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Wow! Listening to Johnny Mathis croon made me feel really peaceful and lethargic. If I don’t get up and move I’m going to be asleep! So let’s check out the next house on Memory Lane, House D, the house of the first soul singer who went up on my wall — Dobie Gray. (Whose real name is Larry! How do they come up with these names anyway? Dobie has recorded under many.)
Dobie Gray (born Lawrence Darrow Brown; July 26, 1940 – December 6, 2011) was an American singer and songwriter, whose musical career spanned soul, country, pop, and musical theater. His hit records included “The ‘In’ Crowd” in 1965 and “Drift Away”, which was one of the biggest hits of 1973, sold over one million copies, and remains a staple of radio airplay. (And it NEVER fails to put me in a soulful mood when I hear it on the oldies station. Have to just stop what I’m doing, close my eyes and sing — or what passes as singing!)
In the early 1960s Gray moved to Los Angeles, intending to pursue an acting career while also singing to make money. He recorded for several local labels under the names Leonard Ainsworth, Larry Curtis, and Larry Dennis, before Sonny Bono directed him toward the small independent Stripe Records. They suggested that he record under the name “Dobie Gray”, an allusion to the then-popular sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. (How many of you remember THAT show? Raise your hands, I won’t tell. Remember who played Maynard Krebs in that one before he got shipwrecked with his big buddy? 😀 )
In 1972, Gray won a recording contract with Decca Records (shortly before it became part of MCA) to make an album with producer Mentor Williams in Nashville. Among the songs they recorded at the Quadrafonic Sound Studios, co-owned by session musicians Norbert Putnam and David Briggs, was Mentor Williams’ “Drift Away”, featuring a guitar riff by Reggie Young. Released as a single, the song rose to #5 on the US pop chart and remains Dobie’s signature song. It placed at #17 in the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1973, sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA on July 5, 1973. The follow-up, a version of Tom Jans’ much-covered song “Loving Arms”, hit #61. Gray also released three albums with MCA, Drift Away, Loving Arms, and Hey, Dixie, but later stated that MCA was unsure of how to market the albums — “They didn’t know where to place a black guy in country music.” (Really? What about Charlie Pride???)
In the mid-1970s, he moved permanently to Nashville and signed for Capricorn Records, writing songs in collaboration with Troy Seals. His last solo hit singles were “If Love Must Go”, #78 in 1976, and “You Can Do It”, #37 in 1978. He increasingly concentrated on songwriting, writing songs for a variety of artists including Ray Charles, George Jones, Johnny Mathis, Charley Pride, and Don Williams. He also toured in Europe, Australia and Africa in the 1970s. He performed in South Africa only after persuading the apartheid authorities to allow him to play to integrated audiences, becoming the first artist to do so. His popularity in South Africa continued through numerous subsequent concert tours.
“Drift Away” became a hit again in 2003, when he covered the song as a duet with Uncle Kracker on the latter’s “No Stranger to Shame” album. The re-recording peaked at #9 one week to the day after Gray’s 63rd birthday and placed at #19 in the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 2003 as well as logging a record-setting 28 weeks atop the Adult Contemporary chart in 2003-04.
Gray died on December 6, 2011 at the age of 71 from complications from cancer surgery in Nashville, Tennessee. His remains were buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park And Mausoleum in Nashville.
“Drift Away” is a song by Mentor Williams and originally recorded by John Henry Kurtz on his 1972 album “Reunion”. In 1973 the song became Dobie Gray’s biggest hit, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and certified gold by the RIAA. It was the final pop hit for Decca Records in the United States. A new version by Uncle Kracker, with Gray, became a major hit in 2003.
This song was not only a commercial breakthrough for Mentor Williams, but also a breakthrough as a recording project. He explained to “American Songwriter Magazine” March/April 1988: “I think one of the hardest things for me to learn about songwriting was to really expose my feelings and weaknesses and to write personal, emotional things. As soon as I started doing that, I realized other people were relating to my songs. You can study how to write and spend a lot of time writing, but without this emotional content in a song, it’s just not there. ‘Drift Away’ was a big breakthrough for me. It was a song where it suddenly was okay for me to write about being hurt and let people know that I had been hurt and I wasn’t afraid to expose my feelings.”
You know, I think one of the reasons I liked this song was because I could understand the bloomin’ words — and THAT’S why I connected with it. It made me think about my life…