However, his movie work had not gone unnoticed, and in 1937 he was contracted, along with his Six-Bar Cowboys, to star in a musical short for RKO Radio Pictures. If the first proved successful, others would follow. And they did. Between 1937 and 1942 eighteen were released, and every one a grand piece of entertainment.
Each would be introduced by the El Capitan Yodel, while in between songs and instrumental solos, a light and usually amusing story would unfold. It is my sincere belief that the passing years have not diminished the entertainment value of any of these short features, and that if screened on TV today, they'd certainly prove superior than the majority of current series shows. During his career in the movies, Ray appeared in about sixty films, usually as a sidekick to George O'Brien, Tim Holt or Rod Cameron. All three were top Western stars at that time, and Ray's appearances and the music he provided only added to the entertainment quality.
In the Tim Holt series, Ray was usually known as 'Smokey', and as such became a firm favorite of fans. Without any intention whatsoever to detract from Tim Holt's performances or popularity, I would venture to suggest that there were a great many like myself who were drawn to a specific movie house essentially to see Smokey. Why RKO remained blind to the talent they had under contract and why Ray Whitley was never provided with the opportunity to star in his own full-length series, must remain one of those mysteries of Hollywood. For sure RKO had everything needed to produce full-length musical Westerns, and Ray had all that was required to more than adequately fulfill his part of a contract.
Today, when you watch Ray on stage and consider what might have happened had RKO, or indeed the other studios, removed their blinders for just a little while ... well, it makes for some mighty interesting speculation. During one festival question session, Ray remarked that if they took away his guitar and his singing, he had little left to offer --- that he was no great shakes as an actor. Which is nothing more than just another aspect of his character --- a full measure of genuine modesty.
Had he not possessed real ability, it's highly unlikely that he'd have been selected to play the part of James Dean's manager in GIANT (1956). Ray's performance was equal to anyone else in the cast, along with Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and several other fine actors. Movies, though, were only part of the many activities in which Ray Whitley would be involved. As a songwriter he produced a commendable list of hits, including "Lonely River", "How Was I To Know?", "Foolish Pride", "Between the Lines", and so many, many more.
Some of these songs were co-written with other luminaries such as Jimmy Wakely, Fred Rose, and Gene Autry. And, talking of Gene, there's a story which is pretty well-known by now, but still worth re-telling ... Ray was scheduled to report to the lot early one morning in 1938, when at 5:00 a.m. he was awakened by a demanding telephone.
Returning to his bedroom, he smiled at his wife, Kay, and said, "Well, I'm back in the saddle again." Then he went on to explain that the telephone call had come from the studio, requesting him to produce a new song for the George O'Brien feature, BORDER G-MAN, in which Ray was starred. "You've got a title for one right there", Kay informed him. "I'm Back in the Saddle Again." Ray sat down on the edge of the bed and dashed off the verse --- and performed the song in the movie only hours later. When Autry heard the number he went for it in a big way.
Getting together with Ray, they rewrote it, though the changes appear to have been very slight. The rest is history. "Back in the Saddle Again" was first featured by Gene Autry in his 1939 movie, ROVIN' TUMBLEWEEDS, and has been identified as Gene's theme song ever since. Later, Autry recorded a number of Whitley compositions, including "Ages and Ages Ago", "Rocky Canyon", "Lonely River" and "I Hang My Head and Cry".
Tex Ritter, Johnny Bond, Sonny James and others were also to make profitable use of Ray's material. If Gene Autry was not aware of Ray's ability and his potential, both as a singer and an actor, Art Davis, who then worked for Gene, was to make him so. It was Art who suggested that Gene, instead of concerning himself over the competition offered by Tex Ritter, take a look in the direction of Ray Whitley. In 1937 Ray acted as manager for The Sons of The Pioneers, and negotiated the contract that landed them roles in a series of Charles Starrett features. However, Ray later told that he was disgusted with what Columbia had offered the Pioneers, and that he'd told them (Columbia) the Pioneers were the best, and at least worth ten times the $200 a week they'd been offered.
Ray fought for a two week minimum when the studio indicated that they expected the Pioneers to complete their shooting in a week. But even after succeeding, Ray refused to sign the contract himself, still believing the group to be worth more. Even if the amount does smack of small beginnings, it was most assuredly a move that would aid the musical group in their assent to stardom and world recognition. Between 1948 and 1949 Ray also managed Jimmy Wakely, and it was Jimmy who, in an interview not so long ago, confessed that he'd 'borrowed' a little from Ray's style of yodeling.
During World War II, Ray entertained servicemen in hospitals and camps both at home and abroad, traveling some 70,000 miles by sea and air to countless small outposts. At one time he was second only to Tex Ritter in terms of personal performances. With his Rhythm Wranglers, a western swing band, Ray performed at the Venice Pier Ballroom, Baldwin Park, and Culver City, attracting crowds from 8,000 to 11,000 at any one time. So good was the group that it quickly became evident that they now had to be considered as serious rivals to Bob Wills, then acclaimed the King of Western Swing.
An extremely lamentable fact about this part of Ray's career is that not a single commercial recording was made of his swing band group. It was Ray Whitley also who suggested that the late Fred Rose, who was then experimenting in the country music field, move to California. 1940 and 1941 saw Fred Rose living in the Whitley home , and there, often collaborating with Ray, the genius of Fred Rose as a composer of country music surfaced. Not long afterwards, Fred Rose teamed up with Roy Acuff to form the Rose-Acuff Music Publishing Company in Nashville.
Fred invited Ray in as a partner, but Ray declined, believing that his future lay in Hollywood. Because of other commitments, Ray also declined with thanks Fred's invitation to manage Hank Williams. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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