Interview with Ray Walker of the Jordanaires
Source: Elvis Australia
April 23, 2021
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.
What is your earliest musical memory?
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.
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.
My former choral director Buddy Arnold 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.
Above, a never before seen picture of Ray and Elvis working on a part for the G.I. Blues soundtrack, 1960.
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 records.
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 into 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.
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 into 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 if you're not careful. Elvis said, 'I think it's already started' and nodded. And I'd only been in the 'business' 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.
Elvis, Ray & Bob Moore - In the studio 1960.
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.
Elvis Presley and Ray Walker - Ellis Auditorium 1961.
Pictured above is Elvis singing a song that Ray has a Bass lead on.
Elvis surprises Ray by taking his mic and doubles up with him when Ray's time comes to sing his part.
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 through 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.
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.
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 are.
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)
About Ray Walker
Raymond Clinton Walker, Jr. was born March 16, 1934, the second of five children, to R. C. Walker, Sr. and wife, Elizabeth, in Centreville, Mississippi. Ray's parents were living in Wilkinson, Mississippi, but the nearest hospital was in Centreville. Ray's dad and mom had completed schooling at David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tennessee, and moved to Wilkinson, where he became minister of the Church of Christ in Wilkinson and a teacher in the public school in nearby Woodville. Wilkinson boasted a grocery store with a post office in it, a church building, and a saw mill (still operative and one of the most prosperous in the world).
The Walkers lived in a three room, shotgun, sawmill-raw-lumber house, which is still there today, with added bath and screened-in front porch, housing a worker at the saw mill.
Since 'R. C.' (this is the way his dad was known) was an evangelist, the Walkers moved every two to four years. Also living in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and, Florida (twice) by the time
Ray went to Nashville to attend David Lipscomb College in 1952, immediately after graduating from Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Ray was Chaplain of his graduating class at both schools.
In Nashville, in 1952, Ray became the bass singer in the college quartet. Pat Boone was also a member of that group. He began doing local television and various shows, both, on his own and with the quartet (Ray had been singing in quartets from the third grade. His dad put him on his public feet when he was six years old, both, singing and speaking. By the time he was fourteen, he was traveling away from home on engagements).
In September 1954, a junior in college, Ray, and Marilyn DuFresne married. They had met in Jacksonville, Florida, at thirteen. Ray dropped out of school in 1955, moved to Centerville, Tennessee, where he helped to build a radio station, WHLP, worked with the local Church, and, became the youngest school principal in the history of Tennessee. He came back to college in 1956 and graduated in June 1957, with a BA Degree in Speech, Music, Bible, and, Education; worked for Werthan Bag Company during the Summer.
By that time Ray and Marilyn's third child was on the way.
Ray continued working for the local Church and, in the Fall began teaching school in Davidson County Schools, where he was Assistant Principal, Coach, and commanded a split seventh and eighth-grade class. It was April 1958 now, and through a business call to David Lipscomb College, Ray was put in touch with the Jordanaires by his former Choral Director. Gordon Stoker had called there, just prior to Ray's call, to see if the Music Department knew of a bass singer who might fit their requirements. When Ray spoke with the professor, he said to give them his name, which the professor did. Ray was called that afternoon, auditioned at 11:00 that evening, was called at the school the next day and asked to go to Hollywood to do some recording.
The school board let him off, he went, came home and completed his school year of teaching.
Ray joined the Jordanaires, officially, June 1, 1958. Since that time, while working with the Jordanaires, Ray has found time to be involved in over three thousand sing-outs, youth rallies, appearances of his own. He had a successful, daily, morning show, 'Your Own Time' on the ABC Channel in Nashville in 1976. Ray has done modeling, numerous radio, television, magazine and newspaper commercials (locally and nationally). He was a deputy sheriff (as a liaison between trouble youth and distraught families) for twenty-some years and, as were all the Jordanaires, an honorary member of the Tennessee Governor's Staff in Tennessee for many years. Ray and Marilyn became involved in foster-care six months after they were married and remain active, presently. By May 1963, they had six children, and now have fifteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Originally published September 5, 2009.
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