To call Brian Ray the “Luckiest Guy in Music” would be a grave injustice. Certainly, he has one of the greatest gigs, as guitarist and bassist in Paul McCartney’s killer band over the past decade. But Ray has worked his butt off for nearly 40 years, taking every gig within his grasp… and a few just beyond it. As a teenager, he parlayed a spot with Bobby “Boris” Pickett into a 14-year post as Etta James’ musical director. From there, he recorded and toured with artists such as Rita Coolidge, Peter Frampton and Nicolette Larson. He even wrote a massive hit, “One Heartbeat,” for Smokey Robinson. All because he’s one talented son of a gun who nearly always says “yes.” And fortunately for, as he rolled into Nashville for a massive McCartney concert, Brian said “yes” to sitting down and discussing his long and winding road to the top, playing alongside Sir Paul and his brand-new album, This Way Up.

With his beloved ’57 Goldtop w/Humbuckings, owned since he was 18.

Tell me about Wolfman Jack.

When I was six years old, I was given a transistor radio for Christmas. I had already fallen in love with rock and roll, because my older half-sister had turned me on to the early pioneers of rock and roll – Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Rick Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. So I was three years old and I was already in love with rock and roll and then, at about six years old, I got this transistor radio and discovered this crazy radio station blasting out of Tijuana with some obscene amount of wattage – an illegal radio station. It was a pirate radio station called XERB and the DJ who was playing original blues and R&B music was this character with this [imitates Wolfman] wild voice, talked like this! And his name was Wolfman. “This is the Wolfman. Wolfman Jack. Awooooooool!” He would have this wolf call with all this echo on it and he was playing this sort of dark, forbidding, wonderful R&B music, and I fell in love with the whole idea: Wolfman Jack’s mystique, the sound of this music that had so much fury and, at the same time, restraint and power and soul. It just took me, body and soul. I was sold like a vampire, I was just bitten. Obviously I wasn’t the only kid that was taken by this character and it really is like getting stamped by a vampire, you know. Rock and roll bit me on the neck and I’m forever a “Wolf” vampire!  

What led you to become a guitarist instead of, say, a drummer or piano player?

I fell in love with every instrument in a rock and roll band. I used to go down to the guitar stores in Santa Monica, California. I would take the #9 bus and go all day long, every Saturday, on a tour of, like, six different pawn shops and guitar stores in Santa Monica, all by myself. I would get all sugared up on french fries and Coca-Cola, and just spend all day just gawking at these great things, these Gibson guitars lying up there on the wall. I fell in love with these guitars. It was early solos like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock,” these fiery solos by Scotty Moore that caught my interest very early on. And of course Chuck Berry’s intros to most of his songs, which were all played on early Gibson guitars (the ES-350-T and the ES-345, to be exact – ed.). Later on, I found out the genesis of the Chuck Berry lick was actually born in big band horn arrangements, which not everyone knows. (sings the opening of “Johnny B. Goode”) That’s like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Johnnie Johnson, who was Chuck Berry’s piano player and bandleader, caught that lick on piano and Chuck Berry said, “Hey, Johnnie. Give me that lick again.” He learned it off of Johnnie and it became “the” guitar lick. Even Jimmy Page will tell you that. 

So I fell in love with guitar, but I also fell in love with drums and I fell in love with piano. I was a little slow getting in love with bass. But what happened was, I was given a drum set when I was 11 years old and I became pretty good on drums. And I would play along with my favorite records with headphones on. I also had a guitar, at the same time. My family bought a Gibson LG-1 in 1961, which we still have. It was a little, small-body sunburst acoustic. My brother had lessons on guitar. He would go take his lessons, but wasn’t really that interested in it. But I was really interested. So when he would come home, I would learn the lessons that he was taught. Within two weeks, I had zoomed past him and he gave up.

Back to the drums, my very first junior high school band was with a kid named Brian England, son of Cloris Leachman, the actress, and he was super-talented, super-funny, super-bright and he loved drums. He was a drummer. Turns out he had a better, bigger, flashier drum set than I did. He had a double-bass-drum Ludwig kit. He and I wanted to start a band together. Well, I had a Gold Top Les Paul 1968 with P90s and I just said, “OK, I’ll play guitar.” So I loved and played both then already and the decision was very easy because Brian was a better drummer than me. He left me in the dust. 

So, how did you get from there to playing with Bobby Pickett?

That goes back to my half-sister Jean who really imbued me with her fire and love for rock and roll. When I was a three-year-old kid, she would babysit me and turn me on to all of this music. Well, she ended up marrying and had a career as a folk-rock artist in a band called Jim and Jean. They were on Verve Folkways Records and they had a great career. As a little nine-year-old or eight-year-old, I used to go to her gigs and would go backstage and meet people like Albert King when I was just a child, or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, or Taj Mahal. And these guys were, like, my idols as a tiny little kid.

Well, then The Beatles come out. I’m nine, sitting in front of the TV, and here comes this blast of crazy energy coming out of the tube and that’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living. That this is all I wanted to do in my life, because here were four young bros, you know, with a smile and they all looked like they were in on the same joke. Looking very fun and very laddish. And it looked like, for once, you could do this. This wasn’t put together by some producer, this was a, like, a band. These guys were for real. And so, for me, I was lucky enough to have my sister take me to all those gigs and make me feel kind of like an insider.

And then, my first professional gigs, funny enough, were with Jean, my sister, when she went solo. I was 16 playing the Ash Grove and the Troubadour. Somehow in my high school band with Brian, we were turned on to Bobby “Boris” Pickett. It may have been through Jean, but Jean was in the band with me, so my first professional band after touring with Jean was with Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kicker Five doing the “Monster Mash.” 

And that became a hit for the second time around in the early ’70s.

And that’s when I was in the band. And we went and toured like Six Flags Over Everywhere and scared the hell out of kids. We were in full vampire makeup and kids would go running. [laughs] Moms would go, “How can you do this?” We rocked them.

I assume, because you were starting out with professional acts – be it your sister or Bobby Pickett – it must have given you a better sense of the business and being a professional and not just being an 18-year-old on stage screwing around.

Well, here’s the thing. It gave me the feeling that I was probably a little better than I actually was. [laughs] And I was on the inside already. I have a lot of friends who came to Los Angeles to make it from like, let’s say Ohio or Wisconsin, and I get from them that they had this thing that they had to overcome, and it’s that fear of being the outsider. I was fortunate that I never had to feel like the outsider because of Jean. So I was kind of launched into a nice professional job early on. Fortunately, I had worked a lot so I could do it. 

When you think about the age you were, particularly when you became the musical director for Etta James, that must have taken some confidence or…

…or balls. [laughs] Yeah. I was just fortunate. The funny thing is that, just three hours ago, I was having lunch with Phil Kaufman, who is the guy who introduced me to Etta James. A wild side story – he’s the guy that took Gram Parsons, his best buddy’s body, out to Joshua Tree and did what Gram wanted done, which was to be cremated in the desert rather than to go home to his rich family whom he hated. 

How did you make the jump from Bobby Pickett to Etta? I believe it was a party…

That’s it. Here’s the funniest thing: here I am, playing with Bobby “Boris” Pickett – and the band is called The Crypt-Kicker Five, as quoted in the song [sings the line from “Monster Mash”]. Here we are doing shows and we get asked to do this benefit for Phil Kaufman to raise money for doing what? Crypt kicking! It was to raise money for his “Grand Theft Parsons.” He had robbed the family of a casket. They couldn’t get him on anything else. But they got him for a $3,000 casket. “Grand Theft Parsons,” it was called. So we were there with Dr. Demento, The Modern Lovers, Bobby “Boris” Pickett and another act or two in Phil’s backyard to raise money to pay his bail. We did it and it was successful – but what a wild thing, right? 

What happened was, Phil Kaufman happened to be road managing Etta James at the same time. Phil Kaufman kind of took to me that day we played his benefit, for some reason. He was teaching me how to drink like a man, and I was learning. [laughs] We were drinking Jack Daniels and doing illicit substances and he said, “Well, hey, tomorrow I’m going to Etta James’ rehearsal. Why don’t you come along, because the guitar player can’t make it? Maybe you could just sit in on rehearsal and make some noise.” I said, “OK.” But I was kind of a raggedy, long-haired, skinny white kid from Glendale. I was intimidated, but I was excited. We went up to John Densmore’s house up in the Hollywood Hills and there was Etta James, and she was on a day pass from treatment for a heroin addiction. And she said, “I like that little white kid.” After playing a couple of songs, I was invited to do a show the next night with her in Long Beach. It turns out that she replaced that guitar player, who couldn’t make it, with me. And I was with her for 14 years. 

How did you get to be her musical director?

By default, basically, because I was the guy willing to go and show up at every gig. She was repairing her reputation after being a heroin addict and blowing deposits and not showing up at gigs. She was rebuilding her reputation and I was a kid who was 19 years old and willing. I would drive my car to her gigs or she would pick me up in her Cadillac and we would tool around to gigs, just the three of us: her husband, her kid and I.

Sharing the stage with Etta, you ended up playing with a lot of luminaries over the next decade. 

Yeah, especially in the first four years. I was 19 years old on my first trip to Europe to play the Montreux Festival with her. And who was in the band, but John Paul Jones on bass and Rick Wakeman on keyboards, so as a 19 year old…

And you’re their musical director…

Yeah. [laughs] And David “Fathead” Newman, who was with Cannonball Adderley with Miles [Davis]. So it was pretty wild. 

You worked with Etta until the mid-’80s and then you started branching out. You played with people like Rita Coolidge and Peter Frampton. How did some of these gigs come about?   

Etta James was nice enough to let me go play with other people, as well, because her work was inconsistent and spotty. So I went and did a record with Roy Thomas Baker, a rock record, which had a lot of Gibson guitar going on. That was called The Reggie Knighton Band. At the same time, I was in another band which was like Little-Feat-meets-Earth-Wind-and-Fire band called Crackin’ and that was on Warner Brothers Records. That led into playing with the Sales Brothers, Hunt and Tony Sales from Iggy Pop and David Bowie. We played together for a while and then I went on to play with Cherie Currie from The Runaways and then I played with Nicolette Larson for quite a while and toured with her.

It was just all word of mouth and being in the center of things. And I’ll tell you what the point is: all of these things, when I look back, were opportunities I was given. And most of them were little temporary gigs like substitute for Buzzy for Etta James. Saying “yes” to a benefit that turned into a full-time gig with Nicolette Larson, just because I said “yes” to a benefit. It was just one “just say yes” moment after another. My message to kids and artists everywhere is that, if you’re given an opportunity, even if you think it’s beneath you or it’s not paying or it’s not quite the right music or it’s not cool enough, if it’s not your thing – you say “yes” anyway. Because you never know who you’re supposed to meet at those gigs – who might be a member of another band which you’re perfect for. So you say “yes.” And like Woody Allen said, “Success is 90% showing up.” Just say “yes.” Just show up. 

Brian Ray, This Way Up

As a musician, you must have gained breadth of knowledge that maybe you wouldn’t have had if you had just followed the rock and roll line.

Well, I think all of us are a product of all of our influences and all of our roots. I was lucky enough, from an early age, to love all kinds of music. I even liked embarrassing pop records like “My Boy Lollypop,” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”…

…“Monster Mash”

…“Monster Mash” or “Surfin’” or, you know, hot-rod music. I liked all music. I liked The Four Seasons. I loved it all. There was very little I didn’t like, except some counterfeit pop records that I didn’t dig, and that’s just because I was stamped early on what R&B was. In my estimation, if you like rock and roll and you don’t like R&B, then I don’t know what it is that you think you’re loving, because it all came from black music. I am just lucky I loved all of that music. 

And then, when The Beatles came out, they started growing so fast as a writing force. I mean, if you look at their first record and where they went in just a year’s time to writing “Yesterday” and doing “Help!” God, that was only a year or so later. That’s an insane jump in musical maturity. So I think we all grew along with them, if you were old enough to have been there. And then, along with that, came more sophisticated pop songwriting. But it really comes down to hooks for me. I’m not just a guitar guy. I don’t think about music or songs as vehicles to play a cool guitar break. I think about guitar within really cool songs, but it has to be hooky for me. And I’ve been like that ever since I was three years old. It’s got to be an idea that just grabs me that I’ve just got to play that record 70 or so times. That’s what “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Jailhouse Rock” or “Tutti Frutti” were for me. I couldn’t get enough of them; I had to hear it again. I’m still that way.

Speaking of people who could write hooks, you ended up writing a hit for Smokey Robinson. That must have been cool.  

Absolutely, and that was another one of those “say yes” moments, and I’ll tell you why. I had two brilliant friends who were in that band Crackin’ with me, who went on to produce The Temptations and Smokey Robinson. So they called me up and said they were producing Smokey Robinson. And I had been a very serious songwriter for a couple of years straight, giving my whole self to songwriting. So I said, “Great, I would love to submit a song.” They said, “Hey, you know what? Thanks, but Smokey’s pretty good and   he doesn’t need your songs.” [laughs] And I was all dejected and I came back to my writing partner, Steve LeGassick, and I said, “Hey, Steve. They said, ‘No thanks.’” And he said, “Well, you’ve got a great title, ‘One Heartbeat.’ Let’s just do it anyway and submit it anyway even though they said ‘no.’” And I said, “You’re right, let’s just do it.” And that’s a “just say yes” moment. We finished the song, finished the demo for the song, turned it in – even though we knew we had been told not to – on a Friday, on a cassette. It was 1986. We turned it in on a Friday and we get a call Sunday night saying, “Smokey loves the song. Bring all the stuff you used for the demo” and “We’re going to do it just like the demo on Thursday. 32 track digital at Conway.” That’s one of those crazy moments. Then it becomes an album cut. It’s definitely in. Then it becomes the album title, and then it becomes the second single. And now it’s up to three million air plays – all because we didn’t take “no” for an answer and we said “yes.”  

See Part 2 for the conclusion of the Gibson Interview, in which Brian talks about meeting Sir Paul for the first time (on the day they played the Super Bowl!), giving the boss requests and recording his own rocking solo album!

Photo Credit: Florenz Horstmann

Album Art: Glen Wexler