Burning blues guitar and vocals.
Ruth Davies’ Blues Night with Special Guest Ray Bailey
Burning blues guitar and vocals.
Every year blues bass master Ruth Davies brings down the SJW house with her sensational Blues Night, showcasing current masters of the art. Ruth has been bewitching blues fans for years touring with the crème de la soulful crème: John Lee Hooker, Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Elvin Bishop, and more. And she’s no slouch in the pop and jazz world either, with album credits for Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, and Toots Thielemans under her belt. Our Blues Night featured guest this year is the soul-baring vocalist and guitarist, Ray Bailey. Ray grew up on the blues in the Los Angeles scene, working for mentors and giants, and leading his own critically-acclaimed bands.
Ruth Davies, bass
Ray Bailey, guitar and vocals
Danny Caron, guitar
Ndugu Chancler, drums
John R. Burr, keyboards
Charles McNeal, saxophone
Ruth Davies is on a mission, and tonight’s concert plays a central role in her long-running campaign to ensure that young jazz musicians have more than a passing acquaintance with the blues. The bassist comes to the quest with considerable authority. She received her advanced degree in bluesology during her long tenure with the late West Coast blues legend Charles Brown, and her post-doc touring and recording with elemental Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker. A first-call freelancer, she works regularly with artists like Maria Muldaur and Pamela Rose. But for the past six years her primary gig has been with guitarist Elvin Bishop’s band, which scored a Blues Music Awards hat trick in Memphis last year, earning top honors for best album (Can’t Even Do Wrong Right on Alligator), best song (the title track), and best band.
For the past 15 years, she’s used the Stanford Jazz Festival’s Blues Night to showcase some of the most potent artists on the scene, an invaluable opportunity to expose young musicians to the source of so much jazz. “For me, it’s about the kids,” she says. “All week long at the Workshop they have all these different styles of jazz, and they end up hearing the blues presented as a form. But the blues isn’t just a form. It’s a story and a truth that comes out. It can be very different from jazz, although a lot of jazz is based on blues, and there are a lot of jazz players where you hear the blues in whatever they play.”
Part of what makes the Blues Night such a consistently rewarding event is that Davies assembles such a talent-laden cast. Guitarist Danny Caron was a longtime bandmate with Charles Brown. Pianist/organist John R. Burr is one of the busiest players in the Bay Area. Though he’s now based in Las Vegas the scorching saxophonist Charles McNeal has played every Blues Night since the first one. Powering the proceedings is drummer Ndugu Chancler, a Los Angeles studio legend equally versed in jazz, funk, pop, rock, and R&B with whose credits that include recordings with Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Bobby Hutcherson, Carlos Santana, Tina Turner, and Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”!), to name a few.
It was Chancler who suggested that Davies reach out to Los Angeles guitarist and vocalist Ray Bailey, tonight’s special guest. Childhood friends who grew up in the same South Central neighborhood, they first started collaborating in a program that brings working musicians into inner city schools.
“Ndugu was working with all the big time jazz players and we were all in awe of him,” Bailey says. “He played with Miles! He was always a friend of the family, and some time in the 1980s we started to work in the Jazz Mentorship Program with Patrice Rushen. We’d go around to the schools, teach kids about jazz and being a professional musician. Off and on we’ve done done little local gigs over the years, and always stayed friends.”
Born into a musical family, Bailey soaked up music growing up in Watts. At 15 he found his way to Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn, a storied blues joint on Central Avenue. Taken under the wing of the club’s owner Laura “Mama” Gross, Bailey landed his first major gig touring with West Coast blues great Lowell Fulson. He spent 15 years working as a sideman, backing top figures such as Smokey Wilson, Phillip Walker, and Sonny Green. It wasn’t until he landed a regular gig with blues and R&B organist Jimmy Caravan that he added vocals to his act, a move he was reluctant to make.
“I grew up most of my career accompanying vocalists and instrumentalists, never really wanting the spotlight,” Bailey says. “But when I was with Jimmy Caravan, everybody was asking why doesn’t the guitar player sing? I started learning songs. Guitar Shorty was a big help with that. He was often the closing act and he’s an amazing performer. He got me into being more of a frontman. I started pick up more tricks to get the audience into what I was doing. Once I started singing it changed my whole approach to the guitar. Before I was really more of rhythm player than a lead player.”
With Caravan’s death in 1990 Bailey took the next step and formed his own band, and made a powerful first impression with his debut album Satan’s Horn, which was picked up by Zoo/BMG Records and earned him Living Blues Magazine’s “Artist Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” award. Focusing on his hard-bitten original songs, the 1993 album established Bailey as one of the most expressive and uncompromising new voices on the scene. But just as his career seemed to be taking off, he hit a streak of bad luck and a decade passed before he started to regain momentum with his searing 2009 live album Resurrection (Tondef). Recorded at his homebase, Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn, the session captures his keening Albert King-inspired guitar work and his passionate, self-possessed vocals backed by churning Hammond B-3. He followed up with 2012’s Cruisin’ For a Bluesin’ (Tondef), another stellar album that earned critical plaudits.
He arrives at Stanford after a difficult year beset by medical programs that have largely kept him off stage. Bowed but not beaten, he’s still a force to be reckoned with on stage. Working on a new album, Bailey is eager to get back to the blues.