Ray Bailey: Los Angeles Bred Blues & Jazz Master

(Feb 28, 2015, 12:01 AM PDT)

“My first guitar was a Spanish guitar. One of the variety they sold in the Thrifty drug store back then for about nineteen dollars.”

Ray Bailey
Ray Bailey

Ray Bailey is an example of a musician with a culturally rich, Los Angeles heritage. Born and raised in the Watts community, he is a proud, native Californian surrounded by a musical family that has inspired his career path as a singer/composer and guitarist.

Tall and muscular, Bailey’s expansive smile leaps off his face like a spotlight and lights up any room. With a smile that bright, he can make an audience full of strangers feel like they are his best friends. But once he starts playing, it’s all serious business.

Ray Bailey: “My mother was a professional saxophone player. She could sing too, but she wasn’t mainly a singer. She grew up playing saxophone with Martha Young and Vi Redd. She was in an all-woman band and she played with the Sweethearts Of Rhythm. She played in a sextet of all women with (trumpeter) Clora Bryant, Martha Young was the piano player, Vi Wilson played bass and Francis something; I can’t think of her last name, but she was a good drummer. They were all kind of like my Godmothers. My mom’s name was Anna Brown. She was Wilber Brown’s sister. Wilber Brown was once the Musical Conductor for Ray Charles and he’s my uncle.

“My grandfather was a saxophone player, Wilber’s father. He played saxophone and he owned several businesses. And then my father’s father was a guitar player and a fiddle player. His name was Clarence Redrick Bailey and he was also an inventor. Music was a hobby for him. He played guitar and violin. He invented the trailer coupling that they still use right now. …He had a lot of inventions.”

Note: I found a listing of black inventors and Clarence R. Bailey is listed as inventing the valve cap, an anti-friction bearing and an automatic switch.

“He was also a real estate man and a stunt man in the early westerns. He was a stunt man for Tom Mix and William S. Hart who were early cowboy stars.”

Note: William S. Hart (1865 – 1946) was a most important silent film actor who appeared in dozens of cowboy films along with Tom Mix (1880 – 1940).

“My great grandfather could do trick riding and trick roping. He was kind of an interesting guy. He came up as a circus performer in a covered wagon in the late 1800’s. He came from the Indian Reservation in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Cherokee tribe. I wish I would have learned some of those skills; his riding and roping skills. I could ride a horse, but not like he could. He could hang off the back of them and do little flips. Like I said, he was a circus tumbler who did a lot of acrobatic stuff.

“My first instrument was the piano. That began in elementary school where I was blessed to have a wonderful musician as the music teacher for our elementary school. His name was John Carter. Little did I know that well-known avant-garde trumpet player and cornet player, Bobby Bradford, and also Don Cherry were associates of his. I heard Mr. Carter play the trumpet one day in school when I came into the auditorium where he was and I started asking questions. He got me a trumpet, so I started playing the trumpet. But when I heard the guitar, it was all over. I put that trumpet down.

“My first guitar was a Spanish guitar. One of the variety they sold in the Thrifty drug store back then for about nineteen dollars. My father bought it for me. I was self taught as much as anybody could be self taught. I learned from everybody. Anybody that played guitar, I tried to go and see them. Anybody in the neighborhood that played music, I’d go by their house and try to learn from them too. Actually, there was a guy who lived in the neighborhood, he lived on 98th street and I lived on 94th street. I think he was a session player at that time. His name was David T. Walker. I used to sit on the curb across the street from his house and watch him play on the front porch. His father had a recording studio and a lot of musicians would be going back there, so I would listen. And then there were some other musicians in the neighborhood like (drummer) Ndugu Chancler and there was a guy named Michael Richardson who lived across the alley from me who was a drummer too. I used to go over there and listen to a lot of records. He was always practicing along with Max Roach, so I’d listen to those records while he was practicing. I pulled from a lot of different places. Drummers have been really big in my life. Folks like Roy Porter and SonShip (Woody “Sonship” Theus). They were all kind of around the neighborhood.

“I would walk down Central Avenue sometimes and I would hear the music coming out ‘Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn’. (Located on 53rd and Central) The owner, Mama Laura Mae Gross, was a big influence on me. I was about fourteen and she lived not far from my grandfather’s house. She let me come in her club and listen; gave me a lot of pointers. I came to the jam session and started to play with some of the players there. Eventually I became the bandleader when I was about eighteen. Bobby Blake was the drummer. He was kind of like the sub for Roy Porter. He played with a lot of jazz groups, but he also played blues. Hollis Gilmore was one of the saxophone players. Eddie Lee Harris and Bobby Williams were both sax players. Curtis Tillman, who worked with Bobby Bland off and on, played the bass. Piano players were in and out, but there was a guy named Ray ‘Boom Boom’. I don’t remember a last name. We just called him Ray ‘Boom Boom’. He was an ex-boxer and a piano player at that time and sometimes a drummer.”

“Off and on, there were other guitar players too. There was a guy who played with Harmonica Fats and he played rhythm guitar. Can’t recall his name right this minute. I took over as bandleader when Ray Brooks left.

“I started playing with Lowell Fulsom in 1970, off and on until his death. I was with him and I worked with Smokey Wilson and Phillip Walker all in the same year. Phillip (Walker) just passed away recently. I stopped working with Phillip in the early 90’s because I was starting to tour. Smokey Wilson, I worked with him until the early 90’s too. Smokey’s still alive. He’s had a couple of strokes, but he’s still alive.”

Music has taken Ray Bailey all over the world and he’s added his hot guitar licks to a variety of extraordinary bands and worked with amazing musicians including a bunch of well respected organ players like Jimmy Caravan, who also encouraged Ray Bailey to sing; Jimmy McGriff, Johnny “Hammond” Smith, and Richard Groove Holmes. I asked him about that time in his life when he was performing with organists.

“I’m working on a organ trio album right now. I was at rehearsal today. We’re actually getting ready to cut an album. I’ve been a big organ trio fan. The first time I played with one, I worked with a guy named Johnny Pope around 1969. We played out here in Compton at a place that used to be a bowling alley and was right next door to Dooto’s Music Center. We were there playing standard trio stuff, a lot of Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, that kind of stuff and this guy taught me a lot of repertoire. He started giving me a lot of records to listen to, because I was mostly playing blues then. Consequently, I started playing more jazz stuff. He turned me on to (organist) Larry Young and (guitarist) Grant Green. I worked with Jimmy Caravan for years. Whenever I was in Los Angeles, he was my main gig until he started to get sick. He worked around all of the black clubs, but he also worked a lot in Palm Springs and Palm Desert and he introduced me to some other stuff that I wasn’t aware of down in Orange County and San Diego areas. Because I was mostly working metro LA or else I was out of town.”

The new album will be Bailey’s fourth solo release. He attracted widespread attention with his first album entitled, “Satan’s Horn” back in the early ninety’s. I asked him how that came about.

“Actually, the whole thing was recorded in nine hours. The studio time and all of the production costs was just three hundred bucks. They paid the musicians and me after they got a deal. The original guy, Crosby Tyler, who put up the money, he got a deal with Zoo and then he was able to pay everybody. We weren’t able to spend a whole lot of time with it because, when I say nine hours, the actual recording time was probably four hours. And then, the five hours that was left over was for whatever mix they could do. We cut nine, ten tunes. Everybody had gigs to go to. The bass player, Jeff Littleton, was playing with Nancy Wilson that night. I’ve known Jeff since before he learned to play the upright. Me and Jeff go back to when we were playing Funk bands in Compton. He was actually doing very well then and working with everybody. He said sure man. I’ll come over and do anything. So he came and the organ player was playing with Jimmy Vaughan, who is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother. I guess, at the time, he had a band called “The Fabulous Thunderbirds” and they were playing at the Hollywood Bowl that night. So we had worked at the Ebony Showcase Theater and we’d been friends and done all kind of little gigs together. So he said, yeah man, I’m available before I go do this thing at the ‘bowl’. So I was lucky to get him. Then Vi Redd’s son, Randy Goldberg, I’ve known since he was born. I was four years old when he was born and I remember holding him as a baby. He was the drummer. So we cut this thing real quick and then we bopped! He and I had the gig that night at the Pied Piper. Surprisingly, that album was released the first time in 1991. It was recorded in ’91 and released in ’91 on a limited label. It got picked up the first of 1992 by Zoo Records and they put it out worldwide in ’92. It was on Zoo BMG. I’ll tell you the truth. When I recorded that record, I was not hopeful. I was really embarrassed about that record. I didn’t give that record to anybody. (laughter) And the next thing I knew, it was getting airplay and I said, WHAT? I was shocked. I didn’t even have arrangements for all my original material. We did one cover. And all of the material I had written two weeks before the session.

“What was going on was, I wrote those lyrics and then I improvised the melodies and the rhythm arrangements right there on the spot. I told everybody what I wanted and we just did it.

“My next recording, ‘Resurrection,’ came out in 2009. It really was a resurrection because, in 1997 things started to get really complicated in my life. My mother, father and my grandmother all got sick at the same time. I was the only one who would step up and take care of them. So I stopped all of my stuff; everything I was doing, I just stopped. I wasn’t touring any more. I wasn’t playing gigs. The only spot where I was still able to play a little bit was Babe and Rickey’s Inn. That’s kind of where I kept my skills sharp. Other than that I was changing diapers and cooking, up until my parents died. I finally got some help in 2009 and my last parent passed away in 2011. During all of that time I was taking care of them, I began to dabble in drugs. I got a serious drug habit. I was a full blast crack addict. I finally went into rehab in 2008. I discovered that I didn’t need it. All the cravings and all of that was taken away from me. I got out of the drug program and came to Babe and Rickey’s with no guitar. All I had was the clothes on my back. I ran back into Johnathan Hodges, who was Laura’s partner. I was using her guitar that was hanging up on the wall to play. He said, I can’t believe Ray Bailey doesn’t have a guitar. So, he went down to The Guitar Center and bought me a $1500 Stratocaster and put up $15,000 for me to do a new album. We called it ‘Resurrection’. It actually did pretty well.

“My next CD was called ‘Cruisin’ for Bluesin’ and Johnathon put up the money for that also. He’s actually financing the project that I’m getting ready to record right now. He’s the executive producer.”

Ray Bailey expects his new recording project to be completed by spring of this year. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear it!

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