Happy heavenly birthday to a dear friend of mine – Ray Jessel. Ray was a Welsh-born songwriter, screenwriter, orchestrator, and musical theatre composer. His songs have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Peggy Lee, John Pizzarelli, and Michael Feinstein (and me!).
Born in Cardiff, he moved to Canada in 1955 and started a career as an orchestrator and composer for CBC Radio and CBC Television. He met Canadian pianist Marian Grudeff, who became his songwriting partner.
With little success in Toronto, Jessel and Grudeff moved to New York City where they made their first success with the Broadway musical, “Baker Street,” in 1964. Jessel contributed to The Dean Martin Show, The Carol Burnett Show (Emmy-nominated), The Smothers Brothers Show, The Bob Newhart Show and others. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a writer and editor for numerous episodes of The Love Boat and Head of the Class, among other series. He returned to Broadway in 1979, being chosen by Richard Rodgers to write additional lyrics for “I Remember Mama.” He wrote the lyrics to four songs in the show, including “A Little Bit More” — the last song Richard Rodgers was to write for the musical stage.
In the 1990s, Jessel began to perform comedy songs at parties. He was persuaded by Michael Feinstein and Shelly Goldstein to perform his original song, “Wanna Sing a Show Tune,” with Feinstein, who dubbed Ray “The Millennium Noël Coward.” Ray made his debut (at 72!) as a cabaret performer at Hollywood’s Gardenia Room in April 2002, and subsequently developed his own cabaret act. He continued to perform in cabaret until shortly before his death, appearing in June 2015 at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia. He released two albums on the LML Music label, “The First 70 Years” and “Naughty or Nice.”
He met his partner Cynthia Thompson in 1980 and married her approximately ten years later. He wrote a number of songs with her, the most successful of which are “Whatever Happened to Melody?”, which was recorded by Michael Feinstein, David Campbell, and by Masters of Harmony; and “I’m Alright Now,” first recorded by John Pizzarelli. Among their other work is a musical version of Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders,” from which the ballad “Please, Don’t Let It Be Love” was nominated for best song at the 1996 International Musical of the Year Contest. They also wrote scripts and songs for the Shari Lewis PBS show “The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.” Ray received five MAC Awards for “Original Song” and the 2004 Bistro Award.
On a personal note, Ray was a kind and generous man who was wonderful to me. My new album, “Standard Time: Live In New York” features my performances of two of Ray’s songs and the entire album is dedicated to him in gratitude for his friendship. We will be remembering Ray at the album release event at The Triad Theatre in New York on December 4.
Please enjoy this little mashup of Ray, John Pizzarelli, and me singing Ray & Cynthia’s song “I’m Alright Now.”