Raymond Peterson, singer: born Denton, Texas 23 April 1939; married (four sons, three daughters); died Smyrna, Tennessee 25 January 2005.
In the early Sixties, the BBC steadfastly refused to broadcast records that it considered in bad taste. In particular, the corporation banned so-called "death discs", so that recording one was a sure way to court controversy. Death discs included "Ebony Eyes" (Everly Brothers), "Teen Angel" (Mark Dinning), "Leader of the Pack" (Shangri-Las) and "Terry" (Twinkle), but the best-known is "Tell Laura I Love Her", sung by Ray Peterson, the story of a dying stock-car racer's love for his girlfriend.
"Tell Laura I Love Her", by the New York writer Jeff Barry, went into the US Top Ten but RCA, who had the rights, were reluctant to release in Britain for fear of being banned by the BBC. EMI's Columbia label saw its chance and quickly recorded a cover version by the Welsh singer Ricky Valance, at which point RCA changed their minds and released Peterson's version. Valance thus had the edge, topping the charts, while Peterson made only No 23, although it turned out to be his most successful record in the UK.
Ray Peterson was born in Denton, Ohio, in 1939 but raised in San Antonio. He developed polio as a child and was left with a permanent limp, but it did not prevent his becoming an accomplished golfer. After graduation from high school, he moved to Los Angeles and hoped to become a professional entertainer.
In 1958 Stan Schulman heard him singing in a club and became his manager. RCA was looking for new talent as Elvis Presley was serving in the US Army and the label wanted some new teen idols. Rod Lauren, Johnny Restivo and Ray Peterson were all signed to RCA, but only Peterson had any real success. His first single was a revival of Little Willie John's "Fever", but his record was to be eclipsed by Peggy Lee's interpretation. Further singles - "Let's Try Romance", "Tail Light" and "Shirley Purly" - did little, although it was clear that Peterson had a strong voice.
The songwriter Baker Knight had written "The Wonder of You" for one of RCA's top artists, Perry Como, but Como's producer did not think it suitable. As he left the office, Knight met Peterson and offered him the song. "The Wonder of You" became a Top Thirty US hit, though in the UK Peterson's version was overshadowed by a cover from Ronnie Hilton. Peterson followed it with a revival of Frankie Laine's "Answer Me" and a new Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman song, "Teenage Heartache".
After the success of "Tell Laura I Love Her" in 1960, Peterson became one of the first performers to establish his own label, Dunes, which was named after the Las Vegas hotel where he played. He asked the fledgling record producer Phil Spector to record him and their revival of an old blues song, "Corrina Corrina", made the US Top Ten, prompting a version by Bob Dylan in 1963. It is a very engaging record, quite unlike Spector's subsequent "Wall of Sound" in style, and Peterson's voice is prettily matched by a soprano's in the chorus.
Peterson had further US successes with "Sweet Little Kathy" (a weak copy of "Corrina Corrina") and "Missing You". His discovery, Curtis Lee, also did well; Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" and "Under the Moon of Love", were both produced by Spector and revealed the direction in which he was going. Peterson's best record was the dramatic ballad "I Could Have Loved You So Well", written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and produced by Spector, and he was disappointed when it only reached No 57 on the US chart. He then tried another death disc, "Give Us Your Blessing", but this time nobody was interested.
In 1963 Ray Peterson moved to MGM and began to record country as well as pop. His best record from this period is "Across the Street" (1964), which surely would have been a major hit had it been recorded by Gene Pitney. He had further releases on Reprise, Uni and Decca and his album Peterson Country (1971) was well received. He performed in oldies shows until his death and was sometimes joined on stage by his daughters.
Elvis Presley's pianist and arranger Glen D. Hardin recalls that, when Presley returned to live performance in 1969,
Elvis called and said to me, "Do you remember that old song, 'The Wonder of You'? I want to do it tomorrow night on the first show." I just said "OK" and worked through the night on the arrangement.
Presley recorded the song live and then rang Peterson to say that he was releasing it.
"You don't have to ask me, you're Elvis Presley," said Peterson.
"Yes, I do," said Presley, "You're Ray Peterson."
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