Most of us are raised in a home with a father and a mother; not Lefty Ray. The circumstances of his upbringing truly made him who he was. He was raised by a Clan. A clan is a family unit comprising a number of households whose heads claim descent from a common ancestor. Lefty Ray Sexton was raised by the Sexton clan, on the paternal side. His little brother, James Daymond Sexton, was a product of the same type of upbringing but on the maternal side by the clan Witherspoon.
Lefty Ray, whose nickname came during his music career due to his custom left-handed guitars, was born Raymond Anderson Sexton on . His father was William Warner "Pete" Sexton. His mother was Bessie Jewell Witherspoon Sexton. Lefty was born in Park, Kentucky, on the 19th of March 1934, in the home of his maternal grandparents, Robert Lee & Clara Amanda Nichols Witherspoon.
Pete and Bessie lived adjacent to his folks in Center, Kentucky. He was their eldest child who was never quite sure enough of himself to move away from them. His parents, Lefty's paternal grandparents, were Gallant Anderson "Man" Sexton and Ruby Alma "Mayme" Miller Sexton.
Both the Sextons and the Witherspoons were dirt poor tobacco sharecroppers, that had over twenty kids between them.
Pete Sexton had had a brief marriage to Verda Owens Sexton which produced a son, William Leon Sexton, Lefty's older half-brother That marriage ended in 1931 due to a mental condition that made Pete dependent on his folks.
Bessie came along and married Pete in 1932 after Verda had left him. That marriage produced two sons: Lefty and Daymond. The issues with Pete's mental health intensified causing him to be institutionalized at the Western State Kentucky Hospital, a mental asylum, in September 1938.
Pete was 33 years old and spent the next five months in the asylum before passing February 15, 1939, from a brain hemorrhage. His passing left behind Bessie and their two young sons; Lefty Ray was a month shy of five and Daymond was 25 months old. The young family had to move back in with Bessie's folks where she was not only raising her two little ones, but was tasked with helping raise a host of younger siblings.
Unhappy and looking to move on, Bessie remarried 15 months after becoming a widow and left her two toddlers to their grandparents to raise. She split the boys up and moved with her new husband, an older widower and his three children to the Memphis, Tennessee area. Her second marriage to Bryan Jennings Norvell would produce two half-siblings for Lefty: Helen Norvell and Jennings Bryan Norvell.
Lefty Ray and his little brother, Daymond, would pack up and ride the L&N Railroad the over 250 miles one way, back and forth frequently, without adult supervision. Their stays with their mother's new family were said to be brief with her packing them back up and returning them to their respective clans. So, one could say the boys were orphaned to some extent. The two boys both had mental health issues which were probably the result of the uncertainty of being loved or wanted by their mom.
In 1949, Lefty’s grandpa "Man" Sexton passed after a construction accident at home. He was a carpenter/barn builder by trade. He built the house that was on the property of the barn that he fell from the rafters of during demo. He lived three days after the fall.
His death dealt a blow to the primary home that Lefty had known as the property was too large for him and his grandmother, Mayme to keep up and a short time later, Lefty Ray found himself homeless so he moved to the Memphis area where he lived wherever he could lay his head. During a short stint living with his mother, he was named a Safety Patrol crossing guard at the school; where he got to wear the shoulder sash. This was a proud moment for his family, as simple as it was.
He held a multitude of jobs in his mid-teens: shoe-shine boy, bell-hop, elevator operator in a downtown Memphis high-rise hotel, the King Cotton, ice cream cart salesman, bicycle grocery delivery, sandwich maker for Mrs. Drakes, and on and on.
Lefty Ray became interested in music due to the majority of his Sexton clan being talented in song and the playing of instruments. About his 14th birthday, he ordered a nickel instruction booklet produced by Searcy, Arkansas born Lonnie Glosson. The mail order booklet taught guitar and harmonica. Lefty, by the grace of God, possessed a voice able to mimic many of his musical heroes. He focused on country and gospel and became a prolific performer that led him to lead several bands as lead guitarist and vocal. His little brother, Daymond. learned mandolin and fiddle by the same method and was usually at Lefty's left side on stage where ever they performed.
As he got to his latter teens his music became his primary focus. Jobs as ambulance attendant for Jack Ruby Ambulance provided him and his younger brother with funds and spare time to organize and play with a darn good country music band that Lefty assembled and led. They played in bars before they were old enough to drink, hotels and events in the parks. During this time, they became acquaintances and played with a host of future stars in the Memphis music scene: Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were the most notable. Lefty's band, The Tennessee Serenaders, performed on KWEM-AM radio and played the 800 seat Ellis Auditorium every weekend. They were in the top rung of young amateurs, holding a contract for a short-while as studio back-up musicians with Sun Records.
During his time with Jack Ruby Ambulance, fate struck in 1953 and Lefty was sent to pick up a young lady who was injured in a car accident. She became his first wife and the mother of his three biological children. Her name was Violet Virginia McVay. They were married in May of 1954 in Sardis, Mississippi, he lying about his age to do so and had their first child later that year, Ray Jr. On Ray Jr.'s birth certificate, Lefty's occupation was listed as carpenter; a salute to the grandpa who raised him.
Lefty continued to play music while working two jobs at times. He was driven to become someone despite his 6th grade education. The stress and strain of his work/play life caused a few psychotic breaks where hospitalization was required. He would always bounce back and work harder than ever.
His many jobs as an adult included taxi driver, laundry truck delivery and pickup, 7Up sales and delivery and eventually, the one that stuck, fence crew foreman.
During that time, between marriage and the fence company years the couple had two more children: Renee and Dianne. The toll of added mouths to feed brought an end to his music days for twenty years. He still played but not money-making gigs which kept him out at night.
In 1964, the family packed up and began moving around Tennessee doing freeway fencing. Lefty usually had a crew of 10-15 men working under him. He was advancing his career, but the man he worked for was too stingy to pay what he needed to make a living for his family. So, he quit and moved to Cabot, Arkansas, in August of 1968, where within 4 yrs he had his own fence company that grew to the fourth highest grossing fence installation company in Arkansas.
Sexton Fence Company eventually expanded its product line to include paints, crafts, ornamental concrete and iron, garden supplies, custom framing and more. He moved out onto Hwy 89 South after the '76 Cabot tornado and built three separate buildings/offices comprising over 12,000 sq. feet of space.
It was in 1982 that his first wife, Violet, due to complicated circumstances divorced him. It was a brutal falling out that left them both with very little after the lawyers did their magic.
After this divorce, Lefty Ray owned another fence company, Big R Fence. While in operation the business was known for small construction jobs and fencing of all types. It was a successful company that fed him until his retirement due to his failing health. He had a heart bypass and his lifelong habit of cigarette smoking was taking its toll with a diagnosis of COPD.
Lefty Ray began playing music regularly after his first marriage ended. He had dance halls in several of the little towns around Cabot, always drawing a satisfied crowd of country music fans,
Lefty married a short time later to his second wife, Phyllis Shaw. No children were produced and the marriage ended a few years later.
His third and final marriage was to Maxine Carnes, who survives him today. A mutual love of music brought them together.
For the past dozen years, Lefty Ray had been retired and was terribly dissatisfied with his inability to sing and play music. His sight was failing as was his hearing and voice.
Never a big church man, he found respite in the church in Beebe along with his wife, Maxine. He confessed and got right with the Lord in his eyes this past year during a hospital stay for his broken hip.
He loved pinto beans, stewed ‘taters and cornbread, sausage pizza, grapefruit, peaches, dogs, singing, family reunions of any type, sight-seeing trips to anywhere, music, music and more music.
He passed peacefully after a week of struggle at home under Hospice care. The family would like to thank his nurses, Brandy and Crystal for their efforts to keep him as comfortable as possible. He loved them both.
His voice is already sorely missed.
He was preceded in death by his first wife, Violet McVay Sexton, his parents, his older half-brother, William Leon Sexton Peak, his younger brother, James Daymond Sexton, his half-brother, Jennings Bryan Norvell, and the clan of Sexton grands and aunts and uncles who raised him.
Lefty is survived by his wife, Maxine; a son, Ray Jr. (Libby); two daughters, Renee Elmore, and Dianne (Ed) Weed; four grandchildren, Crystal Belote, Steven Skillern, Sarah Skillern, and Trevor Elmore; a great grandson, Keaton Belote and a loving half-sister, Helen Norvell.
Visitation will be 12:00-2:00 p.m. Tuesday, June 30, 2020 at Smith-Westbrook Funeral Home, Beebe, followed by graveside service at 3:00 p.m. at Hicks Cemetery. State of AR COVID-19 directives will be followed; including social distancing. Arrangements by Smith-Westbrook Funeral Home. www.smithfamilycares.com
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