The Gentle Soul of Jacksonville Music Ray Lewis has brought over 40 years of great music to our town

by HEATHER LOVEJOY
Ray Lewis has the bug. The music bug, that is. He doesn’t analyze it, wax poetic about it or insist that you share his passion. As a long-time concert promoter in Jacksonville, his contribution to the music scene is generally understated, and he seems slightly unnerved at being the center of attention.
Surprisingly, he’s not a musician. Not even the kind that noodles around on a guitar while he watches TV. Instead of playing, he thrives on listening and watching, and live music is like an addiction he can’t–and doesn’t want to–quit.
“I don’t know why, but I just love live music. I wish I knew. Call me a psychiatrist to help me understand,” he says, shaking his head. “I just haven’t been able to stop yet.” Since the 1970s, he has booked and presented concerts in the area, including at the now defunct Applejacks in San Marco, which held local legendary status as a tiny club that featured some big-name acts such as John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Doc Watson and Robert Cray.
Being in the music business is certainly not something he does for the money. Oftentimes, he has had to juggle jobs, holding down a steady 9-to-5 to pay the bills.
His sole gig right now, though, is concert promotion through his company Ray Lewis Presents, which uses a “listening room” concept where the audience sits at tables and can order food and drinks. For about seven years, his main outlets have been the European Street Cafes at 1704 San Marco Boulevard, where concerts are on Thursdays, and at 5500 Beach Boulevard, where concerts are mostly on Saturdays. He also presents occasional shows at Culhane’s Irish Pub in Atlantic Beach, and starting on Friday, August 2nd, he is expanding to the Mudville Grille at 3105 Beach Boulevard, which has a separate room set up for concerts.
Lewis books a steady stream of local and touring Americana and roots musicians, preferring acoustic acts that play mostly original songs. Folk, blues, old-time, bluegrass, Celtic and alt-country are standard fare, including solo singer-songwriters and full bands. The Grammy-nominated bluegrass groups Steep Canyon Rangers (who now play with Steve Martin) and the Claire Lynch Band, as well as the popular, alt-country artist Slaid Cleaves of Texas and the well-known, traditional Scottish group the Tannahill Weavers, have been featured acts. He also presents jazz on the first Tuesdays of each month at the European Street at 5500 Beach Boulevard.
“You don’t have to be popular. You just have to be good,” he says of the acts he books. “Of course, being popular doesn’t hurt.” He grins. There’s an endearing shyness to Lewis, which is perhaps what local folk-singer Larry Mangum is hinting at when he describes him as “a sweetheart” and “a gentle soul.”
They first met more than 30 years ago during an Earth Week celebration at the University of North Florida, where Lewis was handling the live music. They’ve long been part of the same social circles, but they didn’t start working closely together until creating the Songwriters’ Circle at European Street. After seeing Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and others do a show where the musicians took turns performing songs, they were inspired to start a similarly styled show with local singer-songwriters. Their periodic Songwriters’ Circle is still going strong at the European Street at 5500 Beach Boulevard, with upcoming dates on September 21, November 2 and December 7.
“Think about the joy and the art of touching people’s souls and hearts,” Mangum says. “Ray is the guy who gives you the vehicle to do that.” He believes that Lewis has inspired others in Florida to host similar events that support singer-songwriters, and in turn, having more audiences has inspired musicians based in the state to create more music.
Many of the musicians Lewis booked at UNF’s Earth Week also played at Applejacks, so he started going pretty frequently. “I was there so much, they put me to work at the door,” he recalls. Pretty soon, the owners asked him to manage a second venue in Arlington, and he later managed the one in San Marco. He remembers seeing renowned guitarist Derek Trucks “glued to the pinball machine” as a small boy there with his family, including his uncle Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band.
By the early 1980s, Lewis had moved on and was a music producer for the television show After Hours Live which aired on WTLV-12. During his career, he has also presented shows at Little Theatre (now Theatre Jacksonville), the Jewish Community Alliance, the 5 Points theater and the Wilson Center for the Arts.
Sound engineer Jim Brown, owner of JTB Productions in Jacksonville, has worked with Lewis for 23 years. He describes Lewis with one word: “mellow.” He adds, “I have seen some phenomenal musicians because of him. He brings in different acts than other promoters in town do. To me, he’s providing a service to people by bringing in shows that this city wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to see.”
Upcoming shows of note include the Howlin’ Brothers on August 8th and the Honeycutters on August 29th at the San Marco European Street, and Australian alt-country singer Anne McCue on November 1st at Mudville Grille. For a full schedule of concerts from Ray Lewis Presents, go to www.raylewispresents.com.

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april, 2022

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