Danny Ray, James Brown’s ‘Original Hype Man,’ Dies at 85


Danny Ray, who opened up James Brown’s thousands of concerts with a winding, hype-filled introduction and ended them by draping a sequined velvet cloak over the singer’s sweaty, hunched body to break him out in a fit of soulful funk for one final encore, died on February 2nd at his home in Augusta, Ga. He was 85 years old.

His death was confirmed by Deanna Brown-Thomas, Mr. Brown’s daughter, whom Mr. Ray called “the original hype man”.

Mr. Ray’s cape routine, which he began in 1962, helped cement Mr. Brown’s extravagant image even before he was catapulted to worldwide fame as the “Godfather of Soul”.

At the end of his first set in the little clubs he was playing in at the time, Mr. Brown left the stage drenched in sweat and Mr. Ray covered him with a Turkish towel. When he was ready for his encore, Mr. Brown threw it off with a luscious arm flick – an act that the crowd could clearly see and that fans were expecting.

The routine later moved on to the stage and was recorded in American music history in 1964 when Mr. Brown joined the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and a long list of other artists at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for a filmed concert called Teenage Awards Music International, better known as TAMI

The Stones were headlining, but Mr. Brown got 18 minutes, much of which was taken up by his hit “Please Please Please”. Less than a minute into the song, when the music built up and Mr. Brown’s body twisted with emotion, he fell to his knees, perfectly in tune with the beat. The crowd gasped for air.

While the band continued to play and the backup vocalists, the Famous Flames, continued to sing, Mr. Ray came off the stage wearing a cloak. He and Bobby Bennett, one of the flames, helped Mr. Brown to his feet. He started limping and mumbling to himself as the audience yelled, “Don’t go!”

When Mr. Brown suddenly appeared to regain his strength, he threw off his cloak – again right in time – and went back to the microphone. He and Mr. Ray repeated the routine twice. Each time the crowd grew wilder.

“The TAMI Show,” with Mr. Ray’s routine as its climax, was released in theaters in late 1964 and took Mr. Brown off the R&B circuit into sold-out arenas almost overnight. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards later said agreeing to follow Mr. Brown on stage that evening was the worst decision the band had ever made.

Mr. Brown performed almost continuously for the next four decades, earning the title of “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Mr. Ray was easily second: when he wasn’t running the show for the audience, he was running it behind the scenes, overseeing the sprawling Brown entourage with military precision.

He made sure the backup singers were on time, their shoes polished, and their pompadours combed. He took care of the minute details of the band’s tailoring until he insisted that their jackets had no pockets so they wouldn’t leave unsightly lines in the fabric.

“From the moment people look on the stage, they see everything from head to toe,” he said told Mr. Brown’s son Daryl for his book “My Father the Godfather” (2014). “How you get it, how you present it, it’s all about looks.”

Daniel Brown Ray was born on March 22nd, 1935 in Birmingham, Ala. His father Willie was a hairdresser and his mother Lucy was a housewife.

He married in 1957 and joined the army the next year. When he left the service in 1961, he and his wife, Rosemarie, settled in New York, where Mr. Ray was hoping to find a behind-the-scenes job in entertainment. He visited function rooms like the Apollo and tried to be noticed by one of the followers who fell behind stars like Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke.

Mr. Ray was a flawless dresser – even in his 80s he wore a three-piece suit when he even went to the grocery store, Ms. Brown-Thomas said. He soon caught the attention of Mr. Brown, who himself was immaculate and precise in his wardrobe choices and employed him as his servant.

In early 1962, Mr. Brown was playing a show in Maryland when his regular MC didn’t show up. Mr. Brown turned to Mr. Ray.

“Tonight is your night,” he said.

Mr. Ray had never been on stage before and said his knees almost bent when he went to the microphone. But when he got there he turned out to be a natural and won over the crowd with his cool, crisp delivery, like a jazz DJ. In fact, he later hosted a Sunday jazz lesson for a radio station in Augusta.

Like Mr. Brown, Mr. Ray gained confidence on stage through tireless practice and self-discipline. Mr. Ray recorded himself as he spoke, then flipped the tapes and criticized minute details in his delivery.

When Mr. Brown got more extravagant in his performance in the 1960s, so did Mr. Ray. Its introductions became longer, as did its vowels.

“Are you ready to get dooooooown?” he would ask the crowd. “Are you ready for Jaaaaaames Brown? Because right now is stardate! “

In the 1980s he added a phone call and an answer that made the crowd go back to, “James Brown! James Brown! James Brown! “Until the singer burst out of the wings.

Mr. Ray is survived by a brother, Richard, and three sisters, Leila Brumfield, Barbara Jean Ray, and Lucy Earth. His wife died in 1986.

He also looked after Mr. Brown offstage and moved with him from New York to Augusta in the early 1970s. He ran the rotating squad of the singer’s girlfriends and later tried to protect him from tax collectors and nosy friends while battling drug addiction.

Mr. Ray fought too; Along with his own addiction problems, he was forced to sell his home in the 1980s to cover federal and state tax liens. He eventually got clean and worked as an MC for other R&B acts including the Original James Brown Band, which continued to tour after the singer passed away on Christmas Day 2006.

At his funeral, Mr. Ray only introduced his old friend as he knew. “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for the start time?” he asked. Then he draped a cloak over Mr. Brown’s open coffin.



Robert Dunfee