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Dobie Gray, voice of ‘Drift Away,’ dies at age 71

Dobie Gray, voice of ‘Drift Away,’ dies at age 71

Dobie Gray, whose captivating and distinctive voice was at home in soul, country and pop settings, died Tuesday at age 71 at his Nashville home.  Mr. Gray’s health had recently been in decline. His death was announced on his website, www.dobiegray.com.
Recorded at Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville, Mr. Gray’s soulful “Drift Away” reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973, as millions of car radios blasted the memorable chorus, “Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul/ I want to get lost in your rock and roll/ And drift away.” The song became an FM radio staple.
“Dobie was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, and the most soulful singer I worked with in my life,” said guitar great Reggie Young, who provided the memorable electric guitar work on “Drift Away,” and who has recorded with Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Willie Nelson and thousands of others. “He had something in his voice that set him apart from everybody else, and that made you want to play and create. He was inspirational.”
Mr. Gray was born Leonard Victor Ainsworth near Brookshire, Texas, the son of sharecroppers. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, and he grew up enamored with gospel and country music. In the early 1960s, he moved to California, where he recorded music and appeared in theatre productions including the Los Angeles version of the musical “Hair.” In 1965, Gray’s single “The ‘In’ Crowd” reached No. 11 on Billboard’s R&B chart, and in 1972 he signed with Decca Records.
Williams produced “Drift Away,” which featured guitarists Young and Troy Seals, bassist Mike Leach, keyboard player (and Quadrafonic co-founder) David Briggs and drummer Kenny Malone. The song’s success helped make a name for Quadrafonic, which later hosted sessions from Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, Taylor Swiftand many other artists, and Mr. Gray’s experience in Nashville was positive enough that he soon moved to town.
“Nashville was just there at the right time, when I needed it,” Gray told The Tennessean in 1986. “I wanted to develop as a songwriter, and this is a songwriters’ town.”
In Nashville, Mr. Gray penned songs sung by Don Williams, Ray Charles, George Jones, Charley Pride and others. He was popular as an international touring act, and became the first black artist to perform for integrated audiences in South Africa. In the 1980s, he recorded country music material for Capitol Records, scoring a Top 40 country single in 1986 with “That’s One To Grow On.”
In 2003, Uncle Kracker’s version of “Drift Away” featured Mr. Gray’s guest vocal and became a No. 1 hit for 28 weeks on Billboard’s Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart, underscoring the song’s enduring popularity. Mr. Gray never found similar success with other singles, though he remained a captivating singer.
“We could never capture that again,” Young said. “Maybe the later things he recorded were too produced. “‘Drift Away’” is a magical thing, and it’s still kind of a mystery. Dobie will be missed, so much. Tonight, before I go to bed, I’m going to turn the lights down, get a glass of wine and sit and listen to that Drift Away album, front to back, and do some thinking.”
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Peter Cooper at (615) 259-8220 or pcooper@tennessean.com.

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