Bullies, beware! The Howard Gray ‘phenomenon’ is alive and well!
by Rick Nichols
(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story about former Oskaloosa resident Lee Domann and the late Howard Ray Jr. The second part will appear in next week’s issue of the paper.)
What’s left of Howard Ray Jr., who became Howard Gray in Lee Domann’s “signature” song “Howard Gray,” will be committed to the earth Saturday afternoon in Winchester. And while Domann can’t be there, guitar in hand, to observe or even participate in the sober ceremony alongside members of the Ray family, rest assured, he’ll be there in spirit. After all, Ray’s been on his mind ever since the night Mark Chapman gunned down former Beatle John Lennon outside The Dakota apartments in New York City.
When the 40-year-old Lennon was murdered Dec. 8, 1980, Domann, a child of the ‘60s, grieved the passing of the rock ‘n roll legend, but during the hours that followed, as he was recalling the days when the “Fab Four” were all the rage, his mind drifted back a little further in time until “an unexpected memory suddenly emerged.” It was that of Ray, “the kid nobody liked” and seemingly every student at what was then the new Oskaloosa school complex made fun of and picked on. Every student, that is, except Domann.
Admonished by his mother to live by The Golden Rule, Domann had managed to remain on the proverbial sidelines while other students threw spitballs at Ray and called him all sorts of names, giving Ray the impression that at least he had a friend in Domann. But then came that day, that awful day, when, apparently overcome by peer pressure, he, too, began to laugh at the boy who had holes here and there in his tight-fitting clothing as some of the children hurled insults at him and became physically abusive as well. And this is the scene, the haunting scene from 20 years earlier, that became stuck in his mind at a time when much of the rest of the world was totally absorbed by the death of the man who was the “face” of The Beatles when they first arrived on the scene.
Both filled with remorse and upset at himself for having failed to stand up for Ray when no one else would, Domann, then living in Nashville, Tenn., sat down that very same night and wrote “Howard Gray.” Had it not been for Maggie, his first wife, however, the song never would’ve seen the light of day.
In “The Story of Howard Gray,” which readers can read for themselves by visiting www.leedomann.com, Domann reports that when he looked at the words to the song the following morning, he decided that they weren’t anything anyone could really relate to and simply tossed the sheet of paper into the trash. But later in the day, Maggie came along to empty the trash and found the lyrics, instantly concluded that the song was the best one he’d ever written and encouraged him to hang on to it. “She was right,” he says.
A commercial songwriter by trade, Domann took advantage of the opportunity to perform the song on “writer’s nights” along Nashville’s Music Row and it quickly became a favorite with his listeners. Whenever he would step up to the microphone to play the number, the audience would get very quiet, eager to hear every single word about the way he and his schoolmates had mistreated the boy from a poor family who hadn’t fit in with everyone else.
At some point Domann, motivated by the desire to protect the anonymity of the real Howard Ray, made sure that the song was called “Howard Gray” instead of “Howard Ray.” Even so, he was fully convinced at the time that the odds of Ray ever hearing the piece were pretty slim. He was wrong.
After Domann signed with Buckhorn Music in 1985, publisher Marijohn Wilkin, who had penned “Long Black Veil”, “One Day at a Time” and many other hits, took notice of “Howard Gray” and began to look for country and gospel music performers willing to record the song. Her efforts were soon rewarded, as just a year later, the southern gospel trio Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters included the thought-provoking number on their album “Let’s Turn the Lights On.”
The gospel group The Bishops and other musicians have since recorded “Howard Gray,” but more important, by the 1990s, schools across America were using the song to help deal with the growing problem of bullying both inside the classroom and on the playground. Without further adieu, then …
“Most everyone I knew put the whole Gray family down/They were the poorest family in that little country town/Howard always looked too big for his funny ragged clothes/The kids all laughed at him and Gordie Jones would thumb his nose.
“Howard sat across from me in seventh grade at school/I didn’t like it much but mama taught the golden rule/So when the spitballs flew at him I never did join in/I guess that was the reason Howard thought I was his friend/And after things would quiet down sometimes I’d turn and see/The grateful eyes of Howard Gray lookin’ back at me.
“Howard Gray, oh Howard Gray, somehow they got their kicks/Out of treatin’ you that way/Deep down I kind of liked you but I was too afraid/To be a friend to you, Howard Gray.
“One day after lunch, I went to comb my hair and saw/They had Howard pinned against a locker in the hall/They were pokin’ fun at him about the big hole in his shirt/They had his left arm twisted back behind him until it hurt/Now to this day I can’t explain and I won’t try to guess/Just how it was that I wound up laughing right there with the rest/I laughed until I cried but through my tears I still can see/The tear-stained eyes of Howard Gray, looking back at me.
“Howard Gray, oh Howard Gray, I can’t believe I joined them all/in treatin’ you that way/I wanted to apologize but I was too afraid/To be a friend to you, Howard Gray.
“And now from that day on after I made fun of him/He never looked my way, he never smiled at me again/Not much longer after that his family moved away/And that’s the last I ever saw or heard of Howard Gray/That was twenty years ago and I still haven’t found/Just why we’ll kick a brother or a sister when they’re down/I know it may sound crazy but now and then I dream/About the eyes of Howard Gray lookin’ back at me.
“Howard Gray, oh Howard Gray, I’ve never quite forgiven us/For treatin’ you that way/I hope that maybe somehow you’ll hear this song someday/And know that I am sorry, Howard Gray.
“We’ll probably never meet again, so I can only pray/That you and God forgive us, Howard Gray.”
Copyright 1980 Renovation Music/BMI
To hear Domann sing the song, visit www.youtube.com and enter the term “Lee Domann Howard Gray” in the search box. In so doing, you’ll also get a chance to hear other singers perform the song, which is “widely considered to be the first bullying prevention song.”
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