Brian Ray, Lead Guitarist of Paul McCartney’s Band, Has His Own Story To Tell (INTERVIEW)

Paul McCartney performs during the Lollapalooza 2015 at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois.

In a world where the term pop music leaves a bad taste in your mouth, if you look back at the early sixties, the Beatles was considered pop music and it was a good thing. It harkens up happy melodies with lyrics usually about girls and hot rod cars and puppy love and hanging out with your friends. It made you feel good.

You are less likely to find tunes reminiscent of these catchy foot-tappers in today’s so-called pop music world but every once in a while a musician will spring one on us. And that is what Brian Ray has done with his frisky new single “Here For You,” which is backed by a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” In the same vein as the music he records with his band the Bayonets, Ray brings his natural born California sunshine melodies alive and makes no apologies for wanting to make the world a happier place, even when singing about how it’s a time of turmoil.

Best known for playing guitar with Paul McCartney for the last fifteen years, and for Etta James before that, Ray does like to venture away from his regular gig by writing, recording and producing music for himself and others. He released his first solo album, Mondo Magneto, in 2006, but he seems to like going the singles route, at least for now.

Recording the classic “Cinnamon Girl” was something very personal to Ray. “I was going to a boarding school in the seventh grade in Ojai, California, and I remember hearing ‘Cinnamon Girl’ for the very first time and I was just knocked out by it,” Ray explained last month when “Here For You” made its premiere. “It was gritty and tough but it had grace and beauty in the melody and the lyric along with an almost haunting relentless energy to it.” He found out later that it was written by Young about his older sister Jean, who had a folk duo with her husband and was playing clubs in LA at the time. For his version, Ray added in some of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” to give it a cool kick. “I just started playing a revved up, crazy version,” and it stuck.

For Ray, music has always been a great love in his life. Being able to spend his younger years with someone as talented and feisty as Etta James and then jumping into a band with one of the most beloved singers of our lifetime has been a blessing beyond words. “Not too bad at all,” Ray said with a laugh during our interview last week while he was enjoying some time off the road. Glide got the lowdown on Ray’s fun, adventurous and satisfying rock & roll ride while the guitarist was actually rolling down the highway in sunny California.

You get to hang out with one of the most respected singers and songwriters in the world but what it’s like to hang out with you?

(laughs) Well, I like to think of myself as a devil-may-care, fun kind of guy and I have a pretty nice and simple life when I’m not on the road playing a rock star.

What’s more fun?

(laughs) Well, I think playing a rock star is awfully fun. I’ve been doing that for a long time, and I say that with tongue-in-cheek.

You certainly have been doing this a very long time, since you were a kid

Yeah, that’s right, since I was just a little kid. I got my start right out of high school and my first gig was with Bobby Boris Pickett & the Crypt Kicker Five doing the “Monster Mash.” We were playing like Six Flags Over Texas and amusement parks and stuff and we had a really fun act and we did our own make-up. One day we were playing a fundraiser for a man named Phil Kaufman, who was going through a little legal trouble and it’s a long story but it involves Gram Parsons. Some of your readers would know about it. Anyway, Phil Kaufman, that day at his fundraiser, became like my new best friend and long story short, he took me to see Etta James live one night not long after that and that led to me going to an Etta James rehearsal one day and that led to Etta James saying, “I like that little white kid,” and I ended up playing a show with her the next night in Long Beach and that turned into fourteen years.

Paul McCartney performs during the Lollapalooza 2015 at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois.

How old were you at that time?

I was eighteen when I was with Bobby Boris Pickett and nineteen when I started playing with Etta James.

That is luck, talent and luck

That is luck, it really is and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge a bit of luck in their big breaks in this life is leaving a big part of the story out.

When did you know that you wanted to be more than just a kid sitting in his bedroom playing guitar all day?

To be honest with you, I was lucky enough to have a half-sister named Jean Ray, no longer with us, who was fifteen years my elder and who was in love with this rock & roll. She turned me on to Elvis and the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. She really turned me on to what became my obsession, rock & roll. If not for her, I’m sure I would have found it anyway. I was in southern California and old enough to have been raised at that time in the fifties so I was exposed to all of that great music. When the Beatles came out, that’s when I thought, okay, young guys together with other young guys in a band, it can be done and you can do it. And somehow I did it.

Do you prefer the band environment over being just Brian Ray on a stage?

First of all, I’m so fortunate to be a part of Paul McCartney’s band now for fifteen years and it’s the most lovely group of guys and the most talented musicians playing inarguably the best music of the later twentieth century. So that goes a long way to satisfying me. I’m also fortunate enough to still be excited about writing and recording and producing new music. I have a very full musical plate where I get to rock out and play Paul McCartney, Wings and Beatles songs, with Paul, and then turn around and promote my own stuff and record and write my own stuff. It’s a pretty fun time, to be honest.

When did you first start writing songs on your own?

I really started in about 1966. I was writing sort of my own little protest folk songs. I was taking a cue from my sister and her husband who were in a folk rock duo back then named Jim & Jean. I would go to their shows at all the clubs in southern California and beyond and witness this incredible live music and just lap it up, you know. In that environment and those backstage areas and the dressing rooms and watching the show, I bought the whole thing hook, line and sinker.

What were you protesting at such a young age?

(laughs) Whatever I could! At that point it was the Civil Rights era and the early Vietnam era and I was cognizant to the fact that we had just lost an enigmatic, young, vibrant leader in John F. Kennedy and we were about to lose some more of them, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and it was very much in vogue then to be political, to be plugged in and to be a part of this newer generation. It was really an outpouring of the rock & roll generation.

You have a lot of pop melody leanings in your music. When did that come about, because if you’re protesting you’re not exactly singing happy-go-lucky songs?

That’s true, you don’t hear a lot of pop melodies in folk music. But I was influenced by everything that was on the radio at the time and everything that was selling. I got a transistor radio in 1961 for Christmas and even before that transistor radio I was into the radio and listening to KHJ and K-EARTH and all of the stations at the time, and most importantly a pirate radio station coming out of Tijuana, Mexico, with the call letters XERB and that was Wolfman Jack’s first, as far as I know, his first deejay gig. For some reason I just fell in love with early rock & roll, the early instrumental rock & roll like Duane Eddy and Link Wray and all those guys, and then the surf music that followed that and that was very melodic, more based on sort of, I don’t know, more like barbershop quartets. That was more like melodic and harmonic content. Then I was into Motown, then I was into the folk music and then I was into the Beatles. So there was just nothing I didn’t love and I feel like I just absorbed it all.

You have a new song out. Where did “Here For You” come from?

Where does any of this stuff come from! (laughs) A song can start with a guitar lick or a drum beat or a title or a melody or a lyric. It can come from any number of places and in that particular case, the song “Here For You” came from that opening guitar lick, which is sort of evocative of a motif that was very popular in the mid and early sixties that was used in all sorts of records. You’ll hear that rhythmic motif a lot. So that is where that song started, with just a guitar lick. When I started to sing over it while I was playing the guitar lick, I started singing sort of fantastical, almost superhero, kind of imagery, like comic book imagery started to come to me. Then I started to think of my two wonderful young nephews, James and John, ages five and seven, and I thought, I want to write a song for them to impart a little bit of hope and love and excitement for music and excitement for life as they are in the first round of their wonderful little voyage. And that’s where the inspiration came from.

The other side, which will be released soon, is already available as part of this single on iTunes or wherever digital music is sold, and is “Cinnamon Girl.” It’s my cover of a great Neil Young classic and there’s also a little bit of “Mr Soul” by Buffalo Springfield, also written by Neil Young.

Why that one in particular to cover?

The “Cinnamon Girl” choice was really because I felt like it and I think it’s such a great classic guitar riff and a great sort of almost mystical, melodic melody and sort of these obtuse lyrics. When I first heard that song as a kid I thought, oh my God, this is the coolest rock riff I’ve ever heard in my life! It also sounded kind of garage-y, like he’d cut it in the garage of his house or something. I always imagine the place that a song is written, like it doesn’t just have music content, it has a space and a place and a time for me. So I had all of these sort of images about “Cinnamon Girl.” Later I found out that “Cinnamon Girl” was written by Neil Young for my sister Jean Ray. They had become very close in the late sixties and he wrote that song, as well as a couple others from the same album, for her and it became a part of my live solo and Bayonets performances for a while there and I thought it would be fun to do a cover version of it. So I did.

Is this the way to go, to release singles and not a full album or EP?

I love this idea. I love doing a double-sided single every once in a while and then maybe we’ll compile it with a couple of extra songs and put out an LP or EP later on.

Of all the songs that you have written, to you, what has been your most powerful?

Oh that’s a great question. I would say maybe on the Bayonets album there is a song called “Vagabond Soul” and it was sort of influenced by the Memphis kind of sound or a Stax/Volt kind of sound. “Vagabond Soul” is really a little autobiographical and a little bit revealing and it’s got horns in it and it’s got Steven Tyler doing a guest vocal with me and a great harmonica solo at the end and it talks about this life that I chose at a very early age. There’s one on my first album, Mondo Magneto, called “Vinyl” that is about a guy who gets his vinyl record collection stolen and then he’s now very, very lost and very despondent as a result and we the listener realize that it was about more than just the LPs, it was about his escape and his coping mechanism in this world that he built around the music he loves.

Do you remember the first time you played one of your compositions in a concert situation?

Oh my God, that’s a great question. It was back in my high school band. We wrote and played our own stuff. The first song I really remember playing was called “Officer” and I was a kid in seventh grade talking about the cops, obviously (laughs). Then in about the tenth grade I wrote a song called “You Gave Me The Power” and to this day I cannot tell you what the lyrics mean, because it was all about how the words sounded and not so much about what the words meant. I ran into one of my high school bandmates who was having a laugh riot about the lyrics to that song. It hurt my feelings a little bit (laughs) but actually he was so right. I had forgotten all about it and it made literally no sense at all.

So you’re going to record it then, right

(laughs) No but you know, these days, does it really have to make sense? I don’t know. There was a time in the seventies and eighties where it was very much a songwriters/publishers world where every song had to be airtight lyrically and melodically. Now, I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

Do you have a preference about what you write songs about – reality versus fantasy?

I’m into equal measure. To be honest with you, I’m not so into self-confessional, sort of introspective writing anymore. I’m more about, in the case of the Bayonets, my band with my wonderful partner Oliver Leiber, the Bayonets write sort of fun, bodacious, braggadocio and sort of catchy pop lyrics that have nothing to do with an emotional life. It’s about sex and fun and all that good stuff. And then some of my solo stuff, like in the case of my new single “Here For You,” is fantasy lyrics but written for a purpose in service to offering some hope to a couple of young lives.

Are you going to be doing anything with the Bayonets anytime soon?

Yeah, we sure are. We’ve got a couple things loaded up and ready to go and you’ll just have to stay tuned to my website, I’m really excited about it.

When you first started playing guitar, what was the hardest thing to get the hang of?

I think the very first thing that’s hard to get the hang of is you’ll learn those five chords, the gathering of notes that make up what we call a chord, and you grab those with your left hand on the neck and then you strum it with the right hand. Hopefully you strum it (laughs). Hopefully you don’t miss the strings. The first song I learned to play was a song that we all know and love called “Gloria” by the band Them. It’s really three chords and a dream, that’s all it is. I loved that song and it felt like it was something that I could pull off, something that I could do. The big challenge was playing those three chords in time without tripping over your own hand and doing it over and over again and your fingers are so sore and your hand is aching and you just keep doing it until it sounds effortless. That was a first big milestone in playing guitar, playing those three chords over and over again till it sounded convincing.

What guitar were you learning that on?

I was playing that on a $5 nylon string guitar that was given to me by my sister Jean that she bought on the border in Tijuana. My brother, mind you, did have a Gibson LG-1 that was given to him by my parents and he abandoned the guitar very quickly after about two weeks of studying it. Maybe it’s because they gave him a right-handed guitar and he’s a left-handed man but he came home from his lessons, taught me what he learned and I was off and running. But that guitar still belonged to him technically. He gave it to my sister so I got bypassed on the Gibson and was very happy when I got my own little guitar, even if it was a $5 guitar from Tijuana.

What is your #1 guitar today?

It was, has been, always will be my 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that I bought when I was eighteen years old.

Was it expensive then?

It was for me. It was $850 and I was outraged. I learned that the guy who sold it to me got it for $550. Nowadays, that guitar is quite an investment. It’s worth, you know, a house. But I bought it because I loved it.

Did you have to get an amp as well or did you already have one?

I did have to buy an amp soon after that too, yep. I think my first amp might have been maybe an Ampeg Gemini.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Wow, I think it was probably at the time that I was going to those clubs with Jim & Jean and I met Albert King, the great blues guitarist, and I was eleven years old and he was a mountain of a man. In my mind, and in my estimation, he was an even bigger mountain of a man and he leaned forward to shake my little hand and he had this giant ham hock  of a hand and my hand disappeared in his great big hand and I was just so taken. Then I guess soon after that I met Taj Mahal, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, all around the Ash Grove, the club in Los Angeles that is now the Improv. Those are some of the first big stars I met.

Did you really know who Albert King was at the time?

Oh yes (laughs). I don’t know why but yes, at eleven years old I was aware of him. I think I may have met him when I was more like fifteen years old when I was already starting to play a little bit with Jean in the clubs. I’m not clear on the year I met him. But I’m a giant, giant fan of his.

What is the most important thing Etta James ever said to you?

I think that one of my favorite things that Etta ever said to me was, well, there’re two things. The first was, “Brian, you got to call the warrior within you. You’ve got to call up the warriors within you.” She was very intense, and also very warm and could be very laid back as well, but in regards to her music she was very, very intense and she had great taste and great opinions. She loved Jeff Beck, she loved the Stones, she loved Mick Taylor. She had great taste in guitar players. The other thing that she said was, “Brian, you shouldn’t be playing in the opening acts before I come on. You’re my guitar player. You should be with me. Don’t play no Top 40 gigs that’s beneath me. You’re supposed to know why you are the way you are but you’re supposed to be who you are. Be Brian Ray.” It was very sweet.

You were opening for her or did she mean you just playing other gigs outside of her band?

I think I ended up onstage in a gig opening for her one night and it was a fluke, it was unusual. I was being asked to guest in a band that opened for her and she wasn’t into it. She wanted to save me for her band.

That shows how much she thought of you

It does. I don’t think about that often but I didn’t take it as flattery then of course but now I take that as a little bit of a, I guess you would say, a little bit of a medal or a feather in my cap that she would say that. It showed she cared.

What’s the funniest thing Paul McCartney has ever done to you onstage?

(laughs) One time a woman threw her bra at Paul and he grabbed it off the stage without missing a beat and tossed it at my face. That might have been the funniest thing he has ever done. But he’s always full of subtle pranks.

Were you nervous that first time you played with him?

Fortunately, I had done so many shows and had been playing so much live in my own life that I found some way to cope with my nerves that night. And yes, I was very nervous. But I found some way to cope and one of the ways I coped was I basically didn’t make any eye contact with him (laughs). I tried to not even acknowledge the fact that it was Paul McCartney. It was enough to just get through the night with all of this music that we rehearsed, like forty songs.

Do you remember where that show was?

Yeah, that was at the arena in Oakland, California

Was the crowd good to you?

Oh my God, yeah. I mean, they hadn’t seen Paul live in many, many years and he’s so delightful to a crowd and so lovely. He’s a warm sort of inviting guy, as you may have noticed if you’ve seen him live. He’s just a nice, relaxed guy who’s so comfortable in his own shoes. And they were so happy to see him, it was a tidal wave of love coming at us.

If you’re talking about me personally, yeah, there were a few shows where you didn’t feel like they cared about you at all. I remember looking over my left shoulder at one show and I’m smiling at the audience and receiving smiles back and I’m looking at the audience at some arena somewhere and some woman points to me and gestures for me to get out of the way so she could see Paul! (laughs). It was so funny. These kinds of things are hilarious but you know what, you can understand it.

Paul McCartney performs during the Lollapalooza 2015 at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois.

When was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment in your career?

There’s so many of them but my very first one was being onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1975. I had just turned twenty and I was with Etta James on both of our first trips to Europe ever. I was the only one traveling with Etta and her husband at the time, Sam Dennis, and the guy who put on the Montreux Jazz Festival for fifty of it’s years was a really kind and sweet and colorful man named Claude Nobs. Claude had arranged for a sort of superstar band to be Etta’s band for this engagement and he had chosen, and I didn’t know this until I landed, he had chosen, among others, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin on bass. So there I was onstage, just turned twenty years old, and John Paul Jones is standing behind me and adjusting the tremolo on my amp for one of the intros I’m playing for Etta James and then coming in with this great bass playing.

At that time, all of Led Zeppelin was in Montreux, Switzerland, taking a break from their tour. We had two rehearsals in one day for the Montreux Jazz Festival and at the end of that first rehearsal we were going to take a dinner break and then come back and rehearse that night at about 10:00. At the end of the first rehearsal in walks Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and Bonzo, John Bonham, and I bonded with Jimmy Page immediately, started playing my old Les Paul I told you about, and they all invited me to go out to dinner up in the Swiss Alps. And it was just a magical, magical moment. It was Led Zeppelin, a road manager, a couple of women and I and that’s it (laughs). We came back to do a second rehearsal and man, was I in a good mood then (laughs). I was over the moon.

So what are your plans for the rest of the year?

Well, I have been working very hard at writing and recording and producing, co-producing, some new singles, as I talked about for me and also for the Bayonets. So you’re going to get a new single every couple of months from me and also from the Bayonets and you’re also going to probably see some announcements from Paul McCartney in the not-too-distant future although I cannot guarantee that. I’m going to Japan first, though, in about five weeks from now, with Paul.


Live photographs by Amy Harris


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