Rockin' Little Angel

That odd little southwest corner of Kentucky! Where the Mississippi River skirts the Missouri side, winding around somewhat before meeting the Ohio River on its way past Metropolis on the Illinois side (certainly not the city where Clark Kent commenced his fictional newspaper career despite tourist-bait evidence to the contrary) as it continues flowing to Paducah on the KY side (definitely the "Atomic City" where U-235 was readied for nuclear bomb production) before taking a northward turn, bypassing the designated "Land Between the Lakes" that unquestionably overlaps the Tennessee side while separating most of this lower topographic nook from Kentucky's much larger eastern portion. Rock singer Ray Smith was born in this region that resembles no other, a Halloween baby who claimed to be the seventh son of a seventh son. The odds against all these formulæ being connected to one person must be a trillion-something to one. So how difficult could it be to have a little ol' hit record? Piece-a cake!

A fan of country music as a child, Ray chose to play rock and roll (because, as he approached adulthood, it was there). His mother had encouraged him to study piano (he also played guitar and harmonica), but she died unexpectedly before he reached his teens. His father kept the family (eight children!) on the move to where there were jobs, from town to town within Kentucky's roughly 3000-square-mile sock toe. There was an extended stay in Lone Oak near Paducah, where dad worked for the Gaseous Diffusion Plant (who's afraid of radiation?) while young Raymond took on several odd jobs. On turning 18 in 1952 he joined the Air Force and served much of his time in Victorville, California before being shipped off to an air base in Metz, France in 1954, where he heard some of Elvis Presley's singles for the first time, the ones that had been recorded at Sun Records in Memphis...not too awful far from Ray's Old Kentucky home turf!

After his discharge in 1956, he formed a band unapologetically named The Rock and Roll Boys, made up of musicians from former stomping grounds in Bardwell, Mayfield and Metropolis. Bassist James Webb, guitarist Raymond Jones, steel guitarist Dean Perkins and drummer Henry Stevens backed Ray as they ventured outside the local dives into clubs and concert halls in several neighboring states. They had their own radio show (Ray Smith and the Rock and Roll Boys) on WMOK in Metropolis and, starting in 1957, starred on a weekly early-evening TV half hour (The Ray Smith Show) on Paducah's channel 6, WPSD. Fertilizer merchant Charlie Terrell (who managed Okeh/Columbia and later Sun country singer Onie Wheeler) negotiated a contract with Sam Phillips of Sun Records (pretty exciting prospect for Ray, who wasn't that taken with Elvis...but Carl Perkins from Tipton, Tennessee, within a hundred miles of Smith's Kentucky corner, was also on Sun...real gone!)

With the Charlie Rich-penned "So Young," Ray's first-ever release in the spring of 1958, he walked a fine line between country and rock and roll. Despite performing and/or lip-syncing the song on several TV shows (including American Bandstand), sales were weak. The rocking B side, "Right Behind You Baby," sounded like a different artist altogether, the result, perhaps, of having additional musicians on the session (Rich on piano, Stan Kesler on bass and lead guitarist Stanley Walker, who became a regular member of the Rock and Roll Boys) creating a more Sun-like rocking sound. "You Made a Hit" and the Big Bopper-ish "Rockin' Bandit" in early '59 were solid efforts, but Smith was out at Sun after just three singles. Sam Phillips may have thought he was through with Ray, but his brother Jud Phillips, who'd just formed his own (misspelled) Judd label, had a little more faith in the singer.

"Rockin' Little Angel" took a melody that had been around since the 1840s and altered it just a bit. "Buffalo Gals" had been reconfigured about a hundred years after its first publication as "Dance With a Dolly (With a Hole in Her Stocking)" and for some reason the tune was popular in 1959; Bobby Darin's hit "Plain Jane" used it several months before Smith's "Angel" (and The Olympics would offer it up as "Dance by the Light of the Moon" about a year later). Songwriter Jimmie Ainsworth (using the pen name Jimmie Rogers...purposely to confuse people?) came up with a sparse set of lyrics: 'Rockin' little angel come down from the sky...come on down and stop a-teasin' me! Rockin' little angel I love-a you so...I want the whole wide world to know! Rockin' little angel with your honey-drippin' lips...let me kiss away my blues!' The Sun records hadn't been successful, but Jud and Charlie (and, well, Ray too) were banking on this familiar number to make the grade. 'Rockin' little angel you're oh so sweet...why don'tcha make my life complete?'

Ray Smith

All it took was a little patience. Recorded in August '59, the single didn't break nationally until January 1960, but it moved steadily into the top 30 (where it stayed for most of February and March) before taking its sweet time falling off the chart. The follow-up was another distant oldie; "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey" had been introduced by singer Elizabeth Murray in the 1910 Broadway musical Madame Sherry (searching for the lost arms of Venus de Milo!) and was a hit for several artists over the course of the century including comedy team Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan, who took it to number one in the spring of 1911, and Dick Kuhn in 1943. Smith's recording, easygoing as it was, rocked most among the many versions but barely scraped the charts in May (a version by Fats Domino had better luck a few months later). "One Wonderful Love" featured strings in a more teen-compatible arrangement and was his final charting single in August.

A number of fine recordings materialized throughout the 1960s. A pair of singles for Infinity went from nice and soft ("After This Night is Through") to rougher-for-sure ("Let Yourself Go"). By late '61 he was back at Sun with the lightly humorous "Travlin' Salesman" and his final (this time for real) Sun disc, "Candy Doll." "Those Four Precious Years," a Faye Fuller-Jerry Fuller weeper that blatantly aped Bobby Vinton's "Roses Are Red," appeared on Smash in 1962 before a rocking Joe South song, "I'm Snowed," on Warner Bros. A two-sided Vee-Jay remake 45 of Tony Bellus's "Robbin' the Cradle" and Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin" risked coming off like a Tops or Hits label knockoff...but clever arrangements and Ray's vocal expertise rose above that level. Further singles on Tollie, Diamond and Terrell's B-C Records went M.I.A.

Ray was unpredictable. In 1967 he left his familiar Kentucky terrain and moved his family over the Canadian border to Burlington, along Lake Ontario (following an example set by Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, who'd relocated to the area a few years earlier). Gravitating towards country music, he had several releases between 1973 and '76 on Nashville labels Cinnamon and Corona. Later, he recorded for a fan-owned Canadian label, Wix. Ray Smith performed often in the U.S., U.K. and Canada and was in good spirits as far as anyone knew right up until November 1979 when he shot himself. Just 45 years old! Even his relatives and closest friends weren't sure what motivated such a drastic move.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Rockin' Little Angel