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20 Miles (B Lowe/K Mann) and Pride (J Madara/D White) and Fool, Fool, Fool (R Clark) and In the Midnight Hour (W Pickett/S Cropper) – Ray Brown and the Whispers 1965

Ray Brown (1945) and the Whispers emerged from Sydney during the British beat era in the mid-1960’s and were a major chart success with a series of beat covers of previous hits for such US soul and R&B artists as Wilson Pickett and Roosevelt Grier as well as covers of songs by Chubby Checker and Beatles prodigy Billy J. Kramer. Below the band L-R John Manners (bass), Pat Jeffrey (drums), Lawrie Barclay (lead guitar), Ray Brown, Al Jackson (rhythm guitar).

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The Nocturnes were originally a Shadows-style instrumental band who played in the Kogarah Beach area and had recorded several singles – Riptide and Sitting Pretty but after the Beatles toured Australia in 1964 the band adopted the booming beat style and recruited a new lead singer, Ray Brown, who replaced Bobby Thomas and joined with Lawrie Barclay (guitar), Al Jackson (guitar), Pat Jeffrey (drums) and John Manners (bass) to become Ray Brown and the Whispers. Brown did not possess a booming voice, but he had a pleasing tenor with an emotive upper register which imbued songs with a sense of drama and conviction, qualities which seemed to be absent in his early live television performances, which were wooden, diffident, and lacking in urgency and real fervor, he did not possess a natural fluidity nor animal grace. Below Sydney dance venues of the 1960’s – Whiskey Au Go Go, Surf City, The Bowl.

The band nevertheless quickly became a popular live act around the Sydney nightclubs and discos of the era – The Bowl, The Hawaiian Eye, Surf City, Whiskey Au Go Go and the Beach House, John Harrigan became their manager and they signed with Leedon Records in early 1965, and young female fans descended on Ray’s parents’ home in Hillcrest Avenue, Hurstville (Syd), seeking a glimpse/souvenir of their idol.

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Their breakthrough hit was a cover of Chubby Checker’s 20 Miles, which was the first of three consecutive #1 hits they would have in Sydney, and it charted #11 nationally. The song was written by Bernie Lowe and Kal Mann, two journeymen US songwriters, who were also responsible for penning Teddy Bear (Elvis Presley), Wild One (Bobby Rydell), Butterfly (Andy Williams) and Let’s Twist Again (Chubby Checker).

K.I.S.S. principle here.

20 Miles was simple in structure and the rhythm section of Jeffrey and Manners anchored the record, with Brown using a whistled refrain as backing in place of the female backing singers and flutes that Chubby Checker had used on the original. The promo video featured Ray and the band members carrying an oversized guitar around the Sydney CBD in an attempt at zany, madcap comedy a la the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night.

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The band followed up quickly in April with a cover of the obscure Billy J. Kramer album track Pride which had been originally recorded by Philadelphian singer Brent Edwards in 1963. Pride was written by John Madara and Dave White who had previously been responsible for At The Hop (Danny and the Juniors), You Don’t Own Me (Lesley Gore), One Two Three (Len Barry) and Sadie which became a huge hit for Johnny Farnham. The Whispers did a fine job on this record given that they were working with only two track recording technology, Brown’s vocal style was maturing and the recently recruited lead guitarist Al Jackson made an impact.

The first top 5 hit for the band and they would take the next three singles into the top 5 as well.

In July 1965 the band released their most convincing record to date with a cover of the Roosevelt Grier hit Fool, Fool, Fool which was a re-working of the Charlie and Inez Foxx hit from 1963 – Mocking Bird.The song was written by Rudy Clark who had previous success with It’s In His Kiss (Betty Everett), Good Lovin’ (The Young Rascals) and If You Gotta Make A Fool of Somebody (Barbara Mason).

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Producer Bill Shepherd ensured that John Manners bass intro was dramatic, as he achieved a thumping ostinato bass sound by having Manners duplicate his electric bass lines on a piano, which were then double-tracked, Shepherd had also used this effect on Tony Barber’s Someday and would achieve the same effect on the Bee Gees Spicks Specks. This propulsive rhythmic pattern was sustained throughout the song by Al Jackson’s chiming Rickenbacker guitar riffs, and the addition of bells during the chorus, which all underscored a great vocal performance from Brown who exploited the high-pitched chorus very effectively, the record charted #3 nationally, for one of the band’s biggest hits.

Ray was not as animated as Stevie Wright or Billy Thorpe, but the Whispers moved to the beat.

To make it four hits in a row in 1965 the band released In the Midnight Hour in October, this had been a previous hit for one of its composers, Stax recording artist Wilson Pickett, who wrote the song with legendary Stax guitarist and songwriter Steve Cropper who had also co-composed Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay with Otis Redding and Knock On Wood with Eddie Floyd.

The lyric “in the midnight hour” had been used by Pickett in a previous recording of a song entitled I Found A Love when he was lead vocalist with the Falcons, the actual lyric was “and sometimes I call in the midnight hour”- Billy Idol would borrow the same line for his hit Rebel Yell – Pickett and Cropper actually wrote the song at the Atlantic Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King would be assassinated in 1968.

In the Midnight Hour was the Whispers most sophisticated recording to date, production values were impressive, bass and drums propelled the song and there were significant brass flourishes to indicate a more extensive use of orchestration as well as vocal backing, than in previous releases, it was again a convincing song that charted well, hitting #4 nationally.

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The band would follow up with another cover in 1966, Sam Cooke’s Tennessee Waltz which was another #4 hit but subsequent releases in 1966, (Ain’t it) Strange (#38), and Too Late to Come Home (#55) were minor hits, and by the time Ray Brown took the Four Tops The Same Old Song into the top twenty in 1967, he was performing solo, and was backed on the recording by Max Merritt and the Meteors.

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Brown had been trapped in a recording contract executed when he was legally a minor which proved to be unrewarding, and as the band were unable to generate original songs, the derivative nature of their output, compounded by mismanagement and financial loss lead to their ultimate demise. Ray Brown re-formed the Whispers several times but the hits had dried up, he would spend time in USA and was inspired to form the country rock outfit Ray Brown and Moonstone (1970-71), and then the jazz/rock fusion group One Ton Gypsy (1971-73). Ray Brown contracted a bacterial infection of his digestive tract known as helicobacter pylori which caused ulcers and ultimately stomach cancer, he sadly passed away in 1996 at the age of 51, Whispers bass guitarist John Manners also sadly passed away in 2018.               

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