Dobie Gray: Drift Away

Dobie Gray

Saddened today to read of the death of Dobie Gray whose incomparable anthem to the power of popular music, ‘Drift Away’, has been a favourite in this household for decades.  The song always brings back memories of other times, times spent with good friends, the school run or longer car journeys when our daughter would sing along to the chorus:

Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock n roll
And drift away

Best known for ‘Drift Away’, his 1973 smash hit, Dobie Gray was a versatile and velvet-voiced singer who could handle soul, country, and pop. Today’s obituaries curiously remark on how ill-defined Gray’s origins are: some sources list his birth name as Leonard Victor Ainsworth and his Texas birthplace as Brookshire, while others have him born Laurence Darrow Brown in Simonton. His likely birth date is July 26, 1940 (though some sources state 1942 or 1943). Whatever the case, Gray grew up in a family of sharecroppers, and discovered gospel music through his grandfather, a Baptist minister. He also soaked up the R&B and country music of his surroundings, and in the early ’60s he moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune.

Before adopting the name Dobie Gray, he recorded several singles under the names Leonard Ainsworth, Larry Curtis, and Larry Dennis. His seventh single, ‘Look at Me’, became his first chart hit in 1963, but his breakthrough came in 1965 with the single that became a firm favourite on the UK Northern Soul scene, ‘The In Crowd’.  Here he is performing it live (sorry, miming it live) on Shindig! in 1965:

In his obituary for The Guardian today, Richard Williams writes that ‘The In Crowd’ was ‘an up-tempo song in a quasi-Motown style, its brassy fanfares setting the scene for a memorable lyric celebrating the singer’s membership of a fashionable clique. “If it’s square, we ain’t there,” Gray sang, immediately striking a chord with Britain’s young mods, who were soon singing along to other verses:

We make every minute count
Our share is always the biggest amount
Other guys imitate us
But the original is still the greatest.

But, as Williams notes, the success didn’t last, and instead Gray went into acting, and spent two years in the Los Angeles cast of the hippy musical Hair. He then joined a funk group called Pollution and moved into music publishing where he met the songwriting brothers Mentor and Paul Williams. It was Mentor who wrote and produced ‘Drift Away’, with its irresistibly infectious chorus.

And when my mind is free
You know a melody can move me
And when I’m feelin’ blue
The guitar’s comin’ through
To soothe me

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
And rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You help me along
Makin’ me strong

To get the feeling they wanted, Gray and Williams recorded the song in Nashville, with the session musicians known as Area Code 615, whose instrumental titled ‘Stone Fox Chase’, became the signature tune for BBC 2’s The Old Grey Whistle Test.  And here is Gray performing the song live on that very same show in 1974:

The following year Gray released what aficionados regard as the best Northern Soul record of all time.  In 1999, Gray was filmed performing it in Nashville for a celebratory film, The Strange World Of Northern Soul:

It was pleasing to note in Richard Williams’ obituary that in the 1980s Gray toured South Africa, where he created controversy during the apartheid era by insisting on performing to integrated audiences.

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