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Homeless man still has song in his heart

By Marc Eggers
GAINESVILLE - Ray picked up the undersized guitar someone had left at the homeless shelter, strummed its plastic strings and began to sing, "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy." The melancholy expression on his face as he stopped playing hinted at the fact that he had done just that: once young, once foolish, trying to be happy.

Ray is Ray Whitley, and his current place of residence is the men's homeless shelter at Good News at Noon on Davis Street in Gainesville.

Ray will soon turn 68, but his memories today go back to his teen years when he was a budding singer/songwriter in Columbus, Georgia. It was then that famed music publisher Bill Lowery of Atlanta saw Whitley's potential and took him under his wing.

Up to that point Whitley had written a few songs that drew limited attention, but under Lowery his big break came.

"I was sitting in his (Lowery's) office and the Tams walked up to me and asked if I had any songs," Whitley recalled recently. "I took them down to the boiler room and sang for them 'What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?'"

"I guess they liked it," Whitley said. What made the connection even more unusual, considering that it was the early 1960s in the Deep South, is that the Tams are an all-black group and Whitley is white.

"But that never was a problem," Whitley says.

Others in Lowery's stable began to approach Whitley about the songs he was writing. The Tams came back for a second helping of Whitley's music, as well.

Soon "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy" and "Hey, Girl" were recorded by the Tams and climbing the Top 40 charts.

Whitley would go on to pen songs for Joe South, Billy Joe Royal, and Tommy Roe.

But the years since then, Whitley admits, have been rough at times. He has lost much of his hearing and is trying to overcome a problem with alcohol. Ray says that today he is " almost" free from alcohol.

Whitley loves to share his love for music with everyone who will sit and talk, "you just need to speak loudly," he advises.
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