But in some kind of bizarre Benjamin Button way, Ray Jessel managed to find life very rewarding in the years when most of his contemporaries were either retired, obliviously stuck in a nursing home, or dead.
I mean, how many 84 year-olds suddenly get raves from all the judges on "America's Got Talent" AND end up tossed off the show for being politically incorrect?
It happened not long ago, 2014 in fact. Ray, a veteran songwriter who also wrote sketches for The Carol Burnett Show and The Smothers Brothers Show in the 60's and 70's, appeared as a virtual unknown. Which he pretty much was, when it came to performing.
The judges all ADORED the song. But elements of the GAY/LESBIAN/TRANSGENDER crowd detested it. They felt the old guy was making fun of trannies...the now-sacred group that has Caitlyn Jenner for a godmother. In truth, Ray's song was harmless. If anything, it was just a very easy one-joke novelty item, and not nearly the best song in his catalog.
Jokes about "he being a she" go back to silent films. And nobody got in a huff over that famous "Some Like It Hot" moment when Jack Lemmon sourly pulled off his wig. He shouted at smitten Joe E. Brown, "I'm a MAN!" And Brown's classic comeback: "Nobody's perfect!"
Somehow things went from a crying game to a denying game...and poor ol' Ray was denied a chance to move on and get to the next round of "America's Got Talent."
The good news for Ray was that the show gave him the fame that was not his for the past decade. Back around 2005, Ray had scored good reviews for his cabaret show titled "Life Sucks and Then You Die." The show, ironically enough, got raves from gay and lesbian critics and probably had a very varied audience that included old queens as much as old Jewish couples. He also put out a CD (no, an album, not a codeword for a certain type of person). It was after "America's Got Talent" that he began to get significant bookings.
In fact, just last month, Ray was in Australia, appearing at a festival with a bunch of comics and variety acts, and even that old CD herself, Dame Edna/Barry Humphries.
Jessel's odd musical journey began in Wales in 1929. He attended the University of Wales, but started his career in Canada, working for the "Spring Thaw" comedy revue. That led him to New York, where he wrote for Julius Monk's revues, including the 1960 "Dressed to the Nines" show. By 1965 he was on Broadway, via the semi-hit musical "Baker Street," starring Fritz Weaver. A song from the show, "A Married Man," was even recorded by Richard Burton. Comedy sketches and music for TV shows followed, including the epic "LOVE BOAT - THE MUSICAL" starring Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, and Cab Calloway. Jessel was worked on the "Head of the Class" series. Meanwhile, Jessel and his partner Cynthia Thompson began to place songs with the few prosperous cabaret-type acts, including "Whatever Happened To Melody?" recorded by Michael Feinstein and "I'm All Right Now" from John Pizzarelli. In 2002 Ray first tried a one-man show in California, at the Gardenia Room in Hollywood, and then brought it across the country to "Don't Tell Mama," the notorious cabaret club in New York. And...he kept on going.
How many people in their mid-80's are capable of taking to the stage...and are welcomed to do so? I don't know what the circumstances are, regarding his demise, but this guy had a pretty fortunate life, to be able to get laughs and travel literally halfway around the world, at a time when so many his age were just muttering "life sucks."
WHAT SHE'S GOT (The Penis Song) Ray Jessel