Singing and live performance
Whitley was born in Atlanta, Georgia. He began his singing career in New York City in 1930. He had traveled to New York where he became a construction worker on the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge. He formed "The Range Ramblers" and began to broadcast on WMCA. He then traveled with the World Championship Rodeo Organisation, renaming his band "The Six Bar Cowboys". Whitley was skilled in the use of the bullwhip, and could remove a cigarette from a man's lips with a single stroke, using either hand.
Development of the Gibson SJ-200
In 1937, Ray Whitley had worked with Gibson on the production of the famous Gibson SJ-200 acoustic guitar, which was initially known as the "Super Jumbo". Whitley used his own time and money to design a guitar which he took to Gibson. He explained the features and merits of the instrument, suggesting that by presenting them to other stars of the day, would result in really putting the Gibson name on the musical instrument map. As a result, Whitley was the first performer to own a Gibson SJ-200. The first SJ-200, custom built by Gibson for Whitley, is on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The SJ-200 has since become an American icon and has been played by hundreds of different guitarists over the years.
In 1938, Whitley was signed to RKO Pictures and made 59 movies, over 20 of them short western musicals where he played the lead role.
Whitley wrote the original western tune Back in the Saddle Again. The song was first heard in the western movie Border G-Man in which he played the part of "Luke Jones". Gene Autry heard it and bought the song for a reported $200, making it his theme song. Whitley and Autry changed the order of verse and chorus, and made a slight change in the melody into the present version that makes it one of the most recognized and recorded Western music tunes in history.
Death and legacy
Ray Whitley died on February 21, 1979, while en route to a fishing trip to Mexico with his son-in-law, Hal Bracken.
Ray Whitley's original Gibson SJ-200 is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville Tennessee. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981, and in 1996 Ray Whitley was inducted into the Western Music Association Hall of Fame.
Ray Whitley also endorsed another Gibson made guitar, sold by the mail order house Montgomery Wards under the house brand "Recording King." This highly esteemed guitar was marketed only in 1939, and featured the signature of Mr. Whitley on the headstock. 235 of these were made in mahogany, and 235 in rosewood. One of these instruments was the preferred guitar of American composer John Fahey, who recorded extensively on the instrument from 1969-1978. It was severely damaged in a domestic quarrel between Fahey and his girlfriend at the time. The remains of the guitar were collected by guitarist Peter Lang, who was an employee of Fahey's Takoma Records, and preserved for 23 years before being repaired by luthier Federico Sheppard, who later held the trademark for Recording King guitars. The Ray Whitley Recording King guitar was a favorite of B-17 pilots during the second World War, which may explain their rarity today. During the brief time this guitar was marketed, it was the most ornate guitar built by Gibson at the time, but as it was sold under the Recording King label, at $29.95 it was far from the most expensive guitar produced by Gibson prior to WWII.
"235 of these were made in mahogany, and 235 in rosewood."
These numbers were entered without any reference or justification. It would be greatly appreciated if the person who posted this information would please state a source for these numbers. I have talked to the archivists at Gibson on more than one occasion and they can not determine how many of these guitars were built.
Gibson Shipping Ledgers show the following totals for the Montgomery Ward - Recording King Ray Whitley Jumbo Models:
Total of 147 - RK Ray Whitley Model No. 1027 (Rosewood back & sides, "bat wing" shaped bridge) Total of 170 - RK Ray Whitley Model No. 1028 (Mahogany back & sides, plain rectangle-style bridge)
Breaks down like this: 143 No. 1027s shipped in 1939 Only 4 No. 1027s shipped in 1940
115 No. 1028s were shipped in 1939 55 No. 1028s shipped in 1940
First shipment of 1027s - 1/23/1939 - Last: 2/27/1940 First shipment of 1028s - 6/23/1939 - Last: 6/13/1940
The Guinness Who's Who Of Country Music. Guinness Publishing 1993. ISBN 0-85112-726-6