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Ray Flerlage

Ray Flerlage was a busy man so I remember several Ray Flerlages. The first Ray carried a sample case and worked for K.O.Asher, a German expatriate who's a whole other story. Asher sold all the labels the more commercial distributors didn't want to carry. Folk, classical, jazz, international (now called world music), spoken word -- niche music. Asher needed a broadly-aculturated guy who could speak all these languages. He found him in Ray.

Before long we learned that doling out a Delmark sample to Ray had a doubled efficiency - he'd use it to help sell our product, but the second Ray Flerlage might also play it on his program on WXFM-FM which had a considerable following.

Then up popped the third Flerlage, camera in hand, at an early University of Chicago Folk Festival. I remember it as a Speed-Graphic press camera but it really was a Leica 35mm. We started inviting him to Delmark recording sessions where he captured the mood of Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, etc. (I don't think I ever told Ray that we tried to record at night so he could shoot without interfering with his Asher job.) We used a lot of his stuff on our albums over the years.

When the fourth Ray was asked by Folkways' Moe Asch to shoot Memphis Slim he started getting involved in record production.

When Asher retired, a fifth Flerlage picked up the practice and started Kinnara Disributors. The business had changed and indie stores that were in love with music began to disappear as the coast-to-coast chains mushroomed. So Ray retired, sorted out his negatives, and became the primary source for 50's-60's blues/jazz photography in the Chicago area.

A couple of years ago a lot of Ray's best photos made up Chicago Blues As Seen From The Inside. Marc PoKempner's book, Down At Theresa's appeared at the same time so we had a joint book-signing. Marc repeatedly insisted the customers buy Ray's book first.

It's been said that we are all political people and the sixth Ray was no exception. His interest in blues probably began in the 1940's when he was active in People's Songs which brought Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, etc. to Chicago for concerts and promoted Big Bill Broonzy outside the black community.

There were probably other Ray Flerlages known to his wife Louise and kids, to other acquaintances and friends. But these are the six that come to my mind.

Ray would have enjoyed the funeral, which is the only kind of funeral to have. Although there was no jazz or blues, the hymns swung and hands were clapped. He had been baptized on his deathbed and the hippest Catholic priest I have encountered since I got married by a civil rights worker gave a wonderful ecumenical eulogy to an audience that included many of the protestant and muslim faiths.

The Ray Flerlages are gone, but they left their mark and we have his great photos for generations to enjoy.

(Chicago Blues As Seen From The Inside is available from the Jazz Record Mart ECW PRESS, 152 p. hardbound $22.99 )