Biography

Pioneer

Sonin, Ray

(1907-1991)
 

 

It was selling CFRB station manager Wes McKnight, in the summer of 1958, on the idea of his radio station carrying “a weekly foreign program – in English!”, that set Ray Sonin on his way to a 33-year career in Canadian broadcasting. Ray was born in London’s East End on June 23rd 1907, and his broad London accent was the foreign language that Ray introduced to CFRB listeners. His weekly two-hour Calling All Britons show became a Mecca for thousands and thousands of ex-pat Brits, who tuned in every week to get the football (soccer) results and the news from ‘Over ‘Ome. Ray described his weekly offerings as “a load of chit-chat, hows-yer-father and oojah-kerpivvy” – all phrases familiar to most of his British-born listeners, but a foreign language to Wes McKnight and most Canadians.

Whether it was the UK weather reports, news of the Royal Family, or the latest songs from the British Hit Parade, Ray knew just what his listeners wanted to hear; he gave it to them every week, and they lapped it up. It was Ray who was the first broadcaster in North America to play a Beatles record, in 1962. He was also the first to play the Scots Guards’ Amazing Grace, which later became a #1 hit on rock radio station CHUM Toronto.

Ray’s early career was in newspapers and magazines. He began writing freelance material for the music magazine Melody Maker in the mid-1930s, joined the staff in 1938, and by 1939 he was its editor. Judged unfit for military service, Ray stayed with the paper for another twelve years. In 1940, he began freelance writing for BBC radio, and wrote comedy scripts for as diverse performers as Edward G. Robinson, Noel Coward and comedian Tommy Handley. He later became principal writer for the wartime radio hit comedy series Hi Gang!, which starred Americans Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon and comedian Vic Oliver, and also wrote freelance documentary and drama material. He was also in demand as a guest on many panel and documentary programs, and did scripts for Canadian Carroll Levis’s discovery show.

Ray Sonin and Benny Carter
Ray Sonin and Benny Carter
Ray was also a songwriter.  Vera Lynn had hits with his songs Best of All and Homecoming Waltz; Sarah Vaughan recorded Lonely Woman, with lyrics by Ray Sonin and music by jazzman Benny Carter. The song was also covered by June Christy with Stan Kenton. And when Stanley Holloway, famed for his role as Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady on stage and screen, and for his North Country-accented monologues about “Albert”, appeared at the annual Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Ray wrote “Albert at the Ex”, which Holloway recorded.

Ray Sonin (l), Stanley Holloway, Alan Small (rear) and engineer
Ray Sonin (l), Stanley Holloway, Alan Small (rear) and engineer
In 1951, Ray won a respectable sum of money on the British ‘football pools’, and retired to write several quite successful novels, including The Dance Band Mystery, Murder in Print and The Adventures of Space Kingsley. In 1952 he was lured back to the magazine business to become editor of the New Musical Express, which under his leadership escalated its circulation to well over 100,000 copies.

It was in March 1957 that Ray and his wife Eileen emigrated to Canada.  An abortive attempt to start Music World, a music magazine that was an artistic success but a commercial failure, motivated Ray to try to get back into broadcasting. One of the executives he went to see was CFRB’s Wes McKnight, who decided to give this oddball Englishman a chance to show what he could do. The result was Calling All Britons, which aired ever Saturday afternoon from 4pm to 6pm from 1958 until 1991.

Ray’s collection of well over 10,000 records was the source of musical material not only for Calling All Britons, but also for Down Memory Lane, a nightly one-hour program which ran every weekday from 1968 until shortly before he died. Ray and his wife Eileen also had their own television series, One for the Sonins, which ran on CHCH Hamilton from September 1963 to March 1964. Eileen died in 1977.

In 1984, Ray went to Buckingham Palace, with his new wife June, where Her Majesty The Queen invested him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1990 the Toronto St. George’s Society named Ray as the winner of their annual Award of Merit. He was also a member of the CAB Half-Century Club.

Ray Sonin died in Toronto on August 20th 1991, having done his regular Calling All Britons program only three days previously. He was 84.

 His wife June later revived the Calling All Britons show for several years on CHWO-AM Oakville. She died in 1999.

Written by Pip Wedge - May, 2007


Audio:

Ray Sonin talks about the Beatles

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