Brian Ray – guitarist for McCartney

If auditioning to play guitar for one of the world’s most influential rock stars is not intimidating enough, imagine performing live alongside Sir Paul McCartney in front of 77,000 screaming fans.

Brian Ray was already an accomplished artist when he took the pre-game stage at the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans to “interview” for the position as guitarist with McCartney’s new touring band. Ray knew he would fit the bill, transitioning easily from guitar to bass, lead to rhythm, electric to acoustic. He previously logged 14 years as guitarist and musical director with Etta James‘ band and played with huge talents like Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt and Rita Coolidge.

So he was unprepared for the nerves that flooded him before the gig. Ray walked the streets of the French Quarter trying to burn off some nervous energy but couldn’t shake it. So he tapped into that nervous energy and committed to giving the best three-minute performance of his career. And it worked. Twelve years later, Ray is still playing alongside McCartney in the position most musicians will only aspire to achieve.

“I would be very nervous to be playing with any artist for the Super Bowl with 77,000 live and millions watching at home but on top of that to be standing 15 feet away from Paul McCartney is a whole other level of exciting and thrilling,” Ray says. “I just went about my business to play that one song as best I could as if that’s all that I had in front of me. Can I do three and a half minutes?”

Paul McCartney will appear with his band October 25 at the Veterans Memorial Arena. The concert was rescheduled from its original June 22 date.

Leading up to that fateful meeting was very exciting. I had never met him before. He was very disarmingly kind and warm. He toasted the new faces in the room that night at our first private dinner and he toasted those faces that had been around with him for years,” says Ray. “The last 12 years of my life have been the most exciting and thrilling years of my professional career. It’s been an amazing run that you only dream of as a little kid. Mind you, these are the dream that if you express when you’re a little kid, ‘one day, I’m going to play with Paul McCartney’, you would probably get kicked off the playground.”

Ray was working in France with artist Johnny Halladay when he developed a friendship with drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., who also played drums with none other than McCartney. Laboriel wasn’t going to make a scheduled tour in France because of touring obligations with McCartney’s band. Ray says he saw an opening and threw his name in the hat before the opportunity slipped by.

“I said ‘hey, won’t you be needed a guy who plays guitar and bass?’ He said ‘yeah, we will’ and I actually put my hand up in the air and said ‘I’d love a shot at that’. He put my name forward and I had an audition in New Orleans where we played one song before the National Anthem,” Ray says. That song was called “Freedom,” written by McCartney on the tarmac as he waited to take off one morning. The day happened to be 9/11.

“That was my little audition and fortunately, Paul said ‘that’s my guy for the next tour’ and that tour led to many others so here I am,” says Ray. “He’s really a very good guy who is very bright, very engaged and all about music. He’s always humming the melody, always tapping the beat and always going over something in his mind, perhaps at a soundcheck between songs, that we may have started the other day. He is a very vital, unique songwriter who also happens to have the best voice in popular music and rock ‘n roll and is also probably the most important bass player in rock and pop. He plays great keyboards, searing lead guitar and great rhythm guitar. He actually approaches it all in a fairly casual, natural manner every day. There is not a lot of pomp and circumstance. He likes to have a laugh and he expects people to do their work well and he just happens to come with an awful lot of talent.”

Growing up, Ray was exposed to the power of the early rock ‘n roll legends like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, The Everlee‘s and Little Richard thanks to his older half-sister, Jeanne Ray who also went on to enjoy a successful career folk music career. Jeanne played her stack of 45’s as her younger sibling absorbed the adrenaline and the excitement of the music.
Ray also tuned in his little transistor radio to the local LA radio stations to hear the latest in pop music. A chance discovery of a pirate signal opened his ears to a brand new sound from across the pond, changing the trajectory of his life at that very moment.

“My transistor radio was given to me at Christmas. It was my favorite gift ever with that one little earplug with the funny braided wire. I would be tuning in to pirate radio coming out of Tijuana, Mexico but only at night and it was Wolfman Jack. It was brand new on the scene with his little wolf call signature sound,” says Ray. “Right after discovering this pirate radio station, the next thing I hear is four singles back to back, flooding the airwaves from across the sea. It was the Beatles and I was entranced.”

Ray became “an instant Beatle freak and fully committed to the cause of these four lads that were obviously in on the joke,” he says. “They were not put together by a record company. They were lads that came up together in the same neighborhood so I was in. I got it. I said ‘ok, this is life’. There really has never been another question about it. I just happened to be blessed that I found constant employment. Honestly, I’m just not prepared for much else so I just don’t know what else I would do with my life. There was never a plan B.”

That first tidal wave of singles including All My Lovin’, Love Me Do, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There captivated audiences and is forever etched in the minds and souls of those early fans, including Ray. “It’s a part of the world’s DNA. You’ll see a crowd of younger fans who still scream in that same voice that young girls screamed in in 1964. That is something akin to geese knowing where to fly when it’s time to go south for the winter. It’s been passed down through the generations somehow.”

Right out of high school, Ray started his career as guitarist and musical director for Etta James’ band. As James worked to re-establish her brand in the music business, she allowed Ray the freedom to explore his abilities and play with other artists. Things were going well. They opened for the Rolling Stones and Etta was invited to perform at the Opening Ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. During this time, Ray was also trying his hand at songwriting, a talent that he penned the hit record “One Heartbeat” for Smoky Robinson that, to date, has received over four million airplays.

“I just had the feeling that I wanted to see if I could find a way to make a living creating music that would last longer than a live performance and stay home and write songs,” Ray says. “I took leave from Etta’s band in 1988 and went into songwriting and producing for a living. I have always been fascinated with it and continued to always do that no matter how busy I was.”

Recently, Ray says he decided to play the last card he had up his sleeve. He approached his “favorite writing partner,” Oliver Lieber, with a plan for a new solo project. Lieber signed on, proposing that they shake up the solo formula that worked for Ray on his two solo efforts to include a band. The Bayonets which features Lieber on drums and Ray on vocals and guitar with both musicians co-producing and co-writing the material. “We just dug in right away. It was a different project in that we had both achieved a good amount of success. It didn’t feel like we had a lot to prove in the market place but wanted to just write, record and play some music that felt exciting to us. We were really interested in following our own muse,” Ray says.

The Bayonets also struck a chord in Little Steven Van Zandt of E Street Band fame, who heard the discovered the band online and vowed to make their music ‘the coolest song in the world’ on his SiriusXM radio show. An advocate for independent music, Van Zandt learned of the band via Twitter and quickly fired off an email asking ‘where can I get this and who in the hell are the Bayonets? I want to make this the coolest song in the world on my radio show. Get ready because you are going to land in the top 20. Here is my radio edit, I hope you like it’.

“It was one of those wonderful things that happens rarely but it happens,” Ray says. “People like Steven Van Zandt are real advocates of independent music and are themselves still as excited about music as I have always been. With people like him pushing you, you really have a lot of wind in your sales. We went on to have five “Coolest Songs in the World” designated by Little Steven, three of those song charted in the top 10 classic rock. That means a lot to me.”
Ray gives a grateful nod to his opportunity with McCartney to provide the inspiration and the wherewithal to pursue his personal artistic passions. For that and many reasons, his professional allegiance lies with McCartney and the incredible assembly of musicians that make up his band. It is between tours and in his off time that Ray dedicates all of his energy to putting something fresh and real out into the world.

“The Bayonets is really a result of my hard work with Paul and the inspiration that comes directly from Paul. It’s something I choose to do with my time off. He’s been very supportive and kind and always let me know when he’s listened and he’s had feedback and enthusiasm. He’s been a really, great supportive boss, someone I’ve always looked up to since I was a kid and it’s kind of a mind-blow when he singles out a song title of yours. The thing I have learned is to say yes to everything and continue to find ways to enjoy all that you have. You never know which one of those opportunities is going to lead to the job of a lifetime.”

About Liza Mitchell