Vinson: Phone call changes life, history
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Mike Vinson, left, and Jerry Ray standing outside the Blues City Café in Memphis,late October 2013. The two were in Memphis to be interviewed by the "Travel Channel" for a documentary about the MLK assassination and James Earl Ray.

By MIKE VINSON

Thursday/May 26, 2016. I punched the contact number on my smartphone, and it commenced ringing. After about eight rings, there still was no answer. I ran out the front door, jumped into my car, and spun out of the driveway! Arriving at the intended destination in just a couple minutes, I slid to a stop in front of the small apartment. Emerging from my car, I commenced walking, dragging both my feet and my soul.

As I made my way to the front door, I found it was locked (deadbolt). I peered through a window pane and observed a body lying on the kitchen floor. I called the landlord. He sent over a couple workers, and we gained entrance into the apartment. Sure enough, the body was already turning a bluish color, was cold to the touch, wasn't breathing and had no pulse. Having talked to him only a few days prior, I, sadly and eerily enough, had discovered my dear friend Jerry W. Ray, 80-years-old, dead in his apartment.

***

I first met Jerry Ray in the spring of 1997, at W.T.'s Roadhouse in McMinnville, Tennessee. I soon discovered Jerry, in fact, was the younger brother of James Earl Ray, the alleged assassin of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., slain by a single sniper's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray died from liver disease April 23, 1998, going to his grave claiming he did not assassinate Martin Luther King Jr.

(NOTE: Along with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is considered, by many, to be the most pivotal event of 20th Century American History.)

Backing up a few steps, after he got to know me, Jerry invited me to write about James Earl's alleged role in the King assassination. This culminated in me conducting a live interview with James Earl. The interview took place March 25, 1998, was published April 5, 1998, and, as mentioned, James Earl expired from liver disease April 23, 1998. My interview with James Earl Ray proved to be the last live, Q&A interview conducted with him to be published, ever.

After James Earl's death, Jerry continued the fight to clear his late brother's name. I assisted Jerry on much of the research and logistics necessary to carry on the effort. However, at this juncture of the story, it is key to note another side of Jerry Ray: He had this cutting-edge wit and sense of humor.

WBMC, the local radio station in McMinnville (960 AM on your dial), has a show called "Town Talk" that airs 8-9 a.m., Monday through Friday. Hosted for years by Kelly Marlowe and "Coach" Bobby Newby, two well-known locals, "Town Talk is, for the most part, a conservative radio show: birthday announcement, a pie supper to be held at a certain community center, a loved one has passed away, etc.

For the first few years, Jerry Ray called in "Town Talk" under the handle "Junkyard Dog." Then, for the last few years, Jerry called in under the handle "Honest John." Opening up with a ha-ha-ha laugh, Honest John had a litany of stories and antics with which he entertained listeners:

*Off key, he would sing classic, beer-drinking country songs: David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Call Me by My Name," Jerry Lee Lewis's "There Stands the Glass," and others.

*He was personal friends with Elvis Presley.

*He had a beautiful young girlfriend at Applebee's he called "Tootsie," who had fallen for him the first time she saw him "strut" inside. One caller (wink-wink) commented Tootsie was Honest John's "kitten, and Honest John was her "Tomcat"!

"He was helping Tigers Woods get his golf game back on track--and, for free, would help any of the locals improve his/her golf game!

*Sometimes, he would sign off "Town Talk" by telling listeners he was going to relax by "soaking some suds."

Expectedly, local opinion was greatly divided regarding Honest John's call-ins: Many found him "hilariously entertaining." Some said they "couldn't stand him." Personally, I thought he was hilarious.

In closing, I'll say this: In the nineteen years I knew Jerry, we spent literally hundreds of hours talking about his brother James Earl Ray's alleged role in the King assassination, and never one time did Jerry cross up himself. If you knew the nuts-and-bolts of the case, it always added up. Jerry once said to me, "I can go to my grave knowing James Earl went to his grave knowing I wouldn't sell him out ... and many times I was offered money to sell him out."

I want to thank the late Jerry Ray for his friendship, his humor, and allowing me to be a part of American History. However, the "phone call" I made at approximately 5 p.m. on Thursday/May 26, 2016, will forever haunt me. How so? When Jerry failed to answer, I knew right then, in my heart-of-hearts, that he was gone.

(NOTE: Available is a book titled "A Memoir of Injustice," a gritty and bare-bones read about Jerry Ray and his quest to clear James Earl Ray's name in the King assassination. The authors are Jerry Ray and historian-researcher Tamara Carter. The book is attainable at amazon.com.)

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