THE HARDEST GAME OF ALL
The Story of Songwriter Benny Ray
Written by Lynne Robin Green ©1998
Some Songwriter's personal career stories may never be told and some stories maybe should never be told, but if someone in your life comes along and touches you so deeply with their obsession and dream (which later turns into some kind of nightmare which you end up helping to save them from) and then it twists back into A REAL RAY of hope with a rainbow at the end --THEN, somehow you just know that this is a story that must be told. ( Certain specifics in the telling of this story,like names and song titles have been omitted intentionally due to various private and legal reasons).
It all began back in 1932 when songwriter Benny Ray was eighteen years old and he befriended the backstage manager at the Palace Theater in Cleveland ,Ohio (where the biggest greatest bands played on the breaks between the featured movies of the evening). Benny asked him to let him in backstage explaining that he was a songwriter and he needed to get in back there and meet the acts to show them his songs.The backstage guy just laughed and said ,NOBODY gets backstage, kid. But Benny, not one to take no for an answer sought to butter him up and so he went out and brought back some chili dogs and other treats for the guy -- and sooner than later, he let ONLY Benny in backstage.This was his big chance and he knew it so he went to work schmoozing,plugging and showing his songs. Soon he started meeting some of the stellar artist's like Louis Prima -(who Benny took to a great local rib joint -after Louis asked him where ' DO you get ribs in' Cleveland?). While they were eating some good soul food Benny was showing him his songs. Louis suddenly pulls a chart out of his pocket and says to Benny-- (Can you read this one?)..Benny's reading this tune and and the song turns out to be "Sing,Sing,Sing" . So- Benny say's --so how come you don't do it? Louis says--NO, I want a big band to do it,Im holding onto 'this thing here'...(The song of course went on to become a very famous number for Benny Goodman (where Gene Krupa's incredible soloing on the drums to its hypnotic rhythm) figuratively brought the word " drummer" out from behind the bandstand and showcased the instrument for the first time in popular music. Benny also met Count Basie at some of his Ohio club engagements--where Benny as a songwriter with a lot of chutzpah and smarts could befriend Erskine Hawkins and Xavier Cugat (who wanted to do a Rumba style cover version of one of Benny's songs). Unfortunately, Benny says,I backed away from the offer ...(I should have gone along for the exposure). But I didn't like the idea cause I didn't want that Rumba style on my song. I guess I was too young and pretty stupid to refuse that record.
At the time this was all happening Benny was also a harmonica player and played guitar and violin- and now Benny's cousin, Morey Feld became one of the two big drummers (with Krupa)--in the Benny Goodman band...His family was really into music, his brother 'Hy Light' played tenor sax with a lot of major artists ,and his sister Sylvia played piano.His father played accordion and concertina. But Benny didn't like to play as much, because he was always a songwriter,first..The ideas just kept on coming . Soon he saw the legendary "Borrah Minevich and the Harmonica Rascals", (a very famous pop and classical cover harmonica band) featuring the lead cat--Johnny Puleao (and Leo Diamond --another songwriter Benny later came to know).In his crowd exciting performances - Johnny Puleou used to tickle and pinch everybody in the audience. Benny thought that was pretty entertaining for the audiences alright, but he really loved the big bands and the Rhythym & Blues acts best.
Benny was fortunate to see some really great artist's at night, but during the day--he started his first tire business at eighteen, at the very bottom of the great depression (while still writing songs and making demos (he didn't play harmonica professionally except for a few club dates and later on in his life in his 70's, when he sat in as a favor (with his favorite arranger Jerry Cole's band at the Palomino Club here in L.A.)....But that would be almost half a century later.
The whole thing started out really in 1948--when Benny met a big well known swing band whose vocalist picked up HIS BIG song and started singing it in their shows.They made a one year deal with Benny to get it recorded. But they never did get the record done. The option and the grace period all ran out and he was released from the publishing contract..In the meantime Benny's new friend Charles Brown remember's this great BIG song Benny once played him--and tells him about this great blues singer who was known in Europe, a gal friend of his. The song soon gets played for her and she records it. Its on an INDY LABEL. The female artist hits with it.!!! It jumps up and it goes up to #1 on the charts. (That was the 'billboard race record charts' then.) The record is killing ---it's written up everywhere (it sells over 400,000 units in 1948). But unfortunately the indy label just cant keep up with the demand and distribution runs thin.
Meanwhile the other big band (who had the former publishing contract on the song)--suddenly goes ahead and steals it at that point and puts their writers name on it. They come out with the song on a MAJOR LABEL and it's suddenly getting all the promotion of a Major Label record....Omigod now he's got his FIRST major label record -his big dream has happened, but oh dear, his own name isn't on it...Here you have an unassuming and honest person,a hardworking family man who's suddenly thrust into a real songwriters nightmare.
They wont admit it's his song of course..So what else could Benny do? So he finds a lawyer (But in retrospect--he'll tell you, it really wasn't handled properly) and the lawyer moved too fast, threatening suit (having not waited for the cover recording to earn something -FIRST: inotherwords he should not had have them STOP the record so soon ).So he wins the suit .But they DROP the big record,before there's any money to pay..So having his first major label song cut turned into a major heartbreak. And so Benny ends up with the legal costs,he has no major record any more-- but he definitely has more OF THAT sad heartbreak feeling. The chances taken,the chances lost..For a philosophical determined little guy he brushed away the pain and just pushed on. But back to square one (Benny still has his publishing deal with the other company on the song-- and the INDY blues records IS doing great) but he's getting 1ct per copy and thats only from the indy label who produced the side). So thats 5000 copies --$51.00...Well, he gets a few little checks before the lNDY label folds )--BUT no other writer monies--- cause the other Publisher now wasn't paying him either, (Oh yes-- he was with a performance rights org. too as a writer but his writer's name was listed incorrectly (still undiscovered at the time till 1996). So no airplay either..The female blues artist, Benny's friend did make about $65,000 (all told at the very end of it all -and thank God, she did finally get something that she well deserved) --but Benny he knew something was wrong. He HAD A HIT but He just didn't get paid much, and the indy label, it finally folded in 1950.But ,lets get back to that song later..
In the 40's in Los Angeles is when Benny first met R&B recording artist's "The Three Blazers" with brothers Oscar Moore, Johnny Moore and the legendary Charles Brown. It was to be a very lucky and fortuitous momentous meeting, but the whole realization of that meeting and what it would mean to Benny later on--would still take another fifty some odd years to untangle and reveal itself...It would represent a lifetime of dreams and friendship but it still needed time to play out. Funny how life works that way,you never know when,and you can only feel the WHY.... This story might look a bit dim as it goes on from here (until you see the light and the RAY of hope in what happens at the end).
Benny just kept looking forward to getting a good record out and he kept on with his song plugging,AS USUAL, nonstop.. At the time he had another song that Charles Brown had recorded in 1948 on Exclusive Records and Benny was enervated that Charles Brown really dug his songs and that he always encouraged him....Charles would tell him -"someday he wanted to record his BIG song too" --(the one that his gal friend had hit with)...But Benny's hope was already on the new demo that Charles had just cut on the other song...(But this record unfortunately wasn't subsequently released)....So Benny just kept focused on meeting more artist's, busily plugging his songs and he just kept on going...He and Stan Kenton soon became very good friends and he told Benny he was gonna do some of his songs, but it never happened.
Benny then befriended Norman Siegal from the Cleveland press, who wrote an entertainment column there and Siegal was kind enough to write Benny up about many different newsy things....Tidbits included 'Benny Ray the tune smith discussing his latest number 'Cedar Crosstown' with Peter Carson who's in town from Hollywood for a vacation before starting work on Frank Ross's -'The Robe' .(Of which Benny says he was told that they were gonna put one of his songs in the picture,but again that inexplicably never happened). Another blurb said "Actress singer Linda Ware leaving town with one of Benny Ray's songs in her pocket on her way back to Hollywood, Woody Herman also took a couple of them, too"..."Song smith Benny Ray's trip to New York reports from Manhattan that he's been offered a contract with a major film studio to write movie songs". (Often ,Benny would close up his tire shop in Cleveland and get up to New York taking his songs around to different people). He was no stranger to Broadway or the brill building for that matter..Soon, though,through a direct referral, he went up to see the infamous song man Lou Levy at Leeds Music (where he was promised an Andrew Sisters record)--and he actually heard them sing his song LIVE in Lou's office. Boy was that exciting..But thereafter the song only came out in print as a dance band arrangement,---- and still no record.. (he later got the song back) .
SO BY THEN, Benny also befriended famous songwriter Buck Ram who told Benny confidentially that maybe he should let someone else be put on (or CUT IN) - as a cowriter in order to really get one of his tunes over.. Benny never was one for collaboration so this suggestion from his famous songwriter friend (whether the co-writer was real or fictional just didn't seem too kosher to him). He figured that if he wrote it, he wrote it ,period.A little pride,less bread and next deal, hey so -- whats the next deal? Benny soon met Frank Sinatra who said, yeah I like your songs a lot,kid,sure, but you gotta see my publisher, (Tommy Dorsey's firm-Embassy Music).. (The camera pans out to) - Benny meeting Duke Ellington who was playing at the Hurricane restaurant with his whole band there and Benny soon saw his friend -Johnny Hodges (alto sax man)who introduced him to the Duke,and Benny also gets to know the great Billy Strayhorn THE Duke"s main collaborator)....Duke dug Benny's songs and in fact one of his singers (Ivie Anderson) later told him I like your material a lot Benny and I'd love to do the songs in our show, but I want you to understand -- Duke doesn't want us to do any outsiders songs... (Benny later found out that this wasn't the case at all ), but thats what she said that night ...Funny how your heart and hope swells and then it deflates again. But Benny, he's kinda a stoic person and he doesnt look back, and he just moves on... On this same trip to New York Benny met with a few big publishing companies and he got a lot of brand new promises on his songs that they were gonna be in some big films (promises,which later blew away like fairy dust it seems ). Benny was luckily soon referred to Joe Glaser (Louis Armstrong's,longtime manager). Benny loved Louis Armstrong and Louis wanted to help Benny in some way. Joe Glaser picked up a couple of his songs and then he sent Benny over to another big Publishing Company (just mention my name), he said....The big publisher said I like what I see,and you'll definitely hear from me...
By that time there were a lot of ( 'pigs flying',if you please).But Benny, he had his feet on the ground always and he was always a very sensible person (with the will of a ram and a gut of iron), I think. If you understand one thing about Benny -- IT'S his tenacity and fortitude...Least I guess, HE HAS what it takes to face rejection, most unflinchingly so. There's a lesson here for all of us writers. Rejection is really subjective, yet-- this is a person who also appreciates reveres and keeps all of the complimentary letters that he gets from Publishers- who've heard some of his songs over the years.
In the 1940s Benny had finally moved to Los Angeles,where he again got in touch with Johnny Moore of The 3 Blazers (with Oscar and Charles Brown ),who were still on the indy label Exclusive Records at the time (the same label that Benny's BIG song had come out on with the Female blues artist) and he found that out The Three Blazers were still performing Benny's BIG song in their show live, everywhere. Charles Brown still loved the song and he kept saying,"Someday I"M gonna cut that song myself, my friend".
Meanwhile, Benny had opened his Gardena tire dealership and by now he had met many other R&B and blues artist's whilst serving the tire needs of the local Los Angeles community. He and Charles Brown remained very good friends and Benny came to every show they'd play in L.A.(when they were in town from the road). Benny made many friends in the tire business with his honest straight ahead friendly way of doing business.And there came a day that Charles came in and he really needed tires on his car and he was waiting on a check for an upcoming gig, so Benny just put new tires on the car and waved him on his way --- and said don't worry about it, pay me when you can..Charles paid Benny back, and he never forgot Benny's generosity, trust and kindness. But more about this later.
In 1959 Benny met Billie Holliday who tells him that he writes just the way she sings -just perfect in her style, and that she wants to cut 2 of his songs on her next project, (and in fact was performing one of Benny's songs in her live shows at this time) - but much too unfortunately for the music world - she passed away three weeks later....
Also in the 50's Benny started a R&B record label--and he cut some really hot sides with some great musicians and vocalists, and today some of these r&b 45's are really rare and valuable:
I'll Never Change/Rockin Beat-The Chromatics (featuring Bob Williams on vocals)with The Ernie Freeman Orchestra (BL-109 & BL110)
Till The Sun Stops Shining/Why Did You Leave Me-Dru Pegee with The Oscar Moore Trio(BL-101 & BL102-1002)
Pretty Please/Till The Sun Stops Shining-Russ De Marco-with Hy Light Orchestra(BL-107-& BL108)
Let Me Put You Straight-Vocals Ray Johnson (BL-106 & BL103)
Mama Dont Low No Mambo-Vocals Johnny Moore and the Hylighters(BL105 &BL1003)
Gonna Roll Lucky Seven Tonight/Baby I Miss You-vocals Ray Johnson and The Hi Liters(BL-1002 & BL104-BL1002 & B-103)
As the story continues -we flash ahead to 1989 when Charles Brown is inducted into the Rhythym and Blues Foundation's Hall Of Fame as a Pioneer Artist..And Benny, he's real proud of this most legendary artist,and his most hardworking and deserving friend...In 1995 at age 81 Benny has now had quite a few independent label releases out on many lesser known recording artist's (as well as his own label), but nothing to speak of in the way of notoriety or royalties,really...In fact he starts to wonder, why he's NOT getting paid on his BIG song... His friends tell him that the record is reissued all over the world. Lots of people keep telling him. His calls to the Publisher bring one royalty statement (after all these years)--, mysteriously so. But this speaks volumes in a way.At this point in time,is where I came into the story. But I had already been in the story (when I first met Benny in 1989)...He knew the founder of my Publishing Companies for forty years or so and they were very good friends.He would have my mentor over for dinner a lot--where Benny's wife would cook some wonderful homemade Jewish meals (which to a bachelor music publisher in his fifties - originally from Buffalo, New York this was definitely nirvana).
So I came to run the Publishing Companies (and later own them)--after my founder (Benny's friend)--became very ill, and I also came to meet and grow to love a lot of the writers, artists and friends of the Companies....Another close friend of our Companies who co-produced The Shields (You Cheated, You Lied)-with my founder-the charismatic Producer George Motola. (Benny and he were very close too, as I later came to be with George, until his untimely passing in 1991). But Benny stood out --and HE was always kinda definitely in the friend category in my life. And our relationship has kinda remained this way for many years .. And every time I see him or hear from him ---he has a song --I just have to hear or -and he'll ask me -" what do ya need, kid, what are you looking for" ? I got a great blues song, I got a country tune - its a great melody and story, etc..I got a hot jump song,I got a ballad you really gotta hear !"
Being a Music Publisher is definitely interesting work but this late 70's something year old cat HAS TO BE the pluggingest' writer that I have ever met. He just would never let up --until you 'finally agree to hear the tape'. So I listened,and in fact I was able to place some of his material in TV shows, to his great joy (and our mutual satisfaction)..
Then in 1995 Benny gets a call from Charles Brown that the Rhythym & Blues Foundation in Washington DC says that Benny's BIG song is going to be inducted into the R&B Hall Of Fame for the Pioneer Award with the Female Blues Artist who made it famous--(performing it live at the Hollywood Palladium for later TV Broadcast). So Benny (now at age 81 meets Charles Brown there at the awards and he sees the female artist pretty much tear the house down with his song). And the LA Times gives the awards show and her performance a real smash write up. Well, she too has been a very very long time friend of Benny's in Los Angeles and so he was very happy and he was very proud for both of them that night too.. If there IS a big and special moment in a songwriter's career, I guess this MUST BE IT,--Benny had to be thinking.
But then as 1995 turned to 1996 I started asking Benny questions-- after seeing the TV special on the awards. I guess thats when I started really listening to Benny's story, his most incredible stories of his past --AND thats how I came to find out about his tragedy. I kinda pulled it out of him. You gotta understood that this is an unprepossessing person, not a bone of meanness or not litigious in any way, shape or form. He just loves to write . But I drug it out of him. So, he tells me about his BIG song---( the one that was just inducted)--and how it was once a number one record on the R&B charts (and how it was once stolen from him, cut and released on a major label and then dropped) and also how he wasn't getting paid all these years -- so I kinda felt bound to help somehow and began to look further..
Firstly, since the song was from the 40s - it was necessary to search the copyright to be sure that the song's copyright was renewed in its 28th year (as under the 1909 copyright act to which it was applicable). The records revealed that the song WASN'T renewed, and it became clear to me it had gone public domain....In other words --someone had to explain to Benny that his most famous song, his BIG one was GONE...
At that point he went ahead and got an attorney to advise him, and he received 'something' for the loss of his song..What about his airplay you mighta asked, well I asked too, but found that the records had indicated that the song appeared as registered with the writers name incorrectly listed. So perhaps no airplay may have been accrued or accounted to him either, due to an error, made somewhere for many years.He too now saw the picture, and it seemed like just more bad news.
And the way he still talks about that song as if it was yesterday and it was alive again.
If only...So this is all happening in 1995 way after Benny's friend Charles Brown had been inducted into the Rhythym and Blues Hall of Fame with the Pioneer Artist Award. And Charle's last album-The Honey Dripper is doing great..Soon Charles is playing in Los Angeles at The Hollywood Cinegrill and so he tells Benny hey, you should come out to the show. That night, Charles introduces Benny from the stage and says this is the writer who wrote the BIG song that was a successful hit for my friend (the female blues artist). He's a great songwriter and he's a longtime good friend of mine; I'm gonna cut one of his songs on my next project...(Around this time Benny had played a gorgeous ballad for Charles and really he loved it)..And he'd say that he
always remembered the day that Benny Ray gave him new tires and sent him on his way, and how real and nice that was, and, that YOU JUST NEVER forget that kind of kindness. (Benny, he musta felt --'pretty alright',when he heard that compliment, I know I would have,at that point)..(But this WAS before Benny had learned the bad news about his BIG song so Benny was still in the dark before the dawn).Then, once again at Charles next show at The Viper Club in L.A. --he casually introduced Benny from the stage and complimented him to the audience...I'm gonna cut one of his songs on my next project. Definitely, on my next project, Benny...(I have to interject at this juncture and say that --You've just got to know that Benny Ray is such a sweet cat anyway and most deserving of praise,definitely,but it just washes off him like a wet duck, 'cause he's shy, and he cant really believe it,can he?).
This was all too much to accept..How far can you fly on the ground when the sidewalk youre walkin' on lies broken.? How long do you dream anymore when your biggest dream seems to be gone.? NOT --Benny, he had his dreams still intact and he thought to himself always, well ---you just keep going , you keep on going..
And here we are -- March of 1998 and Benny's friend Charles, (well he never forgot, just like he said) .. One night Benny and Charles are talking on the phone and Charles says--guess what? I cut your song Benny ---and its ON the new album, in fact it's gonna be the title of the album..
If there was a merciful god for songwriters, he must have been smiling that day, I'm sure. And because of a very special 50 year long friendship---a kind of very special miracle happened .. Here it is- May 12 ,1998 and Benny's ballad (the TITLE song!) on Charles brand new record--is being released worldwide on a major label...So, I tell Benny, did you know that Charles has had many of his albums nominated for grammies? Maybe you could win one,someday,who knows?..But he doesn't really understand that high of a dream anyway --and at that point I look at him,and make a silent wish..."
God,let this man have his dream,or he'll never stop until the end, unless you do.
Please God, let this song have life, give breath to its chances, give faith and hope, dignity and respect to my friend and fellow songwriter Benny Ray"...
I have that MUCH hope for this new record for Charles Brown ,and for Benny too, but Benny he's still pushing,pushing. I dont think he ever stops to look back, no time to stop,"Just keep pushing",---he'd say.
Recently, I'd said to Benny, "Now that you have this new RECORD coming out, do you think you should still be sending out so many songs to all the Publishers all the time? Maybe you could slow down and cool it for a minute- kinda let this record --'play out'?". . . (At 83 years old he still sends almost 100 songs a month to Publishing Companies,Producers,Labels ,he combs those tip sheets noting all the leads - with very poor vision left ,but he's still making cassette copies,xeroxing lyric sheets), his music room (so filled with tapes and personally signed black and white 8x10's of many great artist's),newspaper clippings and memories,so many memories I'm sure,some unfinished, some forever incomplete)..And he say's,You know, I just can't stop doing this,(sending out my songs)--this IS what I do,Lynne, (other than my family)-- its my whole life.And seeing him at 83 years of age like this--so obsessed, I think --"I have never met a more plug crazy writer in my own history in the music industry..You just gotta love it - it overtakes your being,--this songwriting thing ...(YES,I am a songwriter too,even before Music Publisher). And yeah, maybe it is true that you got to be half crazy to do this' ..But gee, if some of the younger writers had this man's energy (at his age) they would be millionaires.But you've got to KEEP ON GOING,---like Benny said, you just got to keep on going..Never quit. Never quit. .And like one of his song titles say's --"You've got have mazel" (which means you've got to have luck-in Yiddish).
Postscript: We got our CD's of the record today for Benny, and we both couldnt' wait to see it.
Ice magazine in May has an article on it about the record, and Im sure many other articles and reviews will also come....It's really a great record...
As each moment unfolds in this life of doing the music business nonstop (myself), writing this story (and eating,sleeping and breathing songs amongst a hundred other music issues and responsibilities here), I feel I need to gently end this somehow, (but my heart's still feeling kinda full of this man's life and the inner story involved, and I find myself still trying to unravel the heartbreak, finding the big reason in it all). But then,I also find myself questioning our own motivation as creators,our mortality and all of our own dreams..Im looking at the whole picture.Why we do what we do? What drives us on? And I find myself still looking for that ray of hope at the end of the rainbow, (I know Benny must be feeling this way, too, somehow).....
I read a very appropriate quote from Norman Mailer in the Los Angeles Times today where he said-"What makes a writer great?"------You have to understand there are many people who are talented but not especially eager for what they were given, say you're given this huge gift . You dont sit around being satisfied with yourself. After all its not really a gift, it's an endowment. ..Its like a rich kid who hasn't made money himself. You dont want to be less than the people who made the money. On the one hand its stewardship. On the other, its an ability to expand what you were given.
(Credit LA Times-(c)98)
In sharing this story for Li'l Hank's Guide, I was afraid that some people might not understand (that at the end of the day)--this is really a story ONLY about one songwriter's own drive,fortitude and tenacity, (BUT it may also help to serve to show us all of the good with the bad, in an honest way). And in doing that, may also hopefully help to educate us- in that there are intrinsic problems,big lucky breaks,bad pitfalls, and all else that can happen to you in the business of songwriting , and that you really need to be educated, advised and well learned about this business (before you jump in and commit to a lifetime of rejection, hard struggle, lost hopes, great luck, keen financial risk and truly tremendous highs and lows).
I know one thing,---and that is that I have heard 'hundreds of stories' like Benny's in this business over the years --most unfortunately so,and the only thing that keeps coming up over and over is for me is --" How can we prevent some of it -and how can we also help others to move ahead on the same path--but in a smarter safer way ?"
So in closing, may I just say this (for Benny);
"Thank You Charles Brown,Thank you so much for remembering our friend Benny Ray "--and his dream of a lifetime, (the songwriters dream we all share in common).
*Discography of Benny Ray-Composer*: