I suspect that everyone knows, but I’ll say it anyway, the name Dr Hook refers to the band and not to Ray Sawyer – he of the eye patch (he lost an eye in a car crash) and cowboy hat. The band name began as Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, being a reference to the touring medicine shows that were common in the 19th century. Their first poster bore the words, ‘Dr Hook & the Medicine Show – a tonic for the soul.’ That managed to combine references to soul music, Hook (being a strong piratical image of Ray’s eye patch, even though Peter Pan’s Captain Hook didn’t wear one) and a jokey comment on their use of soft drugs.
The name was soon shortened to just Dr Hook.
The original line-up included two main vocalists, Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere. It was their animated faces that became the widely known image of a band at its peak through the 1970s, that drifted apart in the early 1980s. They accumulated 35 platinum and gold records.
From time to time Ray Sawyer and Dennis Lacorriere have put together bands and toured reprising the Dr Hook hits.
How is it that in 2015 a band that includes just one former member of an American band that broke up 30 years ago can pack an English theatre with an enthusiastic audience, many of whom weren’t even born at the time of their biggest hit 43 years ago?
Surely the answer has to be the sheer quality of their songs that range from the raucously, impishly funny to the very moving and sentimental. Like many bands, members (in this case Sawyer, Lacorriere and George Cummings) wrote some of their material, but Dr Hook had a secret weapon.
Many of their songs were written for them by poet Shel Silverstein. He wrote all of the songs on their second album and many of their greatest hits including ‘Sylvia’s Mother’, ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’, Everybody’s Making it Big But Me’, ‘More Like the Movies’, ‘I Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight’ and ‘Sweetest of All’ – songs that still sound fresh to me after 40 years and countless playings. I wore out several tape cassettes and was relieved when their albums were re-recorded onto cds.
Well, what about the concert itself? It was delayed for six weeks because Ray had a fall in an M4 services and broke his right arm. He still had it in a sling. It didn’t stop him enjoying himself. He enthusiastically conducted both the band and the audience with a drumstick in his left hand, but it clearly upset him that he couldn’t wear his trademark eye patch. He said he couldn’t put it on one-handed and so was reduced to wearing standard dark glasses.
I didn’t know any of the band Ray had assembled for this tour, but it was an interesting and accomplished line-up with two lead guitars, bass, keyboard and Ray’s son on drums. Occasionally Ray wandered off stage and they played non-Dr Hook material until he returned. I was particularly taken with a ten-minute instrumental passage they slid into at the end of ‘Sylvia’s Mother’.
I actually found that the concert produced mixed emotions. I’ve loved the Dr Hook songs for more than 40 years and it was great to hear the music performed live, to see Ray Sawyer in the flesh and to be part of an audience who clearly shared my enthusiasm. The trouble is that when I play the songs I see in my mind’s eye Ray and Dennis as they were all those years ago.
I know perfectly well that Ray is now 78 years old, but it still came as a shock to see him as the old man that he is – old and rather unsteady on his feet. It was easy to see how his recent fall came about. I’m sure many of us in the audience were uneasy at his constant movement around the stage, threading his way between all the electronics and stepping over the many cables.
He may be getting somewhat infirm, but his personality is as huge as ever. And his humour still charms:
“Right – we’re gonna do the next song because I’m pretty sure I can remember it.”
Of course, the thought didn’t escape me that in the 45 years I’ve been enjoying his music he’d not the only one to have grown old.
So, it was a moving evening: rather sad – and rather wonderful.