Danny Ray, who opened thousands of concerts for James Brown with a stem-winding, hype-filled introduction and ended them by draping a sequined velvet cape over the singer’s sweaty, bent-over body, only to have him burst forth in a paroxysm of soulful funk for one last encore, died on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 at his home in Augusta, Georgia. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by Deanna Brown-Thomas, Brown’s daughter, who called Ray “the original hype man.”
Ray’s cape routine, which he started in 1962, helped cement Brown’s flamboyant image even before he catapulted to worldwide celebrity as the “Godfather of Soul.”
At the end of his first set in the small clubs where he performed at the time, Brown, drenched in perspiration, would leave the stage and Ray would cover him in a Turkish towel. When he was ready for his encore, Brown would toss it off with an exuberant flip of his arms — an act that the crowd could see clearly, and that fans came to expect.
The routine later moved onstage, and it moved into American musical lore in 1964 when Brown joined the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and a long list of other performers at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for a filmed concert called Teenage Awards Music International, better known as TAMI.
The Stones were headlining, but Brown got 18 minutes, much of it taken up by his hit “Please Please Please.” Less than a minute into the song, as the music built up and Brown’s body contorted with emotion, he collapsed to his knees, perfectly timed to the beat. The crowd gasped.
As the band kept playing and the backup singers, the Famous Flames, kept singing, Ray came from stage left with a cape. He and Bobby Bennett, one of the Flames, helped Brown to his feet. He began to hobble off, mumbling to himself as the audience yelled, “Don’t go!”
Appearing suddenly to regain his strength, Brown threw off the cape — again, right on the beat — and returned to the microphone. He and Ray repeated the routine twice. Each time the crowd grew wilder.
“The TAMI Show,” with Ray’s routine as its climax, was released in theaters at the end of 1964, and it vaulted Brown from the R&B circuit to sold-out arenas almost overnight. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards later said that agreeing to follow Brown onstage that night was the worst decision the band had ever made.
Brown performed almost nonstop for the next four decades, earning the title “the hardest-working man in show business.” Ray was easily the second: When he wasn’t running the show for the audience, he was managing it backstage, overseeing the sprawling Brown entourage with military precision.
He made sure the backup singers were on time, their shoes polished and their pompadours coifed. He tended to the minute details of the band’s tailoring, down to his insistence that their jackets have no pockets, lest they leave unsightly lines in the fabric.
“From the moment people look at the stage, they are looking at everything, from head to toe,” he told Brown’s son Daryl for his book “My Father the Godfather” (2014). “How you bring it, how you present it, it’s all about the look.”
Daniel Brown Ray was born March 22, 1935, in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, Willie, was a barber, and his mother, Lucy, was a homemaker.
He married in 1957, and the next year he joined the Army. When he left the service in 1961, he and his wife, Rosemarie, settled in New York, where Ray hoped to find a job behind the scenes in entertainment. He frequented performance halls like the Apollo, trying to get noticed by one of the entourages that trailed behind stars like Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke.
Ray was an impeccable dresser — even in his 80s, he wore a three-piece suit when he went out, even to the grocery store, Brown-Thomas said. He soon caught the attention of Brown, himself immaculate and precise in his wardrobe choices, who hired him as his valet.
In early 1962, Brown was performing a show in Maryland when his regular MC didn’t show up. Brown turned to Ray.
“Tonight’s your night,” he said.
Ray had never been onstage, and he said his knees almost buckled as he walked to the microphone. But once there, he proved a natural, winning over the crowd with his cool, crisp delivery, like a jazz DJ — in fact, he later hosted a Sunday jazz hour for a radio station in Augusta.
Like Brown, Ray achieved his onstage confidence through relentless practice and self-discipline. Ray would record himself speaking, then pore over the tapes, critiquing minute details in his delivery.
As Brown became more flamboyant in his performance through the 1960s, so did Ray. His introductions grew longer, as did his vowels.
“Are you ready to get dooooooown?” he would ask the crowd. “Are you ready for Jaaaaaames Brown? Because right now, it is star time!”
By the 1980s, he had added a call and response, leading the crowd in calling for “James Brown! James Brown! James Brown!” until the singer came bursting forth from the wings.
Ray is survived by a brother, Richard, and three sisters, Leila Brumfield, Barbara Jean Ray and Lucy Earth. His wife died in 1986.
He took care of Brown even while offstage, going so far as to move with him from New York to Augusta in the early 1970s. He managed the singer’s rotating cadre of girlfriends and later tried to shield him from tax collectors and nosy friends while he struggled with drug addiction.
Ray struggled as well; along with his own addiction problems, he was forced in the 1980s to sell his house to cover federal and state tax liens. He eventually got clean and worked as an emcee for other R&B acts, including the Original James Brown Band, which continued to tour after the singer’s death, on Christmas Day 2006.
At his funeral, Ray introduced his old friend the only way he knew how. “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for star time?” he asked. Then he draped a cape over Brown’s open coffin.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.