BRIAN RAY - FROM BLUES TO BEATLES
A journeyman guitarist who has spent the past 11 years with Paul McCartney, Brian Ray recently sat with Tom Guerra to discuss his new band “The Bayonets,” Gibson’s upcoming Brian Ray signature model, and traveling the world as a sideman to a Beatle.
TG: As a kid growing up in California, how’d you get started in rock and roll?
BR: My earliest influences were the progenitors of rock and roll...I was four years old and my half sister would play me the records of Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, The Teddy Bears, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and I was immediately drawn in to this thing called rock and roll. And the guitar was such a big part of the package, as was the look of the singers and this new fashion, it was just magnetic. The playing of people like Scotty Moore and the tracking of those early (Sun) sessions and the sound of the room was just intoxicating. So I go the fever at age four.
TG: Did you immediately start playing guitar at this point?
BR: I started to play before I could play (laughs). I was lip synching to my class for a show in fourth grade. I didn't know yet how to tune, but as soon as I did, I took my brother's 1960 LG-1 and tried playing. My brother took lessons for a couple of weeks and every time he came home, I'd ply him with my good humor to do anything to get him to teach me what he'd learned. He just gave it up after awhile, but I just kept going with it...you know, four chords and a dream.
TG: So your first good guitar was the LG-1?
BR: Actually, my parents bypassed me and gave the LG-1 to my younger sister, much to my chagrin. So on my 11th birthday, my sister Jean, who's a folk star in her own right, got me a $5 guitar from Tijuana, and to me that thing was the finest thing in the world. It didn't even intonate, but I just played the hell out of it and learned all my stuff on it. Then when I was about 14, I got a late '50's Tele from Ace Music followed by a '68 goldtop with P90s around the time I was 16. Incidentally, my sister Jean gave me my first good amp too, an Ampeg Gemini.
TG: You worked with Etta James for 14 years, how did that come about and what did you learn from those days?
BR: When I was about 17, I was playing a fundraiser with Bobby "Boris Pickett" ("The Monster Mash") in the backyard of The Byrds’ road manager Phil Kaufman. Phil had just lost his best friend Gram Parsons, and he was trying to raise money to pay for the fine he'd been hit with for stealing Gram's (loaded) coffin. (Note: this classic rock and roll tale is retold in the movie "Grand Theft Parsons."). Anyway, Phil took a shine to me, and we hit it off. One day he took me to see Etta James, and after the show he took me to meet her, and she was so sweet to me. A short while later, Phil invited me to one of Etta's rehearsals at John Densmore's house in the Hollywood Hills, and by this time I'd gotten a '57 goldtop, so I took it up there and sat down nervously, and played with Etta James. By the end of the rehearsal, she said "I like that little white kid," and that was the start of 14 years with Etta James. During these years, we traveled around the world as she was clawing her way back into employability after blowing her career with her addiction, and as her musical director, I was helping her do that. We'd drive with her son and husband and I'd just show local bands the set, and we'd do 2 shows...ala Chuck Berry.
TG: So how exactly does one get a gig with a Beatle?
BR: The road to getting the job with Paul McCartney needed 14 years with Etta James to make me the right person. Alot of traveling, sweaty gigs with two shows a night, making zero money, but having the time of my life...and in between, I made a couple pop and R&B records with major labels, and worked with a whole string of female singers. By the 90's I was doing a solo gig in L.A. when a Frenchman by the name of Phillipe Rault introduced himself. He was a liaison between French artists and American musicians, and asked if I was interested in auditioning for Mylene Farmer,' who is like the Madonna of France. So I auditioned and got the gig, and her new drummer was none other than (future McCartney drummer) Abe Laboriele Jr. Both Abe and I then started playing rock and roll for Johnny Hallyday. Fast forward a few years to 2002, and Paul's producer David Kahne called Abe to do Paul’s "Driving Rain" album. After they did that, Abe mentioned that they were going to tour and I said "well, who's gonna play guitar and bass when Paul is playing piano?" He said that they were looking for someone to do this, so I stuck my arm up saying "I'd love a shot at that." Two weeks later David Kahne called with news of a gig, for one song, "Freedom" which Paul was going to play at the 2002 Super Bowl. Paul welcomed me aboard very generously, he was very kind to me, and five weeks later we were in rehearsal for what was only gonna be a six week tour. And that's turned into 11 years with Paul McCartney.
TG: Later this year, Gibson will release a Brian Ray Signature guitar, the BR ’63 SG…
BR: It is one sexy beast! (laughs). It's based on the big neck profiles SGs of 1963. Vic DaPra of Guitar Gallery and I were talking about its development, and he had the great idea of putting on a Bigbsy B5, the Mick Taylor tremolo, to give it more string length. Finish wise, I thought of my 1965 Epiphone Casino with the “silver fox” finish. I was thinking that a white pickguard, trussrod cover and rear cavity plate would look so sharp with nickel hardware and this clear black finish. Vic talked to Phillip Whorton of the Gibson Custom Shop in Tennessee to figure out how to shoot “silver fox.” I thought, what if we put in a yellowish filler, and sprayed a translucent color over it, just like they did with the TV models, but with a black clear coat instead of yellow? Gibson then searched for the most open grained block of mahogany to make the filler really stand out, and then applied the clear coat. And they just nailed it!
Phillip and Vic were so helpful, I owe them a big thanks. The guitar also has big 6100 frets, a series / parallel push pull pot coil tap and even taper pots. The white pickguard, truss rod cover and back plate really give it a “tuxedo” look.
TG: Tell us about your new band, “The Bayonets.”
BR: The Bayonets are my new band with my longtime collaborator and great friend Oliver Lieber. Oliver's father was (famed songwriter) Jerry Lieber of Lieber/Stoller and Oliver definitely benefited from the songwriting gene, he's a very talented wordsmith and producer. We came up with an idea to do a more raw approach than my two solo albums, "This Way Up" and "Mondo Magneto," both of which had quite a bit of cowriting contributions from Oliver. We were thinking about a raw, guitar hero type of approach, like Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, with big, Sandy Nelson type drums. You can check out the new single "Sucker for Love" released on Valentine's Day of course (laughs). Little Steven discovered this song, and he loved it, and he's putting it in heavy rotation. It's digital only, and we've got a lot of great guests on it... you can read all about it and hear it on our website TheBayonets.com.
TG: What are some of your favorite instruments?
BR: My '57 goldtop Les Paul, although not a looker cause I've rode it hard and put it away wet, is one of the best sounding guitars I've ever played. Out of all of my guitars, I've owned it the longest, since I was a teenager, and it was the guitar I was playing when I met Phil Kaufman. I played it on every single Etta James show I ever did except for one. I have a 1959 flametop Les Paul sunburst that's just ridiculous, every bit as good as my '57 except it looks like its brand new. I have some '50's TV Juniors, my '58 has a baseball bat neck that's amazing, I have a '62 335 dot neck that's beautiful, last of the PAFs.
TG: So you consider yourself a Gibson guy…
BR: I do, but I have a great Tele, a great '56 refin'd Strat, and a '59 green Gretsch double anniversary, the first guitar I got after I got the opportunity to play with Paul.
TG: What's next?
BR: I'm really enjoying getting more fans of real music turned onto The Bayonets, it’s a great motivator. That, and hopefully a whole lot more music with Paul McCartney...we'll see what he has in store.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: After leading East Coast rockers Mambo Sons through four critically acclaimed cds, the last being the successful double album "Heavy Days" guitarist/songwriter Tom Guerra is active as a session musician and working on his own solo music.
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