Ray Jessel
Jessel on America's Got Talent in 2014
Raymond Jessel

(1929-10-16)16 October 1929
Cardiff, Wales
Died17 July 2015(2015-07-17) (aged 85)
Occupation(s)Singer, songwriter, composer, screenwriter
Years active1955–2015

Raymond Jessel (16 October 1929 – 17 July 2015)[1] was a Welsh songwriter, screenwriter, orchestrator, and musical theatre composer. Born in Cardiff, he moved to Canada in 1955 and started a career as an orchestrator and composer for CBC Radio and CBC Television. He met a Canadian pianist Marian Grudeff, who became his songwriting partner. He received five MAC Awards for "Original Song" and the 2004 Bistro Award. He was most recognised for his audition for America's Got Talent in 2014 in which he sang an original song about a transgender woman.[2]

With little success in Toronto, Jessel and Grudeff moved to New York City where they made their first success with the Broadway musical, Baker Street, in 1964.[3] Jessel contributed to The Dean Martin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Bob Newhart Show and others. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a writer and editor for numerous episodes of The Love Boat and Head of the Class, among other series, and co-wrote lyrics for I Remember Mama in 1979.

Early life and career

Jessel was born and raised in Cardiff, where his family ran a clothing shop.[2][4] He received a degree in music from the University of Wales. With a one-year scholarship for studying musical composition, he went to Paris and studied under Arthur Honegger.[5] He moved to Canada with his family in 1955 at the age of 26.[2] He started his career as an orchestrator and composer for CBC Radio and CBC Television. There he met his lifelong songwriting partner, Marian Grudeff, a Canadian pianist. Together they played active roles in orchestral and theatrical compositions. Among their first works were songs for the Toronto revue Spring Thaw.[6][4]

Their major breakthrough came when producer Alexander H. Cohen signed them to write the songs for the 1964 Broadway musical Baker Street, about Sherlock Holmes.[7] Their next score was for a new version of Hellzapoppin, based on the 1938 hit musical revue of the same name. This new musical was not a success, but its title song was recorded by Jimmy Durante and Louis Armstrong.[8] He moved to Hollywood and made a successful career with musicals and sketches for The Dean Martin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Comedy Factory, and various John Denver specials. He was a story editor of the ABC comedy The Love Boat from 1977 to 1980, and writer and consultant of Head of the Class from 1986 to 1991. He wrote and produced the CBS TV series The Jacksons.[9][10] He also co-wrote, with Martin Charnin, lyrics for I Remember Mama in 1979.[11]

Performing career and later years

In the 1990s, Jessel began to perform comedy songs at parties.[2] He was persuaded by Michael Feinstein and Shelly Goldstein to perform his original song, Wanna Sing a Show Tune, with Feinstein. The song was recorded on Feinstein's album Live at the Algonquin.[12] His first stage performance was at age 72.[2] He performed at the Hollywood’s Gardenia Room in 2002[7] and developed his own cabaret act.[13] He continued to perform cabaret until shortly before his death, appearing in June 2015 at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia.[10]

He met Cynthia Thompson in 1980 and married her approximately ten years later.[14] He wrote a number of songs with her. The most successful are "Whatever Happened to Melody?", which was recorded by Michael Feinstein (on Forever), David Campbell (in Yesterday Is Now), and by Masters of Harmony (on California Gold Rush); and "I'm All Right Now" on John Pizzarelli's CD New Standards. They wrote scripts and songs for the Shari Lewis' PBS show The Charlie Horse Music Pizza.[5] He was a recipient of five MAC Awards for "Original Song",[15] and the 2004 Bistro Award.[16]

At age 84, he auditioned for America's Got Talent in 2014. He performed an original comic song, "What She's Got", about a man who discovers that his girlfriend whom "I just adore ... has much more than I had bargained for" ... a penis.[2] The judges, the public and some publications loved it, and he qualified for the next round of the competition.[17] The audition was viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube overnight following his performance.[2] It soon received criticism from the LGBT community.[18][19] After GLAAD released a statement calling the song "outright mockery" of transgender women, NBC removed the video of Jessel's audition from its website and social media outlets.[20] Jessel did not perform on the show a second time, but the video was eventually restored to the America's Got Talent YouTube channel, where it has been viewed more than 15 million times.[21]

On 17 July 2015, Jessel died "of natural causes" at his home in Studio City, California.[22]


  1. ^ "Raymond Jessel". Tributes Inc. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Sisk, Emma (5 July 2014). "Watch the moment a Welsh pensioner shocks judges on America's Got Talent". WalesOnline. Media Wales Ltd. Archived from the original on 7 February 2017. Retrieved 7 February 2017.
  3. ^ Mel Atkey. A Million Miles from Broadway -- Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London. Lulu.com; 2012. ISBN 978-0-9916957-0-6. p. 137.
  4. ^ a b Later stages: essays in Ontario theatre from the First World War to the 1970s. University of Toronto Press; 1997. ISBN 978-0-8020-7624-3. p. 188, 207.
  5. ^ a b "Jessel, Raymond". Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  6. ^ Mel Atkey. Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre. Dundurn; 30 October 2006. ISBN 978-1-897045-08-4. p. 116.
  7. ^ a b Petus, Georgica (9 April 2015). "Ray Jessel: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know". Heavy.com. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  8. ^ McCarthy, Sean L. (2014). "Ray Jessel's audition on America's Got Talent 2014, and what you may not know about the 84-year-old songwriter's Broadway and TV past". Comic's Comic. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  9. ^ "Ray Jessel". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  10. ^ a b Lenny, Barry (24 June 2016). "Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2015: "Ray Jessel – Naughty or Nice" Is the Result of Decades of Unrecognised Brilliance". BroadwayWorld.com. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  11. ^ Elisberg, Robert J. (12 August 2015). "Remembering Ray Jessel". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 5 November 2015.
  12. ^ "About Ray Jessel…". LML Music. Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  13. ^ Elisberg, Robert J. "Remembering Ray Jessel", The Huffington Post, 11 August 2016
  14. ^ Dave's Gone By Interview (12/3/06) -- RAY JESSEL, retrieved 27 November 2021
  15. ^ Regan Jr., Joe (18 October 2013). "Ray Jessel". theaterpizzazz.com. Retrieved 5 November 2015.
  16. ^ "2014-1985 recipients". BistroAwards. Retrieved 5 November 2015.
  17. ^ Barness, Sarah. "84-Year-Old Ray Jessel Surprises Judges With a Naughty Original Song", The Huffington Post, 2 July 2014, accessed 28 October 2016
  18. ^ Molloy, Parker Marie (4 July 2014). "Op-ed: AGT Seems to Believe Trans People Are Inherently Disgusting and Hilarious". Advocate. Archived from the original on 4 July 2014. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  19. ^ Chhiber, Ashley (3 July 2015). "America's Got Talent act slammed after transphobic audition song". PinkNews. Archived from the original on 25 February 2017. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  20. ^ Kane, Matt. "Update: America's Got Talent airs song mocking trans women", GLAAD.org, July 3, 2014
  21. ^ Jessel, Ray. "Ray Jessel: 84-Year-Old Sings a Naughty Original Song – America's Got Talent 2014", America's Got Talent on YouTube, 1 July 2014
  22. ^ McNary, Dave (20 July 2015). "Ray Jessel, Love Boat Writer, Dies at 85". Variety. Retrieved 6 November 2015.