From ‘loudmouth’ to messenger
Now going on 30 years in the game, Fancy Ray McCloney has become a Twin Cities entertainment icon. Fancy Ray, as he’s known around town, got his start in lip-syncing concerts, eventually turning his impersonations and comedic stylings into a full-blown career.
He won several local lip-sync competitions in the ‘80s before going on to perform on the nationally televised Puttin’ on the Hits. In his first appearance, McCloney performed as Little Richard. For another appearance, he earned a near-perfect score performing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 hit song I Put a Spell on You.
After his national debut, McCloney returned to Minneapolis and quickly jumped on the entertainment scene via cable access.
“I was running my mouth and, by that time, doing comedy a little bit,” said McCloney. “But [with] cable access, I’m running my mouth and all of a sudden I looked up and people are coming up to me saying, ‘Ah, the best looking man on TV.’”
During this time McCloney met Warren Jackson, who had a TV show on local cable access. McCloney talked through some of his own ideas with Jackson, eventually building the foundation for The Fancy Ray Show.
“Anyone who knew anyone locally came on my show,” said McCloney. “My claim to fame was the fact that I got national celebrities to come [and] sit with me. So the question became, ‘How is this guy on cable access TV sitting down with all these national celebrities?’
“We had everyone from Al Green to Bo Diddley, George Clinton to Whoopi Goldberg,” he continued. “In my mind, I’m competing with Arsenio Hall, so we had folks from the Seinfeld Show, Carol Channing, Kevin Garnett, Ron Jeremy, Gloria Steinem… Plus we’d combine it with skits and comedy, music and dance.”
McCloney’s show didn’t miss a beat either when it came to current topics. When the Los Angeles riots took place after the Rodney King trial, he sat down with White supremacists and also had civil rights activist Spike Moss speak on racial issues around the Twin Cities.
McCloney also interviewed three-term Minneapolis City Council member Brian Coyle, who made national waves after announcing he was HIV-positive in 1991. It turned out to be Coyle’s last interview before he passed away from AIDS-related complications at the age of 47.
“The Brian Coyle interview changed my life,” shared McCloney. “I received all kinds of accolades.”
Now, at the height of his career, McCloney acknowledged he turned a corner, going from being a loudmouth to someone with a message. So, he ran for governor in 1998.
“My name was on the ballot. My mother was the lieutenant governor.”
McCloney ran against Jesse Ventura, whom he said didn’t represent the Black community. “When I saw Jesse, I said Jesse isn’t talking for me or for us. He wasn’t speaking of the concerns of Black folks at all, so I said we need a voice.
“When I ran for governor, some of the Black leaders sat me down and said you can’t be out there acting like a buffoon. I began to articulate the concerns of our community — talking about poverty, housing, the criminal justice system and so on.”
Although McCloney didn’t win the governor’s seat, this new direction took him into the commercial business lane where companies started hiring him to promote their business needs. One of McCloney’s more popular commercial spots was for the now-defunct Nicollet Village Video in which he impersonated the late Prince.
While he became a Twin Cities commercial fixture, McCloney also has filmed commercials all over the country — including Arizona, Kansas, California, Missouri and Jacksonville, Florida. In 2017 he also appeared in the Taco Bell commercial for Super Bowl LII.
Today, as he continues to perform throughout the Twin Cities, Fancy Ray offers some insight into what motivates his remarkably varied career. “There are two things that happen in me, the combination of comedy and spirituality, because what I’m trying to do is connect with people and uplift souls.”
Jonika Stowes is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.