Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Against All Odds" by Eddie Ray (2012)

I just finished reading “Against All Odds” by Eddie Ray. It was fantastic. In understated tones, he has delivered a living portrait of a time, though long gone, which still influences us until this very day. The book is all about taking chances and trusting your instincts in order to help make your dreams come true. It's the story of a family, raised in segregation, and yet still successful by virtue of hard work. And lastly, it's the story of one man's continuing search to define who he is and how the hell he got to be where he is today. In short, it was a pleasure to read.

I would never exchange my own life for someone else’s experiences; I’m fairly satisfied with my own; but I would have loved to have been along for the ride with Eddie Ray on his journey. In the same bold, yet somehow humble, fashion which has marked his incredible career in the music business, noted A & R (artists and repertoire) man Eddie Ray has penned a very impressive memoir. As he puts it, the book covers his journey from the “stockroom” at Decca Records; where he began his work as a shipping clerk; and his time at Aladdin Records, working for Leo and Eddie Messner; to the Boardrooms of America’s largest record companies; becoming the first African-American hired as a major executive of a major record company; in his case, Capitol Records in the mid 1960’s. In between those years he was interacting with some of the most famous of the Rhythm and Blues acts; including Fats Domino and Irma Thomas. It was while working with Ms. Thomas that the Rolling Stones did a cover version of her record “Time Is on My Side”, which cemented their place in the “British Invasion”.
His descriptions of traveling in the Jim Crow south with Fats Domino will have you scratching your head in disbelief, as they were relegated to eating bologna and cheese sandwiches behind grocery stores because no one would serve a “colored” man. The juke box inside might be playing “Blueberry Hill”, but you couldn’t buy a piece of blueberry pie if you were a black man. Not even if you had the number 1 record!

Filled with glimpses into the life of an African-American man in the days before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the author takes the time to explain the history of the music he promoted. What is rock and roll? Where did it come from, and how did it evolve? In this slim 200 page book the author has provided us with some of the answers to those questions.
Mr. Ray also chronicles his service on the President’s Copyright Tribunal in the early 1980’s under the Reagan Administration. Every artist today owes Mr. Ray a debt for the fair share they receive from their work. He redefined what constitutes a “performance”,  and how much a performer got paid for the recordings and films they had made. With technology changing, this was groundbreaking stuff.

The book begins far away from Franklin, North Carolina in 1926, where Mr. Ray was born. By cleverly starting in his later years, Mr. Ray incites the reader’s curiosity about just who he is and where he came from. His parents were hard working, literate people. There was a radio in their home on which Mr. Ray and his mother would listen to the Gospel shows on weekends. Reading was something which was revered. And when it came time to go to high school; which was not possible in Franklin back then; he went to Laurinburg Institute in the Eastern part of North Carolina to obtain a high school diploma. Later, at age 50, after having made a success of himself, he even went to college and obtained his degree. He describes it as one of the proudest moments of his life.
In his early years Mr. Ray was always encouraged by his parents to do his best; and more importantly, to pay no heed to the limitations placed upon him by the color of his skin. A man will be what he wills himself to be seems to be the attitude imbued in the author at an early age.

From his summer jobs working with tobacco, and also at a ball bearing plant in Connecticut, Mr. Ray got his first look at New York City, and the lighted marquees bearing the names of all the famous acts of the day. He vowed to come back there someday with a creation of his own. From such dreams, reality grows…

After a 120 day stint in the US Army was behind him, he set off to discover what he was really meant to do. Arriving in Los Angeles on his 19th birthday, working as a dish washer, Mr. Ray seems almost to have accidentally fallen into his profession. Living in a skid row room while washing dishes made him hunger for more in life; and the music industry was where he would find it.
The story of Mr. Ray’s accomplishments; and how they have even affected you as a listener of music; is one that I highly recommend. It is at once, a history of the music industry as it pertains to artist’s rights and royalties; and also the story of a man searching for ways to repay the kindness which was shown to him by others on his way up the ladder.

His accounts of the artists he has handled are far more than I can name here. So, let’s just say that if you were listening to just about anything in the 1960’s, Mr. Ray had his hand in it somewhere. And, he is not shy about his “misses” either. He describes how he lost Janis Joplin and Michael Jackson to other labels by mere days.
But, more than all of the above; more than all of the awards and accolades he has received; as if those things wouldn’t be enough to constitute a book all on their own; Mr. Ray has written a portrait of his own search for the meaning behind it all. And you know what? I think he has found it. This is a terrific book.

For more about Mr. Ray, or the NC Music Hall of Fame, use the following links;

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