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Lexington can finally hear a native son in full

William B. Ray, like so many other African-American writers, painters, musicians and dancers during the mid-20th century, heard a call to "Go east young man," and headed for Europe.

It had become a place where black performers could hone their craft and gain respect.

As a young opera singer, not long out of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Ray, who was born in Lexington 84 years ago, headed to Vienna, Austria, at the request of a talent agent who had heard him sing at Cleveland's Karamu theater. The agent wanted Ray to sing the part of Balthazar in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.

During the run of the show, "they asked me, What else do you sing,'" Ray recalled. "Before it ended I had three or four other contracts to sing in other parts of Austria and Germany."

He sent for his wife and two sons, choosing to make a home where he could fulfill his dreams of performing on stage.

And he did just that.

It would be 25 years before they permanently returned to the States. In that time Ray established a career singing leading roles in Il Tabarro and Rigoletto among other operas.

"I performed every opera I ever wanted to," he said, "and was a TV actor and stage actor."

Most of us in the United States, however, don't have a clue as to Ray's talents. All his recordings were made and sold in Europe.

All is not lost, however.

Ray, who now lives in Maryland, recently released a two-disc CD of his recordings, William Ray Baritone.

"I didn't sing in America when I was at the top of my game because of racism," Ray said. "This will let friends and family hear what I did for 25 years."

The two-CD set includes Ah! Che Zucconi from Gianni Schicchi; Die Frau Meiner Träume, Ol' Man River, People Will Say We're in Love and Nobody Knows de Trouble I See. He included Broadway favorites, Negro spirituals and arias, something for all tastes.

Living in Stuttgart, Germany, and singing for adoring crowds was a far cry from his humble beginnings on Chestnut Street in Lexington.

Ray graduated from Dunbar High School in 1943 and was immediately drafted into a segregated Army. Growing up in a segregated society and fighting in a segregated Army was another reason he chose to live in Europe, he said.

When he returned, he attended Kentucky State University for a year, where he studied pre-law, before a teacher suggested he try out for Oberlin.

After a celebrated singing career overseas, Ray returned to the States in 1982 to teach at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He retired 10 years later and soon was asked to teach at Howard University, where he quickly became head of the voice department. In 2002, he retired again, although he still serves on several boards in the United States and Austria.

"I don't miss living in Europe," Ray said. "That was then. Europe has changed over 25 years. People have passed on. I still talk to friends over the phone, though, to keep up my German."

Singing is what he lived for and, he said, Europe was the only place that would allow him to do that to the fullest.

He was able to convince folks in Germany, where there was a generous supply of opera houses, that he could play any role with the right makeup. If white performers could put on makeup to look like Othello or Madame Butterfly, why couldn't he wear makeup to look like a white character?

His baritone voice and mastery of German, French and Italian won them over. The Germans wanted to hear operas sung in their own language, he said.

With makeup, Ray played Amonasro in Aida with Sir Georg Solti and quickly won wide acceptance as a leading baritone in Munich, Kiel, Wuppertal, Frankfurt and Stuttgart, where he made his home.

The Rev. Bishop Carter III of Lexington, Ray's nephew, said he recalls visits from his aunt and uncle and heard stories of Ray singing for the queen of England and the czar of Russia.

"He would always talk to Mom when he was making a big trip," Carter said. "He sang in that period for every well-known opera group that existed."

Bishop said Ray also has sung for his hometown church, First African Baptist, and with the Lexington Singers, on some of his visits here.

Although his pace has slowed, Ray hasn't stopped. He still teaches voice to young people who are carrying on his tradition throughout the world.

"When you love doing something, it becomes medicinal," he said. "It keeps me going when I know there is talent out there. I don't want any of the music to die."

You can buy a CD for $20, including postage, by contacting Ray by e-mail at odentonray@aol.com.

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