Ray Johnson, age 89, a native of Iuka, Miss., lived in Sheffield, Alabama for more than 60 years, working until retirement as a crane operator at Reynold's Aluminum, and heading one of the most prominent families in the Muscle Shoals music industry.
Johnson was the father of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and grandfather of Jay Johnson, of The Southern Rock All-Stars. His early musical aspirations were shelved for decades while he raised his family, but emerged in 2000 when his son and grandson produced his first CD, "Cowboy Ray 2000."
Johnson began playing as a youngster with his older brother, Dexter. Performing as the Johnson Brothers, the duo built a following through weekly performances on Mid South radio programs during the late 1930s. When they began to perform, Ray was so young his feet couldn't touch the floor as he sat before the microphone at WNRA's studio in the Sheffield Hotel.
They moved to WMSD in Muscle Shoals when a fire destroyed the WNRA studios, and later were regulars on an hour-long lunchtime show broadcast by KLCN in Blytheville, Ark.
In 1940, Ray settled down, as Dexter continued to tour the Southeast with the Blue Seal Pals before returning to Sheffield to take a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Dexter moved into a house across the street from Ray, eventually converting his garage into the area's first recording studio.
Ray continued playing throughout his life as a hobby, and he and his wife, Hazel, were renown for the home-cooked meals and musical treats they served to celebrities working with their son at Muscle Shoals Sound. Among those that were privileged to participate in these private gatherings were The Oak Ridge Boys, The Staple Singers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot, Levon Helm and producer Jerry Wexler.
"Jerry Wexler would come in to produce an album, and he would always want to come to my house," Ray explained during an interview after the release of his CD. "When we got through eating, he'd ask me and my wife to get out the guitar and sing."
Wexler became a devoted fan of the Johnsons' food and hospitality and especially their music.
"He was mesmerized by their harmony," Jimmy Johnson said. "Mother sang this unusual harmony. It almost sounded like she was singing under him. It was really unique."
The recording project was conceived during conversations between Jimmy Johnson and his partner at MSS, Roger Hawkins. Hawkins' father had also been a musician.
"Roger and I had talked about doing a record on our dads since the '60s and '70s," Johnson said. "Both our dads were in country music before we were born. But we procrastinated and put it off."
Johnson was inspired to begin the effort by Tony Hooper, a local guitarist/producer, who had recently completed an album with another unheralded older musician, local guitarist Lanky York.
Tony was persuasive," Johnson said. "He looked at me and said, 'You better do this.' "
By the time the recording got under way, Ray's wife, Hazel, was battling cancer. She died May 8, 1999, and the CD, which includes her and Ray's favorite songs, is dedicated to her memory.
After the release of the CD, Ray returned to the stage for some local performances.
On Tuesday morning, July 6, 2010, Ray passed away. The family will receive friends from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, July 8, 2010, at Morrison Funeral Home, Tuscumbia. The funeral service will follow in the funeral home chapel. Interment will follow in Oakwood Cemetery, Sheffield. The Rev. James Taylor will officiate.
Ray is survived by his son, Jimmy Johnson and wife, Becky C. Johnson, of Muscle Shoals; grandson, Jay Johnson, Muscle Shoals; granddaughter, Kim (Lane) Tidwell, Killen, Ala.; great-grandsons, Jimmy Ray Johnson III and Trent Tidwell; great-granddaughter, Kayla Tidwell; sister, Mrs. Louise Harrison, Dyersburg, Tenn.; and nieces, Ida Ann Bean and Elsa Maye Crabtree.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Hazel Lewis Johnson; son, Earl Johnson; brothers, Dexter Johnson, Ellis Johnson, Edgar Johnson, Maskell Johnson, Mack Johnson; and sisters, Freda Matthews, Claire Gibbons, Verlan Deaton, Rachel Loveless, Peggy Diaz; and his parents, William Homer Johnson and Edith Ophelia Arnold Johnson, of Iuka, Miss., and the Shoals.
Ray was a member of First Baptist Church of Sheffield, IBEW local No. 558 and Sheffield Masonic "Blue" Lodge.
Pallbearers will be Jerry Borden, David Hood, Dewitt Bean, Bob Smith, Jerry Hodges and Rob Harrison. Honorary pallbearers will be Raymond Goode, Bobby Johnson, Frank Crabtree, Roger Hawkins, Bob Klose, Mark Willcutt and Mike Mihelic.
The family extends special gratitude to Anita and Scotty, of Southridge Place, and to Rita Van Dyke, of Green Oaks Inn.
Memorials may be made to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Tuscumbia, Ala.