Long Live the Medicine Man

In Memory of Ray Sawyer, Dr. Hook’s Rollicking Role Model

Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show

Ray Sawyer was an iconic frontman, not because he was Dr. Hook’s most recognized core member, but rather because he was the man most identified with a group that was largely devoid of an indelible image, other than the radio-ready hits that brought them to the fore of the hit parade throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.

With his signature eye patch and cowboy hat — the former was more than mere guise, given that he lost an eye in an auto accident in 1967 —  he was the face of a band that didn’t rely on flash or frenzy to endear themselves to the populace as a whole. Indeed, Sawyer was often mistaken for the fictitious Dr. Hook himself, although like Jethro Tull, the band’s handle didn’t represent any actual band member at all.

Sawyer aside, Dr. Hook (a name abbreviated from their original handle, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show) were a fairly anonymous bunch who depended solely on their catalog of hits to serve as their calling card in the music marketplace. Their best attempt at scoring PR and publicity came with the gimmick-laden release of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” an obvious ploy to get themselves visibility from that famed publication, and in turn get them the fame they not so secretly yearned for. The strategy would eventually pay off, but when their lucky break did finally come, it wasn’t with a photo but instead a cartoonish caricature that made maximum use of Sawyer’s roguish rapport.

Dr. Hook on the cover of Rolling Stone, March 29, 1971

This writer had opportunity to work with Sawyer and the rest of the band when I was a promotion rep for their later label, Capitol Records, which signed them after their successful stint with Columbia. They still had several hits left in them, which made them that much more of a likeable bunch. I recall meeting up with them and being invited on their tour bus prior to their appearance at the Magic Castle in Disney World. Sawyer and singer Dennis Locorriere made the most formidable impression on me, but my main fascination was the trip we took several stories below the iconic castle, a labyrinth of hallways and passages that lay far from the peering eyes of the general public.

But let’s not digress. As much as the hits they produced — “Sylvia’s Mother,” “When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman,” “Sharing the Night Together,” “A Little Bit More,” “Only Sixteen,” and, of course, “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” Ray Sawyer represented Dr. Hook proudly and unashamedly, even at the risk of transforming himself into a mere figurehead in the group’s pop-centric musical machine.

The Best of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show

Later, Sawyer invariably gave in to the temptation that the oldies circuit offers and toured as “Dr. Hook featuring Ray Sawyer,” a bit of a misleading moniker perhaps, but certainly one that was well deserved given that he was the group’s singular presence. He died, age 81, after a short illness on New Year’s Eve — a singular personality, a persuasive performer and a man who represented the true essence of genuine precocious pop in all its mischievous glory. As Sawyer effectively proved, one needn’t be a musical genius in order to be able to pose and party.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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