liner notes, and he provided some interesting info.

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