An Interview with drummer Bill Ray, his afire passion for the beat has done popular as musician & teacher

"With Blues, it was literally beaten out of the people who created it; expressing themselves in song was a way to calm their nerves from the hell they lived in at that time"

Bill Ray: Raise the waterline 

Bill Ray pretty much showed up on this plane of existence with sticks in his hands. Born into an hyperartistic and ubercreative family of photographers, musicians and scientists, it was no wonder that a 15 month old child would stumble upon his father's drums. At the age of 4 his path was clearly lit upon seeing the local drum guru (George Lawrence) perform a drum solo during a photo shoot at his parent's photography studio in Jackson, MS. Bill was quick to emulate what he saw and has been at it ever since. The passion set afire in his early years has taken him around the world as a drummer, teacher and author.

Drummer Bill Ray has spent years touring the world with notable musicians like the legendary Ike Turner and playing prestigious venues such as the famous Montreux Summit in Switzerland. His extensive discography includes Ike's 2007 Grammy-winning album Risin' with the Blues. Never satisfied with the status quo, musically or otherwise, Bill strives to be different in his approach to playing music. This difference comes through not only in his playing but in "Time, Space, & Rhythm," Bill's acclaimed drumming lesson book. A frequent player at Jazz and Blues festivals throughout the USA and Europe, Bill is as comfortable in front of a stadium full of fans as he is jamming with friends in jazz/funk/rock/blues/flamenco bands in a coffee shop or in a studio session. Also he has a musical project called The Odd Get Even that involves improvised drum tracks and emailing them to a musical partner-in-crime named Bill Cornish.

He has played with literally hundreds of local San Diego bands. And he is also involved in other facets of the music business including studio drumming, drum instruction/consultation, and promotions/web design for musicians. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. My father and mother were staff photographers at Malaco Records so people like King Floyd, Dorothy Moore, ZZ Hill, Mississippi Mass Choir and countless others would pass through their door. I was a young child back then and had no idea until later who they were and their contribution to the art form.

It was not until later on in my life that I realized the connection and influence that experience gave me, if only through osmosis. And as I've tumbled through life as it would seem, "The Blues" has made its presence known through many forms; past addictions/compulsions that get too far out of bounds, divorce, all those things that help forge a person into what they ultimately become.

In what age did you play your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?

My performing career began when I would set up signs in my front yard for passing neighbors to pay a quarter to come see me play a drum solo, that was when I was about 5 years old I suppose. As I got older and with as many musicians that filtered through my parents' shop, began jamming with them here and there.

My first "real gig" was with a band I joined when I got into Junior High School; I was 14. We played at a club in Jackson, MS, a bunch of kids in a bar. Back then the drinking age was still 18, and we all looked…well 18!  

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

For starters, I was pretty much self-taught with the exception of the guiding hand of "real musicians"; learning drums came somewhat naturally but learning to play music was something I had to settle into.

When I moved to California in 1989 it was quickly evident that I was going to have to step up my game because there were so many great players and the music I wanted to involve myself with (Jazz/Fusion) required me to develop more of an overall "concept" of hearing and interpreting music as a whole rather than just being a guy in the back striking things.

How do you describe Bill Ray sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Haha, this could get deep! My grandfather was a book salesman and we always had plenty of cool things to read around the house. There was a short book on "Correlations" and how to pretty much connect anything to anything… For instance, you can correlate "Dog" to "Leather" by way of the fact a dog leash can be made of leather. And it was with such mind games that allowed me to begin drawing parallels on a rhythmic basis.

That in turn opened up some rather unusual channels of thinking for me and pretty soon I began to "see" music as a visual rather than only hearing it. As time went by I discovered a name for this phenomenon and it is called "Synthenesia"; the study of how senses somehow cross paths in the neural pathways in our brain.

But overall my philosophy is to "raise the waterline" with any project I involve myself. To play solid and draw "thick lines" that are easy for others to sketch their parts within is the ultimate musical goal.

"Overall my philosophy is to "raise the waterline" with any project I involve myself"

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

When I was a little boy growing up in Mississippi there was a very old man named Moss who would come for Sunday dinner at my grandmother's house. He was the grandson of one of the last slaves in that area. My grandmother was raised in the old southern belle tradition believing it was wrong for a black man to enter the house. So when we would eat I would sit out on the back porch and talk to Moss.

Moss taught me to whittle, how to sharpen a knife, tie knots and all sorts of other cool things. We never really played any music together but the fact that I witnessed such a contrast between the "haves" and "have nots" at an early age primed me for my later opinions and view on the world. That was the first lesson.

The second lesson was playing on the "Chitlin' Circuit" all over the south when I was 16-19yrs old. The only little scrawny longhaired white kid for miles around but taken under the wing of some of the "real deals" in blues from Mississippi. King Edward, Big Daddy (500lbs of blues) were a couple of names I remember. And I spent a fair amount of time down at the now-closed Subway Club in Jackson, MS that was famous for its 12am-5am jam sessions and parties.

The third lesson was with Ike Turner, of course. That was "University"!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best moment was playing Montreux Jazz Festival with Ike.  The worst was when a guitarist I was working for at the time essentially let me know by way of announcing the band's next gig on stage; a date that I was to be away on and being told after the gig "this is your final show with us". Ouch! That invoked a lot of soul searching.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The most interesting period of my life would have to be right now! There's so much happening. I write and webmaster for not so modern drummer. Also I have a website development business oceansites that I can run from nearly anywhere. I've been doing stuff with Earl Thomas and the Kings of Rhythm (Ike's band) has an album coming out soon with Earl; we've recorded a bunch of Ike & Tina stuff and we are looking at some European festivals this year. There's studio work with various local entities, one of whom is a guy named Mike Watson who has written some music that is reminiscent of Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu Orchestra. It is very challenging stuff to play and we are slowly recording this album. Finally, I am raising my son who at 12 is very accomplished on the drums and his small blues trio is beginning to pick up some gigs here and there so I am the "Band Dad".

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Technology has certainly seen to it that putting music in someone's hands on the other side of the world is now an instantaneous act rather than the old "stick it in the mail and wait for an answer". Everything is so visceral now. Attention spans have gotten shorter. Reality TV shows with the glitz and glamour they promote on the surface make it hard for the average band to live up to the "show model" set in peoples minds. It's the same thing with pornography in that somewhere in the mind there is a desensitization that is occurring and it takes more effort to grab someone's attention and hold it for the duration of what a good show should put on. It is truly the "140 character limit attention span". People "get" tweets. They want the "TL;DR" (Too Long; Didn't  Read).

And no great musician will ever rely upon a technological crutch. Leave the auto tune alone, we don't need any of that up in here because it's not real. But the reality is that people are so used to hearing the auto tune it's become almost expected. And if a band does not bring that to the stage they are considered lacking in some respect.

It's like the "plastic revolution". In the 1950's the trend was to create everything from plastic and then everything was all shiny and covered in a film. That's what most of nowadays music sounds like to me, like it has some sort of a shiny film over it.

Ike once told us before we were to walk out on a stage in front of 80,000 people "We're gonna play this music just like we do in the living room….don't worry about all them out there…we will play for US, and they will love it". And that's what we did. Considering the lineup, it was a miracle!

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

First off, if you're going to consider this for the money, don't do it. Do it for the love of the craft. There are no entitlements to this. You do it for one reason and that is because you must. I don't play drums because I have to make money; I play drums because I love to play drums. But then again, I must make money and the opportunity is there to play drums and get paid so I must in order to make money. It's a siphon effect. And it is rare.

Also, (Talking to the musicians now…) You already play a lot I'm sure, so do yourself a favor and spend a third of the time you would be practicing attending to business, learning how to run a business, yes you must learn BUSINESS and Management. Those two things are the ugly part of the business. Every beautiful thing has a front and back, a face and an ass. Learn to love both.

"My one wish for the blues is that someone keep a "stick in the ground" at all times"

Are there any memories from George Lawrence and Bill Magee, which you’d like to share with us?

George Lawrence - Well…the earliest is when I was 4 years old and his band was in my father's photography studio. He had set up his drums and I played around on them, then he came in and played a drum solo. That was when I was pretty much sold on the idea to play drums as my life pursuit.

Bill Magee - Salt of the earth individual. You'll find no better a man than he! I was going through a really rough time of my life, a divorce and he gave me gainful employment that helped me get across that challenge.

Why did you think that Ike Turner’s music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I believe the music was timeless in the fact that a large number of Ike & Tina numbers were actually "covers" of other successful songs. Ike would hear the song and do it his way. It was a great thing for both the original artist and Ike & Tina, because of the attention it brought to everyone.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Ike Turner, which memory from him makes you smile?

Ike was a very caring individual that was covered in a spiny shell. He was a little bit abrasive here and there, especially when it came to music. He wanted things to be right the first time… "Yesterday!" as he would say. When I first met Ike it was at his home in San Marcos, CA. I went in and set up my drums, and we began to play. When I play my left leg tends to shake as that is how I keep time. Ike saw that and made a huge deal over it; by the end of the rehearsal he offered me the gig. Over the next few months he called me "The drummer of my soul". That was deep! And we connected on a much deeper level. When Ike was upset I felt it like a tornado in my head. We were truly connected and when we were on stage it was virtually seamless. Watching the videos of our gigs you can feel the connectivity between us.

There were so many funny stories. I once toured all over Europe and insisted upon going barefoot whenever possible and it drove him absolutely insane! He called me "The hippie". I also had this hacky-sack (a small beanbag game that is played with the feet) and it is very addictive! Ike would threaten to fine me $50 every time he saw me playing with "that little ball" in an airport waiting lounge. I've always been young at heart and carried a large amount of pent-up energy and it was this spirit that I believe Ike used to really enjoy, even though it kinda drove him crazy.

After Ike's death we (The Kings of Rhythm) were recording Ernest Lane's album "72 Miles From Memphis" up in Santa Monica, CA at a large home studio. We were doing Erskine Hawkins' "After Hours" and There's a part where Mack Johnson (trumpet) says "Turn out all the lights and call the law"… We were in the performance area, the horns were in the other end of the house, the light switch was not accessible to anyone because it was out in our area, no one was near it yet the lights dimmed during that song! It was strange indeed.

                              "When Ike was upset I felt it like a tornado in my head"

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from Ike Turner? What is the best advice ever gave you?

The feeling I miss is just playing with Ike. But every time I play it's as if he is there with me, yelling in my ear "Next time you don't play that like you know it needs to be…Yo' paycheck gonna be so small you need a magnifying' glass and some tweezers to find it"… Really, Ike never left me. He's always there.

Musicians will have days where you play good, and days where you play GREAT. With Ike, what was acceptable started at the GREAT and went upwards from there. You did NOT have the average night on his stage. I played gigs with food poisoning and had to keep a bucket next to me in case it was needed so there were no "bad nights". You had great nights and incredible nights. And the bar would always be rising.

The best advice Ike ever gave me was "Stay Strong". And that is one of those things one has to work at a little bit every day.

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, JAZZ, SOUL, FUNK, and ROCK feeling?

One of my musical heroes, Col. Bruce Hampton has a philosophy "We play only one song but in many different ways". To me that equates to this: Whatever it is that one is playing, it has to come from the same place, the same spirit. As an instrumentalist who plays all of the above styles regularly, it's all about color. A Jazz passage will, to my mind's eye resemble a bluish tinge or even purplish or closer to reddish brown hue if it's Latin Jazz. Speaking of Latin, that is definitely red! Caribbean Soca and Calypso I see as yellows, and so on.

But Rock & Roll tends to show up as black, which is a void that must be filled. So Rock & Roll could be construed as an empty vessel that is waiting for some filler of any of the above styles. It all equates back onto itself so for me there's no distinct difference between playing a Rock tune Vs a Blues or even a Country Ballad… it's all about what attitude and intent is placed behind the notes and even more important, on the notes that are NOT being played. It's the silence that makes everything all stand on its own and that is what will separate a mere "word" from an actual "feeling".

                                     Earl Thomas & The Kings of Rhythm with Bill Ray

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Best Jam? There's been so many of them. I think the most recent one that blew my mind was in 2010 on tour with Earl Thomas & The Kings of Rhythm when we were in Italy. There was a jam session on the side of a castle; in 2002 we had a jam at Montreux that brought about a huge crowd of people that saw us just getting loose… Even the jam I had last week down at the local bar, it's always fun to just play and have a good time. That's why we play!

Montreux was the most memorable gig, "The Top of the Mountain" it would seem. That gig washed away every bad experience I'd ever had in music. It cleansed me. Also the week at Ronnie Scott's was a great hang. Since then I've had pretty awesome gigs, but those two experiences are pretty hard to beat.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

My one wish for the blues is that someone keep a "stick in the ground" at all times. Blues came out of the ground, and no matter where trends and fads and auto tune and drum machines and electronica carries our ears, there needs to be someone singing about their troubles with the most base of instruments, their voice and maybe an old guitar. If they sing it soulful enough and long enough, eventually people will stop and take note.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

When I am behind my instrument I become no one, doing nothing, going nowhere. I tend to evaporate and whatever the music wants me to do, I'm there to do that. I don't tend to interact too much with the audience at that point.

Socializing after the gig is different! I love to talk to people, meet folks, and share in their experiences. The best compliment I can receive after the gig is "the band sounded amazing" because it speaks to us as a whole. If for some reason I am doing some sort of solo drum clinic the "best" compliment is simply the conversation afterward and those who stick around to share and talk, that's what I appreciate most.

All the adoration is wonderful and I certainly appreciate it. When I met Sir Paul McCartney in London at one of Ike Turner's performances it was life changing in that he was so humble. You'd never meet a sweeter, kinder person than Paul McCartney. He taught me "how to be" in that brief moment of sharing energy.

Make an account of the case South and Music. What's the legacy of South to music?

Well I grew up in Mississippi so I am biased. The South…the Great State of Mississippi alone….we have given the world not only Blues but we also put forth Rock & Roll music. Ike Turner and Elvis are both from Mississippi; one is the "King of Rock & Roll" and the other "The Father of Rock & Roll".

New Orleans brought us Jazz music…And all of that music came out of the oppression and subjugation of others. It was born out of duress and pain so the soul is there.  (Photo: Bill & Gregg Allman)

While Mozart and Chopin's work is forever engrained into the annals of music history…the most tragedy during their "writing years" was probably that of a toothache. With Blues, it was literally beaten out of the people who created it; expressing themselves in song was a way to calm their nerves from the hell they lived in at that time

.

Why the South is connected to the Blues?

South …equal Blues

What characterizes the "Blues Beat"?

Well…the "Blues Beat" is best characterized in triplets which lends itself to a swagger; Say "trip-a-let trip-a-let trip-a-let" over and over again. Now take out "a" to where it's "Trip - - Let Trip - - Let Trip - -Let" Like a horse clopping along, it's got swagger. Triplets played slower have a more "rolling" motion, as if they were circles.

You see, "Straight" 8th notes could be characterized by the sound of an old steam train "Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch". Charles Connor, the drummer for Little Richard is a man I interviewed for Not So Modern Drummer and he talked at great length about Little Richard taking him to the train station and telling him "I want my music to have a beat like that".

At that time, Rock & roll was primarily swing-based (Rock Around The Clock) and when Little Richard came out the 8th notes had that straight up and down chug to them. And that's how Rock & Roll beats came to be, even though you didn't ask!

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your music DREAM? Happiness is……

What do I do in my free time? What's free time? Haha! I try to live a life that is not measured in "time" but in "what can I do today?" There's so much more to my life than swinging sticks at things. I try to make every minute count. I love to learn! Travel is great and the music thing affords me that luxury.

As for my musical dreams? I have a project called billys beats. The drum tracks are from studio sessions usually with other people and they are the warm-ups/cool-downs I do when playing tracks.

The tracks are free for anyone to use and if there's any sort of commercial use, I just require a donation on my website but I am currently making the billysbeats.com site a "one stop shop" for all my music and payment!

I would dream to put together a band and play some of the better selections from that endeavor. Especially The Odd Get Even Stuff. 

Happiness is seeing others smile; happiness is inspiring people to do what they love. I have been very fortunate and if my words can encourage anyone to find their "thing" in life, that makes me all the happier. 

Bill Ray Drums - Web Home

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