RAY BROWN - Just Ray Brown
Ray Brown & the Whispers were in the vanguard of the first wave of Australian beat pop, from 1964-1967, and were one of the more successful and celebrated bands in the country. With his boyish good looks & considerable charm, singer Ray Brown ranked alongside Max Merritt, Tony Worsley, Stevie Wright, Billy Thorpe, and Normie Rowe in popularity. Ray's backing group, The Whispers, are considered one of the more accomplished bands of the era. Although they were successful at the time, their contribution to Australian music, both during and after the beat boom, is still sadly under-appreciated.
The Whispers originated with Sydney band The Impacts (1961-1962) comprising John Leslie, guitar, John Manners, bass, Bob Pierse, guitar, Alan Roberts, drums, & Bobby Thomas, vocals. Around 1962 The Impacts evolved into a Shadows-style instrumental only outfit called The Nocturnes, which brought together three core members of the future Whispers: John Manners, Lawrie Barclay & drummer Pat Jeffrey. John's interest in music started when his brother bought a guitar, which John constantly borrowed and eventually mastered. Lawrie Barclay, who came from a musical family, began by studying piano and eventually branched out to organ & guitar. Pat Jeffrey originally hailed from Kempsey in NSW, and made his debut when he filled in for his brother on drums at a local dance. He moved to Sydney in his mid-teens & played with various groups before joining the Nocturnes. Several guitarists passed through the band during this period, including Terry Vincenzi. The Nocturnes played the southern suburbs of Sydney, in the Kogarah Bay area, and at Sans Souci Surf Club. They recorded two instrumental singles, "Riptide" & "Sitting Pretty", on the Leedon label. In the wake of The Beatles playing down under, The Nocturnes evolved more into emulating bands like the Blue Jays & The Aztecs, by recruiting local vocalist Ray Brown.
Ray grew up in Hurstville and left school at the age of fifteen to become a clerk in the Customs Department, but he had a passion for singing and in early 1964 the Nocturnes, who were keen to move into the booming 'beat' style, enlisted Ray & changed their name to The Whispers. Ray had a smooth, pleasing and instantly recognizable tenor voice with a particularly emotive upper register, which he used to great effect on hits like "Pride" & "Fool Fool Fool". (As a comparison, Ray's voice, especially on the early singles, is quite reminiscent of former 'Doug Anthony & The All-Stars' member, and 'Good News Week' host Paul McDermott) From the outset, Ray Brown & The Whispers, distinguished themselves as a top-notch performing unit, both live and on record, and they thoroughly road-tested all their material. In retrospect their only real weakness, as far as a long-term career was concerned, was that there were no writers in the group (unlike The Easybeats, The Blue Jays and their labelmates The Bee Gees). But like The Blue Jays, their choice of material showed off both their versatility and their wide-ranging tastes. Many songs, were of course standards of the rock repertoire at that time: "Louie, Louie", "Shakin' All Over", Ma Rainey's "CC Rider", Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues", John Lee Hooker's "Dimples", and others including some less predictable inclusions: Gershwin's "Summertime", a great rendition of Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm", and even straight pop numbers like The Righteous Brothers' "My Babe" & Goffin & King's "The Locomotion". They also covered Rosco Gordon's "Just A Little Bit" & Chuck Berry's "Talkin' About You". Probably the Whispers' greatest love, though, was American soul and R&B, and they were tireless champions of the style, covering many numbers by the top performers of that period: Atlantic artists like Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Jimmy Hughes, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, to Motown acts like The Four Tops, and The Miracles.
Although widely appreciated by fans & musicians, authentic soul and R&B was largely ignored by Australian radio at the time, but The Whispers helped to raise the profile of this music substantially. It was a passion they shared with New Zealand imports Max Merritt & The Meteors, and not surprisingly the two bands became good friends during their stints at Sydney's 'Hawaiian Eye' discotheque. Their first major break came late in the 1964 when they secured the gig as resident band at Sydney's Surf City and The Beach House, taking over from Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs who were then engaged on interstate tour commitments to support their own hit records. Within a short time the Whispers were regularly pulling in 2000 party goers per night on Fridays & Saturdays, and by the new year they were rivaling The Easybeats for popularity in Sydney. They signed with entrepreneur John Harrigan for management, who in turn signed them to a recording contract with Lee Gordon's Leedon label (distributed by Festival) in early 1965, and they enjoyed phenomenal success during 1965-1966. The Whispers created a unique sounds which helped to propel these records into the charts. The high quality on their early recordings is all the more remarkable given that the band was working with very basic two-track equipment. Their rise to national fame was meteoric, & in just six months they scored four Top-5 hits in a row in Sydney, including three consecutive #1 hits from their first three releases, a feat that has not been topped since! They were also probably the most prolific recording outfit of the day, with a remarkable 9 singles, 10 EPs and 5 albums to their credit in little more than 2 years.
After the first single, Bob Richardson was replaced by Al Jackson. Al was born in Queensland & moved to Sydney in 1958. He got his start as a guitarist when a neighbor, who was a musician, taught him a few chords & loaned him a guitar to practice on. When the Whispers saw the hot young lead guitarist playing in another Harrigan-managed band, The Escorts, backing singer Paul Wayne, they knew Al was right for them. Ray & The Whispers' second single, and one of their very best recordings, was a galloping cover of an obscure Billy J. Kramer album track called "Pride". It was released in April, backed by an equally fine version of P.F. Sloan's "Say It Again". "Pride" contains one of Ray's best vocal performances & some fine guitar work by new member Al Jackson. It's also an excellent illustration of how Aussie bands were taking lesser-known tracks by overseas artists and turning out versions which often far surpassed the originals (e.g. The Aztec's "Poison Ivy", The Throb's "Fortune Teller" and Normie Rowe's superb cover of "Shakin' All Over"). The third single, released in July, and another fine effort, was a cover of Roosevelt Grier's "Fool, Fool, Fool". Ray's delivery is suitably impassioned, and he makes the most of the high-pitched chorus. According to Glenn A. Baker, much of the credit for the sound is due to the group, especially Al Jackson, as well as to their new producer Bill Shepherd. One of the notable features on "Fool Fool Fool" is the thumping ostinato bass, which Shepherd achieved by having John Manners duplicate the electric bass line on a piano, which was then double-tracked. This resounding double-tracked piano bass-line was a sound Shepherd had already experimented with on Tony Barber's "Someday" and which he returned to & used to great effect the following year on the Bee Gee's last Aussie-made hit, "Spicks & Specks". Both "Pride" & "Fool Fool Fool" were deservedly major hit, & by the end of 1965 Ray Brown & The Whispers ranked with Normie Rowe, The Aztecs and the Easybeats as one of the hottest acts in the country. They made regular appearances on all the major pop TV shows & were reputedly so popular that during a Queensland tour, some country towns were given a special holiday to mark their arrival. By the end of 1965, they had already released two LPs, four singles and several EPs.
Ray had been under 21 (then the age of majority in NSW) at the time he signed his first contract, and had virtually no control over his career. It took more than a year for him to extricate himself from this predicament, and as a result Ray and the original Whispers split at the end of 1966, after a final tour in late '66 with their old mates Max Merritt & The Meteors and Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs (who also split after this tour). The Whispers carried on for a while with original Impacts singer Bobby Thomas back on board. Ray put together a 'New Whispers' in early 1967 with Dave Russell (ex-Ray Columbus & The Invaders) on guitar, Ronnie Peel (aka "Rockwell T. James", ex-Missing Links) on bass, & Steve Hardy on drums. With the departure of Russell, Brown took over on guitar and the band was renamed the Ray Brown Three, but both groups lasted only a short time. Russell went on to become road manager for The Split Enz when they arrived in Australia in 1975, and he also produced their classic debut LP 'Mental Notes'. Meanwhile, Ray set about establishing himself as a solo act and scored another hit in March 1967 with a cover of the Motown classic "The Same Old Song", and an album 'Same Old Song ... Brand New Beat', which featured sterling backup by his old mates Max Merritt & The Meteors on four tracks, including the single. His final single before leaving Australia was a cover of Pete Townshend's "Ivor The Engine Driver", a rather odd choice on the face of it, but an excellent version nonetheless. Seeking to extend his career, Brown headed overseas late in the 1967 and he spent two years working in the US, which included the recording of this solo album, 'Just Ray Brown', for Capitol Records, produced by David Axelrod. Despite the 'name' producer and large budget it flopped, and is extremely difficult to find today. Selections are: "Don't Fall In Love "; "I'm Just A Country Boy Again"; "Groovin' Both Sides Now"; "Like An Old Time Movie"; "Tuesday Afternoon Little Girl"; "Forget It, I Got It"; "Wake Up To Me Gentle"; "Good Day Sunshine". Original 1969 U.S. Stereo pressing on the Capitol label. The jacket, record labels & playing surfaces all appear overall beautiful EXcellent to near MINT!
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