An Interview with Guitarist & Harpman Richard Ray Farrell: I've heard guys call the blues the "truth."

"Keep an open mind. Don't expect to learn the blues from Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray - dig deeper!"

Richard Ray Farrell: I Sing The Blues Eclectic

Born in Niagara Falls, New York in 1956, Richard Ray left his hometown only two weeks after graduating from high school and backpacked his way through Europe, not knowing at the time that music would be his destiny. Richard Ray started as a street musician or “busker” in Paris, France in 1975. Totally fascinated with the music of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and other legendary blues players, Richard played for hours on end in the halls and tunnels of the Parisian “Metro” subway, scraping out a living as a musician, literally a "po' boy long way from home.”

In 1978, Richard got an offer to front a blues-rock band in Spain. These were hard times for Richard. He was making even less money than when he was playing on the street and sometimes was "down to his last shirt and pair of jeans." All this time, Richard had been living as a "tourist" and was unable to take a normal job, having no official working papers.

Richard lived the life of a true gypsy for years, and actually did live with a Gypsy family for six months in Spain in the late 1970's. In 1987, Richard opened for Joe Cocker at the Backnang Open Air Festival. He was still playing on the streets, as the blues band just didn't make enough money to live on. But things were starting to pick up.

Richard formed his first trio, the Richard Ray Farrell Band, in 1989. Living in Germany and gradually making a name for himself, Richard started touring in Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland and Belgium with a former sideman to R.L. Burnside, Jon Morris Nerenberg. It was through Jon that Richard started meeting older bluesmen from the American south and accompanying them on tours throughout Europe. Tours with Lazy Lester, Big Jack Johnson, Big Boy Henry, Louisiana Red, Frank Frost and R.L. Burnside followed. In 1992, Richard drew the attention of German record producer Alf List. Richard put out his first CD produced by List, Live in Germany later that year.

In 1993, Richard and Jon formed the band "Street Talk". Richard got a phone call from Jimmy Carl Black, legendary drummer with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Jimmy had recently moved to the area and was looking for a blues guitarist to form a band. Richard and Jimmy appreciated each other's talents immediately, and soon formed the FARRELL & BLACK band. The group proved to be very successful and went on to record two CD's, Cataract Jump in 1996 and Black Limousine in 1999. Richard also put out an impressive solo acoustic CD in 1998 entitled Street Songs, Jazzy Tunes & Down Home Blues.

In an extreme turn of events, Richard Ray decided to move back to the United States in 2001 and relocate to the Philadelphia area.  In 2003 he recorded his first CD, Bohemian Life. It was recorded with the help of an all-star lineup of musicians, including a guest appearance by harmonica virtuoso Jerry Portnoy. In June 2005 Richard Ray released a second CD, Acoustic Roots. This CD features classic ragtime and delta blues covers from the 20’s and 30’s. In October 2006 Richard, together with Steve Guyger, released Down Home Old School Country Blues. Richard Ray can be found playing with his band, solo, or with well known musicians living the tri-state area, including Steve Guyger and Steve Gomes. His discography inclusive the albums: Stuck on the Blues (2007), Camino de Sanlucar (2009), and the new I Sing The Blues Eclectic (2011)

Interview by Michael Limnios

Richard , when was your first desire to get involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

I bought my first Jimi Hendrix LP when I was 12 years old. I have 2 older brothers and an older sister. One brother is a painter and sculptor, the other brother played guitar and banjo and my sister sang in her first band when she was 16 years old. The band was called the "Radicals." I'm talkin' the '60's. My brother Robert "Snake" Farrell went to the Woodstock Festival in '69 - I was 13 years old. My mother also played piano and sang in the church choir. I loved music but didn't play at the time.

We always had good lp's around the house and of course everyone loved the Beatles and the Stones back then. My older brother was into Bluegrass and folk. My sister was into rock n roll , folk and Motown. My parents were into Big Band, Sinatra, etc. One of my sister's boyfriends left a bunch of great lp's at the house. Most of the records were lp's that most white people didn't listen to: Otis Redding, James Brown, BB King, Junior Walker, etc. I was listening to Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Band, Dylan just like most of my friends. I really discovered Blues and Jazz when I was about 15. My sister was singing in a Jug Band and her boyfriend was the guitarist in the band. He turned me on to Paul Butterfield, Muddy, BB King live at Cooke County, and jazz as well - Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Coltrane. I sucked it all up but I still didn't play an instrument. I heard him play Walkin' Blues on slide and it blew me away. I started spending all my money on records. Some of the first records I bought were Butterfield, Albert King Live Wire Blues Power, BB King Cooke County, Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers. I sold most of my rock records and only kept my favorites like Hendrix, Zappa, and the BAND and then I bought blues and jazz. A friend of mine thought I was crazy when I sold a Humble Pie LP and went out and bought some old blues LP. I would have to say that my first idols were definitely Butterfield and Muddy Waters.

What were the first songs you learned? 

Well, I started on the harmonica. The first song I ever sang in public was "Stop Breakin' Down". When I started playing the guitar I first started playing open tuning. I played slide and sang Muddy Waters tunes like 40 Days & 40 Nights, Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had, and of course I had a version of Dust My Broom.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Wow, this is hard to say because I've been so lucky to meet and play with such great musicians through the years. 
Every gig with RL Burnside was a learning experience just like all the gigs with Louisiana Red, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Lazy Lester and Big Boy Henry.

I played a Juke Joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 97 with Frank Frost on keys and Sam Carr on drums. I had to front the gig since Frank was already pretty sick by then. That was an amazing feeling to play for a mostly African-American audience in Mississippi. The people took me in like family. I had some memorable festival gigs with Frank, RL and Jimmy Carl Black over the years. I opened for greats like Albert King, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Jeff Healey in Pistoia blues, etc. Maybe the most incredible gig I ever did was last year with Steve Guyger. Steve and I have been playing together for over 10 years and we have a cd together that came out in 2006, "Down Home Old School Country Blues". We played up at Levon Helm's place near Woodstock, NY. We opened for Levon and his Band (12 musicians). The crowd went wild and we jammed with Levon and his band at the end of the night. We played "The Weight" and Larry Campbell nodded to me to take a solo - it was magical. Steve and I were floating for a week !!!!!

What characterize the sound of Richard Ray Farrell?

Well, I consider myself pretty much an all-around musician when it comes to the blues. I play harp, acoustic and electric guitar, sing, write songs, arrange, play slide, produce my own cd's. I like all types of music and my influences on the guitar are guys like: BB, Albert and Freddy King, T Bone Walker, Robert Nighthawk, Houndog Taylor, Elmore James, Hendrix, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Johnny Guitar Watson, Robert Cray, Muddy, Magic Sam, Lito Fernandez, John Lee Hooker, Snooks Eaglin, Guitar Slim, Ry Cooder and on the acoustic, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Ry Cooder (again), RL Burnside, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Taj Mahal, Norman Blake, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, and many more.

My harp playing started out based on Butterfield until I discovered Little Walte, Big Walter, Sonny Boy 1 and 2 , Junior Wells and all the greats. Nowadays I play more on the rack and acoustic. I rarely play with a bullet or astatic microphone. Stev Guyger is a real master with the microphone - IMO, one of the best.

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

Tough question. Believe me, I've had lots of bad moments and glimpses of good ones. Lots of women and whiskey, sex, drugs and rock n roll , etc. Music is like life - no matter how much money you make or don't make , there will always be ups and downs.

What does the BLUES mean to you, what does Blues offered you & why do you play the blues?

Blues is a reflection of life, a soothing thing when you're sad, a high power elixir when you're happy, a chance to preach without being a preacher, expression, a job (in my case) , a trade, it's so many things. I've heard guys call the blues the "truth."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Life experience, mistakes, maybe hard times, probably hard times, keeping an open mind, knowing how to learn and keep learning, being able to project emotions, many things, too many to list.

What mistake of music you want to correct? Give one wish for the BLUES

I don't really know. I'm thinking about the present and future because I can't change my past. Maybe there is one thing I would change - I would have started playing when I was 3 years old !

Give one wish for the BLUES

I wish more African-Americans would play and sing the blues & listen to the wonderful history of music that is out there for everyone to enjoy.

I also wish young musicians would bring back more "swing" in the blues and not call every song with a blues lick in it a "blues" when the truth is their actually playing a 60's rock rhythm. I also wish the blues had more respect in the music world, after all, blues is the mother of all American music genres.

Which historical music figures would I like to meet?

I wish I could meet them all - I'm pretty much a people person. Top of the list ? I don't know , maybe George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Camaron de la Isla, Dylan, Gwen Foster, Little Willie John, DeFord Bailey,  way too many.........

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your work with the "Street Talk"?

This was a great band . We had Dave Olson of the Robert Cray Band on drums and Joel Foy, one of the best electric blues guitarists anywhere.

We never played in the States. We toured only in Europe. We were supposed to cut a CD in Santa Monica, CA but the earthquake hit and trashed the studio. We never got the CD together and the band fell apart. Each member of the band lived in a different part of the world. We were kind of doomed from the beginning. Each member had a different concept of what we should sound like. The music was very good but the project was too difficult to pull off.

You have traveling all around the world. Is there any similarity between the US blues & the European local scenes?

The scene is almost dead as far as clubs go. There are less and less blues clubs but more and more blues bands, cd's, labels. I play almost anywhere. I have played biker weddings, normal weddings, private parties, restaurants, festivals, on the street, in train cars, on a boat in Holland, an a few boats actually, I played in Ceuta, a Spanish town in Africa, I even played at two funerals, the hardest gigs to play.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Some are autobiographical, some are pure fiction. I try to use humor at times. Some people that have inspired my songwriting are Duke Robillard, Dennis Walker, Willie Dixon, Tom Waits, Steve Gomes. Inspiration is sometimes hard to find. Now, when I get ready to do a new CD I sit down at a computer and write like a normal job. Just put in the hours and keep playing that guitar and eventually the melody and words and concept, arrangements will appear in my mind. Dennis Walker gave me some good advice a couple of years ago and this is the formula I now use. It works! I think my new cd, "I Sing The Blues Eclectic" is my best effort yet.

Are there any memories with FARRELL & BLACK band which you’d like to share with us, what kind of guy was Jimmy?

A great period of my life ! I wasn't doing too well with my marriage but musically and financially things were good. Jimmy called me on the phone one day. I was living in Germany at the time. I knew who he was. I had most of the Mothers of Invention lp's when I was a kid. They were always one of my favorite bands & I saw Zappa twice in the 70's. We were immediately good friends, the best of friends. Jimmy was a fantastic person, an open book, a hippie, a friend, family. I can't say enough about Jimmy. I cried like a baby when he died. I still think of him all the time.We did some great gigs together. We played in almost every country in Europe and we toured the States. I know his whole family, widow, ex-wife, kids, sister, grandkids, friends from his youth in El Paso. We had a great gig in Austin, Texas. He introduced me to Arthur Brown, Noel Redding. I have so many memories with Jimmy I could write a book just about my time with him. Once we were playing a gig in Germany and some guy comes up to us after the gig - "Hey Jimmy. did you know Jim Morrison?" . I immediately saw that Jim Morrison was this guy's idol. Jimmy's response: " Yeah I knew Morrison. He was an asshole." . This crushed the guy. I don't think that Jimmy even realized the fact that this guy was crazy about Morrison and the Doors. Jimmy was just like that - he couldn't hide anything. He was very honest. One time he told me: " Rick, I did my first acid trip with Mama Cass". He had done his fist tab of LSD in the 60's with Cass Elliot, of the Mamas and the Papas.

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

I don't know - playing with Jimmy, playing in Paris inthe 70's, living with Gypsies in Spain, my childhood ? I hope the most interesting part of my life is yet to come !

Why do you play GUITAR, what were your favorite guitars back then & where did you pick up your guitar style?

Well, at first I played harmonica. I picked up the guitar so I would be more independent but I fell in love with it. It became a challenge for me and I had this attitude that I had to be better than the next guy so I would be able to make a living. Actually, I considered myself more of a singer than anything else. I needed the guitar so I could sing. Now I can also make the guitar sing.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting as a street musician in Paris, France ?

There were lots of things. Meeting many musicians, all with a different take on music, folk musicians, South Americans, Frenchmen, a real eye-opener for me. I met Sugar Blue playing in the metro in 76. We all hung out at Le Mazet. Le Mazet was the buskers bar on Rue St. Andre des Arts in the Quartier Latin. Total freedom - no responsibilities, no wife, no kids. I had lots of fun. had to play for the cops a few times.

Any comments about your experiences in Spain?

I love Spain and always will. I played my 1st gig in Spain in 76. I have a million stories about Spain. I lived with a Gypsy family for 6 months. I've played all over the country. I love Flamenco. I am on Raimundo Amador's latest CD, "Medio Hombre, Medio Guitarra". Raimundo is on my CD, "Camino de Sanlucar".

Raimundo is a legend in Spain. He has BB King on two of his CD's. He plays electric and also plays traditional flamenco guitar. He a real rock star and celebrity in Spain. His whole family plays. His brother Rafael is an amazing guitarist and his brother Diego is an equally amazing pianist. I also have Pepe Bao on my Camino de Sanlucar CD. Pepe is the Spanish Jaco Pastorius, a genius bass player. I also saw Camaron de la Isla twice, the greatest Flamenco singer in history.

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

A little here a little there. I learned to be mellow and relaxed for RL Burnside.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

The blues will never die because it's not a fad, it's more a way of life.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?

Some of my favorite blues artists are all the old guys. Singers, greatest singers? Little willie John, early Bobby Blue Bland, T Bone, Lonnie Johnson......

The most important blues guitarists IMO - Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, T Bone, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, Son House, Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, BB King

The last couple of records I bought are : James Hunter, Johnny Pacheco, Fania All-Stars. I like many types of music.

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

Don't ever expect to be famous or make really big money. Think of music as a trade and your instrument as your tool of the trade. Don't ever doubt yourself. Be humble but don't cut yourself short. Don't get lazy. Keep an open mind. Don't expect to learn the blues from Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray - dig deeper !

Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?

Don't really have a favorite. I like obscure.

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

RL Burnside , a true gentleman and wonderful guy to hang out with. Frank Frost - not a bad bone in his body !

Joel Foy - killer guitarist and blues scholar. Steve Guyger - pure blues, no imitation ! Very knowledgeable - knows just about every harmonica player that ever recorded. Steve Gomes - IMO, best bass player on the planet, great songwriter, Jimmy Pritchard , a great friend and musician and roaddawg and blues survivor,

Louisiana Red -  has the goodness and heart of a child along with being the probably the most important blues musician historically who is still alive today.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with RL Burnside

RL or "Rule" (that's what his people called him) was so fun to be with. He told me many stories about learning from Fred McDowell and wanting to play and sing and how he finally got the courage to play in public. He started very late. He had a million jokes and a great sense of humor. He loved his family and took care of them. he was always very poor and never made any really good money until a few years before he passed away. RL had a charisma like almost nobody I have ever met. Muddy was like that. He walked out on the stage and you could feel it in the air. He didn't need to play fast and furious. RL was all about the groove, and to me, the groove is the most important thing in music. It's not what you can play but how you play it. He had a certain serenity about him , almost like a preacher. He had power, the invisible power in music that makes people applaud in the middle of a song and not even know why they are applauding.

And about Frank Frost

Frank Frost also had a million stories. How he knew Howlin' Wolf as a child or when he first started playing with Sonny Boy Williamson. How he played with Conway Twitty and also loved country music, just like Big Jack Johnson.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

Yes, bring me over and I'll play the blues for you. I know RL played there in the early 90's with Jon Morris. My plans for the future: I will keep playing and recording and touring for as long as I can. All the best to all the music fans in Greece and to everyone and I really hope to get to Greece someday soon. Thank you for your interest in my music.

Richard Ray Farrell's website


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