It’s the sound of summer, one of the world’s best-known songs with more than thirty million copies sold and this month marks the 45th anniversary of Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime topping the UK singles chart, a feat it repeated as far away as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and the United States. In Poland it stalled at number two. In Japan it flopped. At least at first.
Not that the man who wrote it, Ray Dorset, is complaining for its success has gone a long way to fulfilling a childhood dream to make his home in his namesake county.
‘It’s all down to my dad,’ he explains. ‘I grew up in Ashford in Middlesex. My father was a granolithic flooring specialist and fell in love with Dorset while he was down here laying a floor at Max Factor up at Wallisdown. He stayed in a B&B and befriended the owners John and Iris, then brought the whole family down for a holiday. John and Iris took us everywhere – Lulworth Cove, Corfe Castle, Badbury Rings, Poole Harbour – and gave us all the history, it was brilliant.
‘A few years later, I was about 14 or 15, we came back and stayed at Southbourne where I had a great time exploring Fisherman’s Walk and ever since then I had a thing about wanting to live here.’
Ray finally realised his dream in 1994 when he and wife Britta bought the former St David’s guesthouse in Robert Louis Stevenson Avenue, Westbourne. A Victorian villa – originally called Dunvegan and the home of Victorian esotericist/occultist Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers – the Dorsets have been remodelling it ever since to create
a thoroughly modern, open plan, hi-tech home-cum-musical hub.
‘I used to do a lot of the work myself, but materials change and you get out of the habit. It was never my intention to get into the music business you see. I grew up going on jobs with my dad, I was labouring at 13 and by the time I was 15 I was driving dumper trucks. Later I did an apprenticeship as an electro-mechanical engineer; I was working at Timex when the band started to break.’
Ray made his first guitar using a junior Hobbies fret saw and a set of wire strings scavenged from a plastic toy. On it he set about mastering the rudiments of the rock ’n’ roll records his older cousins played, as well as the skiffle he was picking up from the likes of Lonnie Donegan on television shows such as 65 Special.
‘That music made us jump about like mad things, but it all got mixed up with records by Eddie Calvert, Dickie Valentine, Ray Ellington and Edmundo Ros. My mother used to play piano and sing in pubs, there was the show tunes from musicals we saw at the cinema, as well as tap dancing. I was in love with rhythm in those days and wanted to be a drummer, but our house was too small to get a drum kit in, so I made a bass from an old tea chest and a broom handle with a string, then cut the chest up to make a guitar. My first actual guitar I got at Christmas 1956, I was ten. I’ve still got it, I had it renovated at Don Strike in Westbourne Arcade.’
By the mid-1960s Ray had thrown himself into the melting pot that was Swinging London. His first band, the Blue Moon Skiffle Group had a second guitar player called Phil Collins, but not the future Genesis star as some biographies contend. After a few name changes, his next outfit The Tramps landed a residency playing alternate Fridays and Saturdays at the Station Hotel in Richmond where the nascent Rolling Stones played Thursdays. After that, Ray fronted the Sweet & Sour Band who were regulars on Friday and Saturday nights at the legendary Speakeasy, a noted jet set hang out where Ray rubbed shoulders with the likes of Frank Zappa, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and Jimi Hendrix.
‘Funnily enough Mungo Jerry were on the same bill as Zappa at a Berlin TV show a few months after he’d been in the audience at The Speakeasy. In the time between we’d changed the name and had the hit, but he was kind enough to say he remembered me. That was a big thrill.’
Famously it took Ray just ten minutes to write In the Summertime and he had to ask for time off work to appear on Top of the Pops. Within weeks though his mutton chop sideboards and Afro hair had made him one of the faces of the 1970s as Mungo Jerry enjoyed a run of hits that included Baby Jump, Lady Rose, You Don’t Have To Fight To Be in the War and Alright Alright Alright. In 1980 disco singer Kelly Marie got to number one with Feels Like I’m In Love, a song Ray had written for Elvis Presley who died before recording it.
Although there are still legal issues that relate to those years, the hits provide well for Ray and his family, but after 45 years and countless performances, not to mention two Ivor Novello awards for it, how does he feel about the song that started it all?
‘The honest truth is that I never tire of it. It still surprises me. Other people have done In the Summertime, Shaggy of course and there’s a beautiful version by Judith Owen that’s really unexpected. I was in a big hotel in Innsbruck recently having breakfast and there were two girls playing harps. I love the sound of the harp, but then I recognised the melody and it was In the Summertime, amazing.’
Aside from the domestic renovations Ray’s a busy man. He continues to write and record, is always on the look out for new projects and performs regularly in continental Europe as well as at home.
‘In fact I’ve got to get busy. I’ve been asked to write about protecting digital rights for songwriters and lobby Parliament. It’s a major issue because the industry has made music too cheap and the songwriters can’t earn a proper living.
‘Plus, I’ve got all these bits of songs and we’ve had the studio completely refurbished and I don’t know how it works – good job my son Miguel has had the lessons. I love technology, but you’ve still got to have a great song the public can catch on to.’
Now that’s something Ray Dorset does know a thing or two about.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine