Ray Simone, my good friend and long-time business partner, died this morning. He was 63 years old. He is survived by his wife Gillian, his daughter Christina, and many good friends for whom he remains an inspiration and a delight.
Ray was one of the most creative people I have ever known. Though we originally shared the Creative Director title at our agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, Ray was the Main Man. While I was a good copywriter, Ray could do it all: come up with killer campaigns, clever headlines, great design and art, tight scripts, whatever. His knowledge of art, of typography, of technologies and sciences — actually, pretty much everything — was encyclopedic. He worked his ass off, and he was great to work with as well.
We met in the mid-’70s in Durham, North Carolina, when I was still “Doctor Dave,” an occasional comic radio character for WDBS and columnist for the station’s magazine (see the visual below), and Ray was an artist whose own comic work appeared in the same publication. We both circulated in the same low-rent Hippie creative-art-music-dance-weekend-party crowd surrounding Duke University. Ray was working with David Hodskins and some other folks at small “multiple media” shop (decades ahead of its time) that had somehow spun out of the Duke Media Center. One day, when I called up Ray to talk about collaborating on an ad for an audio shop I was working for part-time, Ray put me on hold and told David that Doctor Dave was on the line. David told Ray to arrange a lunch. A team was born over that lunch, and in 1978 we became an advertising agency: Hodskins Simone & Searls. The photo on the right dates from that time.
By 1980 we were specializing in high tech clients up and down the East Coast, and after several years decided to open a satellite office in Silicon Valley.
After winning some major West Coast
accounts we moved the whole agency to Palo Alto, and by the early 90s HS&S was one of the top shops there. (Huge props to David Hodskins for his leadership through all that. David was the agency President and another truly brilliant dude.)
Twenty years after its founding, HS&S was acquired. By then I had moved on to other work, and after awhile so had David and Ray. While I went back to journalism, Ray went back to art, teaching at Ocean Shore School in Pacifica, as well as at Brighton Preschool, which he and Gillian, his wife and soulmate, ran in the same town. He was Sting Ray to the kids there. Says Gillian, “He made story time come alive.”
He also went back to painting. But his full portfolio of accomplishments includes much, much more. For example, Ray designed covers for dozens of major country and bluegrass albums, mostly for Sugar Hill Records. Two samples, one for Vassar Clements and the other for the Red Clay Ramblers, are on the left and right. Here is a partial discography (drawn from here and other places), in alphabetical order:
- Benny Martin – Texas Jubilee
- Bluegrass – The World’s Greatest Bluegrass Show
- Bobby Hicks – Texas Crapshooter
- Boone Creek – One Way Track
- Buddy Emmons – Buddy Emmons Sings Bob Wills
- Buddy Emmons – Steel Guitar
- Charlie Waller – Classic Country Greats
- Chris Hillman – Morning Sky
- Dan Crary – Guitar
- Doc & Merle Watson – Down South
- Doc Watson – Riding the Midnight Train
- Doyle Lawson – Rock My Soul
- Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – Heavenly Treasures
- Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – Tennessee Dream
- Herb Pedersen – Lonesome Feeling
- John Starling – Long Time Gone
- Leon Redbone – No Regrets
- Lester Flatt – Lester Raymond Flatt
- Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs – Blue Ridge Cabin Home
- Marty Stuart – Busy Bee Cafe
- Metamora – Great Road
- Mike Auldridge – Eight String Swing
- Mike Cross – Carolina Sky
- Mike Cross – Live & Kickin’
- Old & In The Way – Old and In The Way
- Peter Rowan – The Walls of Time
- Red Clay Ramblers – Lie of the Mind
- Red Clay Ramblers – Twisted Laurel
- Ricky Skaggs – Sweet Temptation
- Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice – Skaggs & Rice
- Seldom Scene – Act Four
- Seldom Scene – After Midnight
- Seldom Scene – Blue Ridge
- Tony Rice – Church Street Blues
- Townes Van Zandt – At My Window
- Vassar Clements – Hillbilly Jazz
- Vassar Clements – The Bluegrass Season
Ray was a musician as well. When he was a student at what is now Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, he played keyboards in a band that traveled to gigs in a used hearse. Some of the stories he told about those days were beyond wild and very funny.
Ray also designed countless t-shirts and posters, most of which were worthy of collection. (Wish I still had some, but alas.) Old friends from Durham will fondly remember the Forklift Festival at the late Plantation (an run-down mansion on North Roxboro that should have been preserved). Forklift was a play on the Folklife Festival (now Festival for the Eno) that took place across the road. Ray also helped the Good Time Boogie, an annual gathering in Eastern North Carolina for which there was huge attendance, pass-the-hat funding and no publicity beyond Ray’s brilliant t-shirt art.
Ray’s cartoon poster for a place called Hassle House, done in the style of MAD’s Will Elder by way of Vaughn Bodé, was the first thing that turned me on to Ray. It was funny as hell, and I can still remember every panel of it. (Rob Gringle provides more background in a comment below, and also reminds us that Ray did many covers for The Guide, the monthly published by WDBS. I still have a stack of Guides somewhere.)
[Later…] Big thanks to Jay Cunningham for providing scans to the poster. That’s one panel, there on the right.
Ray was a born athlete, though he never exploited his talents beyond casually (but never maliciously) humiliating anybody who took him on at ping-pong, darts, softball or whatever. I remember one softball game where he grabbed a hard grounder bare-handed at third base, and — while falling down — threw out the runner at first base. All in one move. Like it was no big deal. It was awesome.
He took up fencing when we were still in North Carolina, and quickly won trophies.
A student of fun history, he was active for years in the Society for Creative Anachronism. In that capacity he once served “stargazy pie” at Monkeytop, the rambling Victorian urban commune where he, David Hodskins and many others lived at various times on Swift Street. (It’s now the restored E.K. Powe House.)
When Ray and Gillian (also an artist) were married at a California ranch in 1991, everybody was costumed as cowboys and cowgirls. That was huge fun too.
A devoted reader of science fiction and watcher of movies, Ray could expound with insight and authority on either subject, plus too many others to list.
Yet what matters most is that Ray was a loving guy and a first-rate friend. Back at the turn of the ’90s, when I had sworn off dating after a series of failed relationships, Ray pulled me out of my shell. As a direct result I’ve now been happily married for more than twenty years, with a wonderful teenage son. I know Ray had similar influences on others as well.
I could add much more (such as a backstory on my nickname, which Ray illustrated with the character on the right), but I want to post this today. I’m sure other old friends will weigh in as well. Additions and corrections of course are welcome. Here are a few I failed to string among the pearls above:
- His full name: Raymond George Simone. Most of his album credits are for Raymond Simone.
- Simone is pronounced with three syllables and a long e:—Simonē: the correct Italian way, Ray said.
- He was born in Potsdam, New York, and grew up in High Point, North Carolina.
- He had one brother, Jim, who died of throat cancer many years ago. Ray’s malady was lung cancer, no doubt an effect, as with Jim, of smoking. Ray quit many years ago, but it still caught up with him.
- His mother, born and raised in Oklahoma, was part Cherokee. Both his parents passed in recent years.
- He sometimes called himself The Weasel (others shortened that to “The Weez”), and drew himself in cartoons as a weasel with a mustache. For most of the early years we worked together, Ray’s signature look was long hair and a mustache, sometimes waxed at the tips.
- Here is Ray’s Facebook page, with a self-portrait from when he was more full-bodied, a couple years back.
The photo at the top of this post is cropped from this one, shot by Gillian last Friday when David and I came to visit Ray at their home. Ray knew he didn’t have much time left, but was still in good humor. That was the day after Thanksgiving. So I’m thankful that I was in town and that these three old partners could get together one last time.