Touched by an Angel

Summer 2003 CSANews Issue 47  |  Posted date : Apr 20, 2007.Back to list

Has your life ever been touched by an angel? A stranger...someone from outside your family circle who has affected you in such a deep and profound way that your life's journey was forever altered? Mine has...and it's the untold story behind how, for the last 12 years, I have had so much fun being an author and broadcaster.

Now, before I tell you who my angel was (because I guarantee that many of you knew him), let me tell you how I met this wonderful person.

Twenty years ago, Kathy and I planned a much-needed vacation to England.

Just before our departure, I was doing a few last-minute chores in the garden when I noticed our new neighbour stooped under the weight of two heavy garbage bags as he tried to carry them down to the curb. I ran over and took them from him, carried the bags and then stopped and had a nice "get to know you" chat in the warm September sun.

A week later, I was surprised and delighted to find a bunch of British newspapers beside our front door. But, strangely, many of the pages had been cut up and some were even missing.

After returning from our trip, the mystery was solved. Our new neighbour was CFRB's Ray Sonin of "Calling All Britons" and "Down Memory Lane" fame, and the cut-up newspapers were the tattered results of news items snipped to use on his popular radio show. He thought that we would find the remnants interesting - and they were.

Now, I realize that some of you might not know who Ray Sonin was, so I want to do some name-dropping and then we'll get back to how he altered my life.

Ray was the man who discovered a young girl named Vera Lynn singing in a London pub in 1935, and got her career started by introducing her to the famous BBC band leader, Joe Loss. He also influenced the careers of Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, Frankie Laine, Roger Whittaker, Petula Clark and many other well-known musical talents through the years. He was a song lyricist and, among many, wrote "Lonely Woman" for Sarah Vaughan, as well as "Best of All" and "Homecoming Waltz" for Vera Lynn. As a BBC writer, he wrote scripts for the famous ?Tommy Handley Half Hour" and "It's That Man Again" or "ITMA," "Hi Gang" with Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon and, later, "Life with the Lyons." And when not busy doing all this, he wrote 14 murder mystery novels under an assumed name.

For 10 years, Ray was also the editor of the UK's famous "Melody Maker" magazine, the first publication anywhere in the world to introduce a "Top Ten" music chart. He was the first to play the Beatles, ABBA, the Dave Clark Five and Petula Clark to North American audiences, and also gave musical advice to Eric Spear who, at the time, was composing a signature tune for a new Granada TV show called, "Coronation Street."

In 1984, the Queen honoured Ray with an MBE. And what was the music which the band played as he walked down the aisle to meet his sovereign? "Consider yourself at home, consider yourself one of the family." Blimey, he thought, this is alright!

But most of all, he was an ordinary man with a wonderfully sharp cockney sense of humour, and that is how he wanted to be remembered.

Ray was born on the 23rd of June, 1907, in London's East End, the only son of Albert and Dinah Sonin-Isenberg. Albert was a cabinet-maker and a talented musician; the family lived a humble existence in the tiny flat over Albert's furniture shop. But to Ray it was heaven, since he grew up surrounded by music, particularly that from his Dad's favourite instrument, the violin. Ray loved the smell of freshly shaved wood and often talked about his Dad when he came to join me in my basement woodworking shop, where I also made furniture.

Sadly, at an early age, Ray contracted what was believed to be polio (it wasn't) and a "doctor" suspended him from a beam to try and straighten his back with weights, resulting in a deforming scoliosis (crooked spine) which remained with him until his dying day.

Kathy and I became firm friends with Ray and his wife June, not because of his celebrity status, but because we were a small group of people with very specific needs. We became a wonderful family unit; we were son and daughter to the Sonins and they became father/mentor and big sister (June was a bit younger than Ray) to us. We would rush them to the hospital in the middle of the night when an emergency presented itself, and go off on drives in the country when the mood moved us.

Every evening, we got together to have tea and talk about the day's events and share any problems which we had.

In those days, I thought that I had many; to me, they all seemed huge. I was stagnating in a 20-year Bay Street career and slowly getting out of my depth. At the time, I didn't realize what was happening to me. But Ray did...and in his usual approach, he told me one of his life stories to help me get back in control of mine. One night, he told me about his teenage years in London. His girlfriend lived several miles away and because he was poor, Ray had to walk every time to see her. His scoliosis caused him difficulty, so he would walk from the gas lamppost on the corner of his street to the next one, hang on and catch his breath and then go to the next one. In this way, he would cover the distance to his girlfriend's house.

"Dave," he said, "you've got to take your problem one lamppost at a time. Break it into smaller pieces and it will become manageable." Those who have seen the profoundly funny movie, "What About Bob," will recognize the psychiatrist's "baby steps" approach. Now I always try and look at my day-to-day problems (opportunities? - after all, a problem is really an opportunity in disguise) "one lamppost at a time."

Ray also started my radio career. Every Saturday afternoon, I would drive him to the CFRB station in Toronto, in time for his "Calling All Britons" show which went on the air after the six o'clock news. One Saturday, he came out of the studio just before the seven o'clock news and said, "Dave, my breathing is really bad tonight. Will you go on and do my next hour?"

Boy, I was scared out of my wits. CFRB was not only one of the most powerful radio stations in Canada, it also simulcast its programs via CFRX shortwave around the world.

"Now Dave, don't worry about the controls." There were all sorts of intimidating knobs and flashing red lights on the desk surface in front of me. "I'll look after those. I'm going to sit across the table from you and I just want you to talk to me when I say. You'll be fine." So, with quaking voice, I did my first radio broadcast...on the home station of such "greats" as Gordon Sinclair, Betty Kennedy and, of course, the ever affable Wally Crouter.

In the weeks which followed, Ray taught me the rules of "warm" radio - the way it used to be. Speak to each listener as if he or she is the only one there, and is in the room with you. Speak as a friend, never develop a "radio" voice - use the same tone you would use in normal room conversation to share your thoughts and feelings with your listener friend. It really works.

Ray mentored me in BBC fashion, allowing me to be on his program for many years as I gained confidence and experience. When he died, his wife June and I produced the final CFRB "Calling All Britons" show, which aired on August 24, 1991. Today, with Kathy as my producer, I do radio shows to many stations in Michigan and Ohio, while we are on the road in January and February - a wonderful legacy from Ray.

Another lesson which Ray taught me resulted from some "music" he played one me, a distorted, cacophony of noise. During a commercial break, I asked him why he played it because I was sure that he didn't like it.

"No," he said, "I don't like it either, but it's number three on the UK charts and I play the music for my listeners, not for me." He is absolutely right of course, and that is why, to this day, I ask my "Along Interstate-75" readers to let me know what they want in next year's edition... after all, I write the book for them, not for me!

Speaking of writing, Ray's first job was as a junior reporter on the Bournemouth Daily Echo in South England. As a youngster, I had always enjoyed putting pen to paper but, apart from the occasional magazine article, I had never considered it as a career. One evening while at Ray's home I became really excited when the first photos of the sunken Titanic were shown on TV. I wanted to write a "Titanic" book. "No," said Ray, "write about something you know. Write a novel and learn to 'craft' your words into pictures."

Again, he was right and I sketched out and embarked upon a 30-chapter novel based on King Henry VIII's favourite vessel, the "Mary Rose" - something with which I'm much more familiar. The novel remains incomplete, but it served its purpose. Just like a pianist playing exercises to improve technique, the novel helped me refine my writing skills under one of the toughest editors I have ever faced.

Every evening for weeks I would take the day's work to Ray and sit quietly while he read it. "You can do better," he would say, and then add words of encouragement to keep me going - so it was back to the writing desk again.

Finally, one evening he read my day's output. Leaning back in his favourite easy chair, he closed his eyes for a moment and said, "Dave, you've got it. I can smell the smoke and feel the vibration of the cannon under my feet. You've just written a vivid prologue to draw your readers in. Now let's get on with chapter one!"

Ray loved that chair. And it was while he was resting in it on Tuesday, August 20, 1991, beside the open window leading to the garden he loved, that he quietly and painlessly passed away from us at the age of 84...leaving a huge void in our lives.

At the request of CFRB, June and I produced a final "Calling All Britons" show which went on the air the following Saturday, anchored by CFRB's Wally Crouter.

Ray was a showman and would have wanted this for his audience friends. We closed the show with one of Ray's favourite sign-offs - "This is your old china Ray Sonin saying TTFN...Ta Ta for now..."