Ramon Daniel Pennington, 1933, Clay County, Kentucky, USA. He first sang with his father as a child and swapped his bicycle for a guitar at 15. He started a group with two other boys and influenced by the western swing music of bands such as Bob Wills, he kept adding instruments until, by the time he was 19, he had a 12-piece band, the Western Rhythm Boys, playing nightclubs around Cincinnati, Dayton, Hamilton, Detroit and even into Canada. For a time his music varied to R&B but he soon returned to a more country format. He had begun writing songs as a boy and in 1958 he joined King Records. In 1959, as Ray Starr, he recorded his self-penned ‘Three Hearts In A Tangle’ but considered the recording so bad that he asked King owner Sydney Nathan to withdraw it. Nathan did but offered him a job with the label and after serving in several menial capacities, he became an A&R man and began producing records. He produced all the label’s country recordings including Lonesome 7-7203, Hawkshaw Hawkins’ last album, which featured both white and black musicians including Pennington’s band’s guitarist and bass player plus Pennington himself playing drums. It is probable that this was the first racially mixed session band in country music. He also produced recordings by the Stanley Brothers and by Reno And Smiley, even using a snare drum on one of the latter’s albums, the first time drums had featured on a bluegrass recording. In 1961, Roy Drusky’s recording of ‘Three Hearts In A Tangle’ went to number 2 in the country charts and Pennington’s career received a boost. He left full-time employment with King in 1962 but kept returning to help out with country act recordings until he relocated to Nashville in 1964. By 1962, Pennington was working on radio, running two different bands, one R&B, as Ray Starr and either the Starliners or Starliters, the other his Western Rhythm Boys and also owned a record store. He has amusingly recounted how people attending both dance venues often told him, as the R&B Ray Starr, how much he resembled the western swing Ray Pennington. He would reply ‘What does Ray Pennington do?’ and usually be told ‘He’s a country singer’. He even released a R&B single ‘I Have To Laugh To Keep From Crying’/‘In The Middle Of Two Hearts’, as Ray Starr, in 1962.
In 1964, Pennington relocated to Nashville, where he signed with Pamper Music. Initially he worked as a writer and song plugger but soon became involved with A&R, production and arrangements. While with Pamper, he also produced recordings for several artists including Karen Wheeler, Buck Trent, Tex Williams and Kenny Price for the Boone label. In 1966/7, Price scored two number 7 country hits with Pennington’s ‘Walking On New Grass’ and ‘Happy Tracks’. In 1966, Pennington signed to Capitol Records and gained his first chart entry, a number 43, with ‘Who’s Been Mowing The Lawn (While I Was Gone)’. In 1967, he charted with the self-penned ‘Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Walk The Dog And Put The Cat Out’, after which he left Capitol. Between 1969 and January 1973, he recorded for Fred Foster’s Monument label. During this time he gained five more minor hits including his version of the 1962 Ray Charles’ ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and the intriguingly titled ‘The Song Don’t Care Who Sings It’. He left Monument amicably because he felt he was not being allowed to work hard enough to meet his own high standards and accepted an offer to join RCA Records. Here he produced Waylon Jennings’ version of ‘Ramblin’ Man’, which became a number 1. He also produced albums for several label artists including Norma Jean, Billy Walker and Kenny Price. He left RCA in 1977 and joined MRC gaining his final solo chart hit ‘She Wanted A Little Bit More’ on that label in 1978. In the late 70s, he also produced Ray Price recordings on the Dimension label and recording with Jerry McBee as Bluestone, charted ‘Haven’t I Loved You Somewhere Before’, on that label, in 1980. He recorded for EMH in 1984, before, at the request of old friend Mel Holt, he accepted the opportunity to become the Nashville promoter/ director/ producer of the newly created Step One label. Under Pennington’s guidance the label, initially by recording the older singers such as Ray Price and Cal Smith but later adding new artists including Celinda Pink and Western Flyer, has gone on to become one of the most successful of the independent labels. Pennington later attributed his success at Step One to the skills he first acquired with King. In 1984, he also joined with top steel guitarist Buddy Emmons to form the Swing Shift Band. Their first album, Swingin’ From The 40s Thru The 80s (1984), leaning heavily to swing music, with Pennington on vocals, was really done for their own amusement but proved successful enough for further albums to be recorded: In The Mood For Swingin’ (1986), Swingin’ Our Way (1990), Swingin’ By Request (1992), It’s All In The Swing (1995) all released on the Step One label. In 1988, they even charted with ‘Turn Me Loose And Let Me Swing’.