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Ray Sawyer, ‘Cover of Rolling Stone’ singer, dies at 81

Mr. Sawyer (second from left) was a member of the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
Mr. Sawyer (second from left) was a member of the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.(Platt Collecton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/File 1979)

NEW YORK — Ray Sawyer, who cut a distinctive figure as a member of the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show thanks to his flamboyant style and attention-drawing eye patch, and who sang lead on one of the group’s best-known songs, “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” died Monday in Daytona, Fla. He was 81.

His wife, Linda Lombardi Sawyer, announced his death on Facebook. She did not give a cause but said in a post a week earlier that he had been hospitalized.

Mr. Sawyer and the band rose to prominence in the early 1970s with a country-rock sound that later became more lush and occasionally even displayed a disco influence. Dennis Locorriere usually sang lead, but Mr. Sawyer was the most recognizable band member. His eye patch gave the group its name, a sort of skewing of the Captain Hook character from “Peter Pan.”

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“I’ve had the eye patch since I was 27,” Mr. Sawyer told The St. Petersburg Times in 2010. “I was in a car accident. Some people still ask if it is a gimmick, something to draw attention, but it’s real.”

He sang the lead vocal on “Rolling Stone.” (The label of the original single gave the title as “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” though the lyrics he sings use a “the” before the magazine’s name.) The song, a parody about rock ‘n’ roll fame, reached the Top 10 of the Billboard pop chart in March 1973.

That same month, the magazine did in fact put the band, or at least a caricature of it, on its cover.

Mr. Sawyer was born on Feb. 1, 1937, in Chickasaw, Ala. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show was formed in the late 1960s in New Jersey and caught fire after it joined with Shel Silverstein, the cartoonist and sometime songwriter, and played his songs in the 1971 movie “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” (directed by Ulu Grosbard and starring Dustin Hoffman).

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The movie got the band a contract with Columbia Records. Silverstein, who died in 1999, wrote “Sylvia’s Mother,” a lament about a pay-phone call that in 1972 became the group’s first big hit.

It may or may not have been a parody of country ballads, but “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” also written by Silverstein, was certainly a gag. “We take all kinds of pills that give us all kind of thrills,” the lyrics went, “but the thrill we’ve never known is the thrill that’ll gitcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”

By the mid-1970s, the band had been derailed by mismanagement and was facing bankruptcy.

“Somebody was putting the cash away, and it wasn’t us,” Mr. Sawyer told The Toronto Star in 1991. “The bankruptcy court took everything away from us, even the ‘Medicine Show’ part of our name. I haven’t figured out yet why they did that. It’s like taking the Pips out of Gladys Knight and the Pips.”

But by 1976 the band, as simply Dr. Hook, was on the comeback trail with a smoother sound, heard that year on a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Only Sixteen.” Later hits included “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” in 1979.

Mr. Sawyer left the group in 1982, and he and Locorriere later engaged in a legal tussle over rights to the group’s name. Mr. Sawyer continued to perform into this decade.

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