Since his days as emcee and cape man for music icon James Brown, Danny Ray has been keeping himself busy.
He’s still on the stage doing emcee work for Tony Howard, a local artist and former opening act for the Godfather of Soul.
On Dec. 17, local residents can see Ray live on the stage at the Imperial Theatre for Howard’s Motown Elvis Christmas Show. Every two to three months, Ray travels the East Coast with Howard for his bigger shows, such as Motown revues and casino performances.
The 76-year-old also recently served as emcee at concerts overseas with Grammy-winning funk artist Bootsy Collins and hopes soon to go to Europe with former members of James Brown’s band.
“They’re talking about setting that up sometime at the end of this month or December. I’m looking forward to some of these things,” Ray said.
Ray worked with Brown from 1960 until the music legend died on Christmas Day 2006. Ray became famous for draping a cape over the performer at the end of his signature tune Please, Please, Please. In the mid-1980s, Ray also worked at a local radio station.
When he’s not commanding audiences from the stage, Ray enjoys listening to music in his apartment at an Augusta senior citizen community or attending church services. His home is filled with reminders of his decades of worldwide travel with his longtime friend. Hanging on the wall over Ray’s sofa is a painting of him draping a cape across Brown’s back. Also on display are a dancing Brown figurine and handcrafted doll of Ray made by a friend in Japan.
Ray treasures a collection of CDs of performances he emceed for Brown and other musicians, including Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo Vol. III in 1963, James Brown at the Garden, James Brown at the Night of the Proms in 2004, The Official Boot-Legged Bootsy CD: Money Can’t Buy and Ike and Val Woods’ Miami Blues. During his career, Ray also emceed on The Ed Sullivan Show and The T.A.M.I. Show, he said. In 2007, Ray participated in the Grammy Awards’ tribute to the Godfather of Soul by draping Brown’s glittering red cape across a microphone.
Howard has known Ray since their days traveling with Brown.
“People just love him,” Howard said. “Just his voice does his show. He just says, ‘Hello and how y’all doing,’ and the crowd goes crazy. I knew that his presence being on the show would enhance the Motown show. He keeps the band laughing. The guys are just so amazed that it’s him. He doesn’t really look at himself as an icon, but he really is.”
Despite Ray’s iconic status in the music industry, he is down to earth, Howard said.
“He is one of the most humble and nicest men that you ever want to meet. Forty years with James Brown, and you would never know other than him speaking about what he’s done. Just a great guy,” he said.
After Brown’s death, Ray hit a rough patch financially, relying solely on his Social Security income. In 2007, his home was foreclosed on and sold because he was eight months behind in his payments. He also owed about $80,000 in federal and state tax liens.
“All these things just started falling apart. All of a sudden, the bottom just dropped out on me. My main source of income dropped off. It was just one of those things that went on, and it happened,” Ray said. “I managed to pull a few things together and try to hold myself together. I’d like to do better and travel a little more, but the guys are still trying to put things together.”
In his collection of Brown memorabilia, Ray has a photograph of his first night as Brown’s emcee.
Ray also has four passports filled with stamps of his travels around the world with Brown. Ray said his last trip with Brown was to Japan.
“I’ve been traveling almost all my life. You sit down for a minute, you look around and say, ‘What are we going to do next?’ I’ve been to Moscow, Hong Kong, you name it. So many days I look back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve been some of everywhere,’” Ray said.
Ray met Brown at the Apollo Theatre in New York in 1960. Originally from Birmingham, Ala., Ray was drafted into the military and, after being discharged, he moved to New York. Ray said he always knew he wanted to work in show business, so he decided to hang out where the action was.
He met some people who worked for Brown, and Brown hired him to take care of the band. Soon afterward, Brown asked Ray if he’d like to work directly for him. Ray was Brown’s valet, selected his wardrobe and helped him get dressed for shows.
“Next thing I know, he had me doing live albums for his stage show. The first time I ever did a live show, it scared me to death. It was up in Maryland. The guy who usually came out to do the show, he didn’t show up. So he asked me, ‘Have you ever been on stage?’ I said, ‘Naw, man.’ He said, ‘Well, uh, tonight’s your night,’ I said, ‘What do you mean tonight’s my night?’” Ray said.
Ray made his debut as emcee in front of a packed arena. He was nervous, but Brown told him that “he could see him up on stage.”
“It was the longest walk going down to that arena. I felt like that mic was going to eat me up. I had never talked to that many people before. There were thousands of people there. When you hear yourself for the first time, that’s another story there. But I got over it, though. I got to looking forward to it,” Ray said.
He can still recite his famous introduction.
“Right about now, it’s star time. Are you ready for star time? Yes! Introducing, ladies and gentlemen, the man who has given the world over 44 golden soul classics, tunes that will never die. Tunes like Try Me, Please, Please, Please, I Feel Good, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Sex Machine, Big Payback, Get Up Offa That Thang, Don’t Be a Dropout and Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. I introduce you to the hardest-working man in show biz, ladies and gentlemen, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown,” Ray said.
Ray moved to Augusta from New York in the mid-1970s. Brown traveled constantly, so it was easier to be close by.
Brown’s daughter Deanna Brown-Thomas said she and her siblings refer to Ray as Uncle Danny.
“Uncle Danny has known me all my life. Dad loved him like a brother. Of course, he loved dad as well,” she said. “People around the world know Danny Ray. He’s very much a legend himself.”
Ray said he treasures his memories of working with Brown and doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.
“I had a job, and I enjoyed doing it. Every day was an interesting day,” Ray said. “Just to stop and sit down and do nothing, that’s kind of difficult for me. I’ve been going all my life.”