Website Premiere Feature:
West Michigan’s ”Local Music Legend,“ Ronnie Fray
If a few of you critics are already wondering why we are featuring a Canadian-born musician as the West Michigan Local Music Legends featured artist of the month, continue by reading the article posted below about Ronnie Fray’s substantial local career and the years when he lived in Grand Rapids and played at the Shamrock Lounge. He has certainly received accolades on both sides of the American and Canadian border, sharing the stage with Gus Hardin, Bonnie Raitt, Greg Allman, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, Delbert McClinton, Jack Scott, Alabama, Ronnie Milsap, Leon Russell, Hank Williams Jr., David Alan Coe and Ronnie Hawkins.
Ronnie Fray’s West Michigan Connection:
Compiled and Written by Ronnie Fray, Doug Taylor and Kim Rush
When Ronnie Fray made his first visit to Grand Rapids in 1966 to play at Bob Sullivan’s Shamrock Lounge at 286 Bridge Street N.W., he never imagined that he had taken the first step toward creating a second home town for himself, but this is exactly what occurred.
In 1966 Ronnie’s band was called The Capers, with Ronnie on guitar and vocals, Alan Clark on bass and Clay Highley on drums. The Capers were the first band to play at Pine Knob. A Detroit booking agent named Jerry Varga of ‘Var-Jac’ Agency’ booked them for their first Shamrock job. Ronnie recalls the bouncer at the Shamrock was Vern Carrier. The bartenders at that time were Diane (Boggs) Kanoza, Doug Taylor, Pierson Smith (the manager). The entrance to the Gerald Ford Museum ’s north parking lot is located where the Shamrock once stood, and Ronnie played for the museum’s grand opening ceremonies.
Ronnie played often at the Shamrock during the late 60s and into the 70s. He played at another bar on the same side of the street as the Shamrock that Bob “Sully” Sullivan and Jim “Blackie” Black owned, as well. It was named the Bavarian Inn, located at 300 Bridge Street N.W. He performed there both as a single act and with a trio format. Ronnie recalls, “I played there for a couple years until Clay Highley joined us and he was there for about six to eight years. Then we got Hal Beveridge to play bass. He was with us for four or five years. It was where we recorded our fourth album titled, ‘Live at the Bavarian Inn.’ ”
The first time Ronnie played in Grand Rapids, he stayed at the Royal Motel on South Division. Over the years, he established his local residency while renting various Grand Rapids area apartments. One was located above the Bavarian Inn. He also lived at the Ramblewood Apartments on 44th Street and for a few years on 3rd Street N.W. Ronnie also lived in Sand Lake for three years.
He worked with local musicians like bassist Hal Beveridge and drummer Tommy Davis, and they accompanied him when they obtained engagements in other parts of the United States. While in Buffalo, New York, Ronnie met Dale Thomas AKA “Dusty Chaps” and pursuaded him to come to Grand Rapids to play music with him. Dale is still a popular musician in Grand Rapids.
Ronnie met his best friend while living in Grand Rapids, the veteran Grand Rapids disc jockey, Ed Buchanan, also well known as “Uncle Buck”. Due to Ed’s influence, Ronnie also worked for a couple years as a DJ at WJEF in Grand Rapids .
Ronnie adds: “Now that you’ve mentioned it, I realize that I never talked about it much in any of my interviews…at any time. It was only for about two years (around 1967) and it was called WJEF (JEFF Radio) on Ann Street behind the Holiday Inn. We were playing at the Bavarian Inn at the time and I was living at Ramblewood Apartments.”
“There was an older D.J.. ‘Cuzzin Somebody’? … I would call and ask for requests like POCO, Commander Cody, The Dead, New Riders and music like that. Ed Buchann said they don’t have that kind of ‘Country Music’ at the station… why don’t you come down and bring your records and play ’em yourself ? … and that kinda started my DJ’n back then – I even interviewed Anne Murray one morning…she flipped out to hear a D.J. from Ontario (calling her from Grand Rapids)…He He!!”
“There was no one playing the kind of ‘Country Music’ we were into back then…so when I had the opportunity to do it myself I jumped on it ….and I really did enjoy it …it was only a weekend gig for a few hours in the morning…9 to noon … Sat. and Sun. … not much pay, but fun, and I could play my own stuff. My bass player at that time was Hal Beveridge…and he also talked me into it.” Ronnie summed it up: “It was a great experience.”
Ronnie became lifelong friends with many musicians in Grand Rapids , and helped provide the name for the “The Common People” (which was originally “Lin and the Invaders.” ) Lin clearly recalls how this occurred: “Ronnie Fray had already played at the Shamrock several times that year (1967). I was working there as a barmaid, and totally dug his music. He became friends with Fred (Munch) and me, and we hung out after the gig, as often as possible, mostly listening to, and talking music. One of the songs that I really loved to hear Ronnie sing was a song written by Willie Nelson (called “Love of the Common People.”). One night as we discussed a new name for the band Ron said, ‘Why don’t you just call yourselves The Common People?… I know you like that song.’ …and that was it. We all knew it was the perfect name.”
Ronnie also wrote a song that Natchez Trace recorded, entitled “I Miss Mississippi ” the flip side of ”Ole 55”.
Ronnie kept very busy while he lived in Grand Rapids. He may be in the running for holding the record of playing at the most places in West Michigan. He performed at Westwood Ranch House, Barney’s, the parking lot at Granny’s Kitchen on 28th Street, Mr. President’s Inn, Hilltop Bar, with the Kingtones at Westgate Bowl, Harvey’s Bar, Jolly Trolly, Elbow Room, Russo’s, Paulo’s Living Room/Chez Ami, Brass Monkey, The Mouse Trap, Bow Tie, Thunderchicken, Windjammer, Eastown Saloon, OVER THE HILL (with Chuck Bob Carnes), PEOPLES , CHILLY’S , Lincoln Lake Pavilion, THE BASEMENT , THE PICK HOTEL, THE TOWN HOUSE , the DIRTY SHAME, the DRIFTWOOD Inn, BOB’S BAR, SUGAR FOOT SALOON (in Cedar) LITTLE BROWN JUG , the INTERSECTION (with Larry Ballard), the SAND BAR, Harvard Tavern (Sandy’s Place,) and Cedar Rocks, to name a few.
Beginning in the late 1980s, bar and nightclub jobs gradually became harder to find for musicians in West Michigan; and as their only child, Ronnie returned to Canada to care for his aging parents, who have since passed away.
Ronnie presently lives in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, but is eagerly looking forward to yet another trip to Grand Rapids to see his old friends and musical companions. He will most certainly find a welcoming place to stay and play, here at his second home.
He has entertained in some of the top nightclubs such as Gilley’s..Pasadena,Texas.
Billy Bob’s..Fort Worth Texas. Royal York Hotel..Toronto Ontario. Hollywood Bowl..California.
Joe Namath’s Bachelors Three in Alabama, and the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
He has shared the stage with other great entertainers such as Ms. Gus Hardin, Bonnie Raitt, Greg Allman, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Bobby Bare, Delbert McClinton, Jack Scott, Alabama, Ronnie Milsap, Leon Russell, Hank Williams Jr., David Alan Coe and Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, just to name a few.
He played the saw, fiddle, banjo or ‘anything with a bow’, on Vaudeville Stages.
Ron’s mother ‘made’ records (quite literally,she pressed them) at Spartan Records Co.Ltd.
London Ontario Canada. Ron’s dad worked there too.
“My dad played harmonica, spoons and he could really yodel quite well too.”
He used to walk to a friends house and the two of them would go to their guitar lessons from‘Edith Hill Adams’ on Egerton St. His friend? Canadian singer, Tommy Hunter! Ron studied steel guitar for a few years. He and Tommy attended grade school together… Ealing School on Hamilton Road in east London.
His first ‘paying’ performance was in the Capitol Theater in Woodstock Ontario….between movies.
At one of these early performances, some girls started yelling for them to do Elvis songs. Larry said, “Sure, we’ve got a steel guitar player here who’s going to sing you some Elvis songs” and motioned for Ron to take his guitar. Knees shaking….He sang “That’s Alright Mama” and
“Love Me Tender”. He was so taken with audience reaction, he bought an old Harmony guitar..
(at Novak’s Pawn Shop in London). He quit the ‘Middlesex Ramblers’ found some new players and formed “The Belaires” on his own. Larry Broderick went on to be ”Larry Lee and the Leasures” and then he moved to Nashville and became a booking agent.
This band lasted about 3 years. The Capers meanwhile were already a functioning group.
About this time, Garth Hudson (organist) Paul London (vocalist) and Gery Risser (guitarist)
left the Capers. Garth to play organ with Ronnie Hawkins’ band…’The Hawks’.
Ron was subsequently hired as lead singer and guitarist with the Capers.
He then he hired Jerry Penfound who had been playing organ for Ronnie Hawkins.
Ron said “we sort’a swapped keyboard players.”
Ron’s first gig with the Capers was in January of 1961 in Sudbury Ontario. Ron laughingly recalls…
“We drove there in Tom’s 1957 Ford ‘convertible’ with no heater and it was sooo cold….just ridiculous!”
Jerry Verga of the “varjac” entertainment agency in Detroit Michigan was the main drive behind the
bands eight years of continual touring.
Ron says…”Man, Jerry kept us workin’ from Tokyo to Atlantic City. From Detroit to Val’dor Quebec.
Youngstown Ohio to Nashville Tenn. “We had to fake an illness just to get a damn vacation.”
“We all loved Jerry a great deal”. He was ‘THE’ booking agent.
It was titled. “Introducing The Versatile Capers.”
Four years later….. the second album “Get Caperized” was released with Michael ‘Dean’ Wilson on organ.
RON’S third album was “The Ronnie Fray Capers” a trio with Alan ‘Clark’ Eakin on bass. Ron and Clay Highley were the only original Capers left. The group’s name again changed to “The Reptile Band” in Grand Rapids.
He recorded his fourth album at at ‘Bavarian Inn’ in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Hal Beveridge on bass and vocals. Clay Highley on drums and vocals.
The fifth album, and best in my opinion, was called “Put This In Your Ear.” It was recorded in 1980 in Detroit Michigan and Memphis Tenn. The songs on this album were original compositions by Ronnie..Delbert McClinton..J.J. Cale and Michael Martin Murphy.
And now his son is taking up all my space on my c.d. player. He’s really fantastic.
“J.J. Cale is another guy I really enjoy. They’re both great writers.”
During the 1970?s, he did a lot of touring and recorded about nine singles.(45?s).
Among them “She Taught Me How To Yodel” and “Road To Nomineui.”
A number one hit in Japan,(Okinawa) for nine weeks!
Ron has performed as a band member with the likes of…
The Capris..Jack Scott..Ronnie Hawkins..Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown..Ms.Gus Hardin and The Chuck ‘bob’ Carnes Show with the ‘Dusty Chaps Band. On one occasion, while playing guitar and harmonica for Gus Hardin at the ‘Hollywood Bowl’ on a show with Ronnie Milsap, Ron says he looked out into the front row and saw Barbara Streisdand! “Wow..boys, we better be good”.
He said! Another occasion was in Florida, when Greg Allman found his way to the stage to jam.
Bonnie Raitt sat in with the band in St. Louis Mo. and Gerald Stewart was on drums for a few months while they backed up the Florida country rocker ‘Gary Stewart’….Playing drums with ‘Stewart’ later was
Randy Panda..a Texas born fatback drummer who joined up with the boys in Columbus Mississippi.
Randy played drums on several recordings and toured with Ron for about four years…
touring all across the southern United States and also into Canada. Panda (Randy Woolery) was a solid force
with the short lived trio they called..R’ale. ‘Dusty’ Dale Thomas played guitar and bass. Ron played bass pedals.
and get paid for it!”
But believe me…he is all of those things. I asked why he didn’t sell some of his recordings at his appearances?
“I don’t think about it often enough.”
He plays some ‘good ol’ rock’n’roll, old country n’ some western swing, beebop and lots of the blues…..and just about
anything else you can think of.
Though he is basically a single act, I have yet to see him play alone! Why? Because there are so many of his peers
who like to join him on stage! Fairly regular guests are…Bruce Dean, guitar…Tony ‘lefty’ Smith from Detroit…guitar. …
Another is Gary McCracken of Sarnia Ontario, well known for his percussion artistry as a member of Kim Mitchell’s
early group ‘Max Webster’. He still has a few friends from ‘The States’ dropping in to jam with him.
You never know who will be performing with him on stage but you are guaranteed to be completly entertained!
It contains six of what Ron modestly calls ‘home grown’ songs…his own compositions.
One you’ll especially like is ‘So Goes Another Day’, a cool country song.
Also a couple of my favorites are….The Yodeling Song and ’53 Buick Blooze.
Gary McCracken…drums; Jim Lewis…bass; Al Weiss…saxophone;
Michael “Woody” Woodhull…dobro guitar; “Dusty” Dale Thomas…
electric guitar; Tony Bandoni…guitars; Dale Rivard…pedal steel guitar;
Gregg Chad and George Webber…keyboards; Billy Heater…harmony vocals.
He says “they’re goin’ like warm cakes”….ha ha!
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HERE THEY ARE……
Tommy Hunter (grade school bud). Then, coming later…..David Clayton Thomas (singer)
Clay Highley (drumer) Dale Thomas (guitar player) Garth Hudson (first keyboard player)
Ronnie Hawkins (singer) Randy Panda (drummer). Tom Davis (drummer).
and the pros….Delbert McClinton…J.J.Cale. Ray Charles…Buck Owens…Chuck Berry….
Fats Domino…Buddy Holly… Tony Bennet….Bobby Darin…George Jones..Jimmy Reed…
Frank Sinatra…Buddy Emmons…Chet Atkins…Jimmy Reed…Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland….
Hank Williams Sr. ‘n Jr. Elvis Presley.. John Prine…Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown…
Leroy Parnell…Gus Hardin…Brent Mason..Hank Garland..All the ‘Big Bands’..
And of coarse, my dad, Arthur J. Fradgley. My mom for her everyday inspirations…
and my grandfather, Reginald Fudge. (he played all strings and the saw.)
There are many many more … far too numerous to mention….
but, without these people in my life, I just wouldn’t be!
Comedy song “The Pretender” (YouTube)
Roy Clark and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown on Austin City limits T.V. show in 1981.
Backed By Dale Thomas on Bass, Tom Davis on Drums,
Cal Freeman on Steel guitar, Ron Fray on Rythrm Guitar and Harp, Garland on keyboards.