Something Else! Interview: Brian Ray on Paul McCartney, Etta James, and the Bayonets

Even as he closes out the South American leg of a new tour with Paul McCartney tonight, guitarist Brian Ray is preparing for a series of solo shows with his sizzling new band the Bayonets.

Ray formed the group on a lark with long-time collaborator Oliver Leiber, son of rock legend Jerry Leiber, only to see their debut single “Sucker for Love” catch fire. It went to No. 9 last month on the Classic Rock Radio charts, after finding a champion in Little Steven of E Street Band fame. Already busy with McCartney, Ray now has a bustling side project to throw himself into, as well.

Ray and Leiber are joined by occasional contributors including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Scott Shriner of Weezer and Lucrecia Lopez Sanz of the Argentine band Nube Nueve, among others. Their latest single will premiere exclusively via Little Steven’s Underground Garage program on May 17. By then, Ray will have already packed a handful of Bayonets appearances in before rejoining McCartney for a return to America on the “Out There” tour, beginning May 18.

The versatile Ray, who takes over on bass when McCartney switches instruments, has been a member of the former Beatle’s long-standing current solo group since 2002, when Ray debuted before a worldwide audience at the Super Bowl. Speaking from a hotel room in Brazil, Ray took some time to sort through this whirlwind of activity in an exclusive SER Sitdown — touching on the Bayonets and McCartney, of course, but also how earlier career intersections with Etta James and Smokey Robinson helped pave the way …

NICK DERISO: You started with what you thought was a one-off gig at the Super Bowl, right? What went through your mind when McCartney asked you to join his band?
BRIAN RAY: I was touring in France with Johnny Hallyday and Mylene Farmer, and the drummer on those gigs was Abe Laboriel Jr. Abe gets a call to work on Paul McCartney’s album back in 2001 called Driving Rain, and I was very excited for my best friend. At my birthday party, I say: “So, you’re going to start touring soon. Who’s going to play bass when he moves to guitar?” And Abe goes: “We’re looking for a guitar player who plays some bass.” I put my right arm in the air, and I said: “I’d love a shot at that.” He put my name forward to David Kahne (producer of McCartney’s Driving Rain, Back in the U.S. and Memory Almost Full, among others), a brilliant guy, who then called me. He said there was one song at the Super Bowl, and “would you like to do this?” I said: “Hell, yeah. Are you kidding?” (Laughs.) I got a call the next day from Paul’s office saying: “Can you be at the airport tomorrow?” The next thing you knew, I was in New Orleans. That was my audition for Paul McCartney. I’d never met him before. My audition was in front of 77,000 people and a couple of billion watching on TV. It was kind of hairy, but I was very grateful.

NICK DERISO: How quickly were you then integrated into the group? Did you know right away you had passed the audition?
BRIAN RAY: At the end of that night, Paul was going off to his room, and us to ours, from the bar and he gave us all a hug. He came to me last and said: “Well, Brian, welcome aboard. Stick with Abe and (fellow McCartney band guitarist) Rusty (Anderson), and they’ll show you the ropes. I still didn’t believe I had the gig for real, because I had only played one song with him. I thought: “What if it just doesn’t work for him?” So, I went home and woodshedded like a maniac, lost my voice in the first day. I was all over the place. I grew a beard. I didn’t go out at night. Five weeks later was my first day of rehearsal. I said, I’m not telling anybody but a close circle of friends — which is what I did. At the end of the day, he comes up and says: “Alright Brian, sounds great. See you tomorrow!” And it was that day, two weeks before the tour starts, that I thought: “Oh, my God, I’m going on tour in Paul McCartney’s band.” Then I started calling people. (Laughs.) That was when I finally let myself have it, let myself have the news.

NICK DERISO: Before your lengthy tenure with McCartney you worked for some 14 years with the late Etta James — beginning as her musical director while still in your teens. Describe what that experience meant to you.
BRIAN RAY: Thanks for the question. Etta James, to me, was like a second mom. I met her when I was 19 years old, and started playing with her right then and there. My audition was at a lunch-time break from her heroin treatment facility. I played a gig with her and she said: “I like that little white kid.” (Laughs.) I played my first show with her the next night in Long Beach. Months went by, and I get a call one evening. She goes: “This is Etta. I’m in Ventura County. Can you come up and gig with me tonight?” I loaded up my car, stuck my amp in the backseat, and I was there in two hours. And it was 14 years from that day on. She taught me all about showing up, about toughening my skin. She taught me to drink like a man. (Laughs.) We became very, very best friends. She named me godfather of her second son. Sametto James is a wonderful guy, and he’s my godson. That’s how close we were. I used to travel around with Etta James with her first son, when he was three years old, going to gigs and putting bands together where ever we went. A promoter would call a local cover band, and they would come down and play with Etta James that night. We’d rehearse, then play two sets, and move on to the next city. It was a really great way to learn how to be a worker among workers.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Laurence Juber discusses key songs from his tenure with Paul McCartney and Wings, along with favorite sides from his solo career and Al Stewart projects.]

NICK DERISO: You got a chance to play at Montreux with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and to open for the Rolling Stones. That must have uniquely prepared you for what has been a globe-trotting tenure with Paul McCartney.
BRIAN RAY: That’s right. At 20, there I was in Switzerland, and John Paul Jones is our bass player for the gig. I was a little bit blown away. It was great stuff to get under your belt at an early age, so then you can learn to just be a hard worker and professional and go about your life.

NICK DERISO: Your collaboration with Oliver goes back to a pair of solo albums in the last decade. What sparked the idea to launch a stand-alone band in the Bayonets?
BRIAN RAY: Funny enough, I just went over to Oliver’s house to hang out one day, and we started thinking about writing new material. I had some time coming up last year, and I thought: “I’m ready to record something.” Oliver has been a dear friend of mine for 20 years now, and I thought: I’d like to start with Oliver and see where it leads. We have such a good time writing. We have our epic battles, and our fantastic laughs. I really enjoy the results. I said I wanted to write some songs, and he leaned back and said: “Why don’t we do a band instead?” I just said: “Hey, that sounds good.” (Laughs.) It was just that easy. It really was.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Ace sessions drummer Denny Seiwell, a founding member of Wings, talks frankly about joining Paul McCartney's band: 'Play with one Beatle, and it really fucks up your jazz career.']

NICK DERISO: How did you discover Lucrecia? I’ve seen some killer YouTube videos where she was having a blast with some old Beatles cuts. (Stream it: “Oh Darling.”)
BRIAN RAY: I found Lucrecia when I was touring with Paul in Buenos Aires three years ago, or so. I was doing an interview and she was there along with the interviewer. She said she liked my music and her musical partner suggested that I come and sit in with their band on a night off, and play some Beatles songs. I said: “You know, it’s probably not what I feel like doing on a night off — to play at a club and do Beatles songs.” Then he said: “Well, what if we learned three of your solo songs?” Now, we’re talking! And so he did, and we did, and it went so well that I played three clubs sitting in with them in three days. A year later, we booked a tour and did what I dubbed the Tourette del Sol. We played six gigs in five cities in three countries in 12 days. Lucrecia is a lovely person and a great professional, and just a joy to be around. When Oliver and I were putting this band together, he said: “I picture there being a female presence in the band, like co-starring with you,” and I said: “That sounds really fun.” So I immediately sent him a picture of Lucrecia and I on a microphone — from our Tourette. He thought she was perfect, so I wrote her back and asked if she wanted to be in our band. It was that simple. But then the logistics were another story. I realized: “What have I gotten myself into?” She can’t really be in the band with us; she lives in Buenos Aires. So, I flew her to LA on my dime, and she stayed in my guest room. We recorded for 10 days, and then I sent her back and Oliver and I finished the songs. And we went from there. She’s one of the many revolving cast members of the Bayonets.

NICK DERISO: How did Smokey Robinson come to record your song “One Heartbeat”?
BRIAN RAY: Friends of mine who I had done records with, Rick Chudacoff and Peter Bunetta, were producing Smokey’s new album. I was very excited for them. In my next conversation with them, I said: “My writing partner Steve LeGassick and I would love to submit a song for him. We have a great title idea.” And they said: “You know what, Brian, don’t bother. He’s got tons of songs that are very strong. We really don’t need more.” Basically: Don’t. (Laughs.) I was very dejected; I was discouraged. I turned to Steve and I told him the news, and he looked at me with a very calm face and said: “Let’s do it anyway.” It hadn’t even occurred to me! I thought: That is genius. You are so right. What’s the worst that can happen? We wrote a song, and we really aimed it at Smokey. We took “Tracks of My Tears,” and his earlier music with the Miracles, and we put it in a pot and stirred it. We thought: Let’s write something that we think he would get behind lyrically and melodically. We wrote the song in about a week and a half, and demoed it with the vocals and the sax part. The whole whole track was done. (Stream it: “One Heartbeat.”) We turned it in on a Friday, and by Sunday night, there was a message on my voicemail that said: “Brian, congratulations, we played the song for Smokey, and he loves it. We’re going to cut it this Thursday. Bring all of your gear; we’re going to do it just like the demo.” And then the next thing you hear is, “it’s going to be a single.” And then the next you hear is: “Smokey’s going to call the album ‘One Heartbeat.’” And it was just like one crazy energy blast after another.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Ever asked yourself what it would have been like if Denny Laine had led Wings? Yeah, we went there - in a McCartney-as-sideman edition of the SER Playlist.]

NICK DERISO: There has been a similar synchronicity with the Bayonets, who received an early endorsement from Little Steven. Are you surprised by how quickly things seem to be coming together?
BRIAN RAY: I was shocked. Look, Nick, for anybody to shoot for radio who’s not Rihanna or Justin, or whatever, is lunacy. And radio doesn’t have the gravitas; it’s not the biggest piece of the pie. But, it does move records, and it does move the crowd, if you can get it. It’s just a really long shot to shoot for it. I am a huge fan of Little Steven’s show, and Little Steven in general — and his boss, the Boss. His show is so brave, and so maverick and so right on. It’s about renegade music, played with abandon played by people who weren’t trying to fit in anywhere. They weren’t trying to follow a trend, whenever they made that music. It’s a great amalgam of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, even a little doo wop, ’60s car-culture music and guitar instrumentals, British invasion and garage rock. I just thought, a long time ago: “Man, I sure would love to get a song on the Underground Radio. Great station.” Then I thought, “Oh, never mind, I’ll order lunch instead.” (Laughs.) Years go by, and I announce on Twitter that my single’s out there. This is Valentine’s Day 2013. Maureen Van Zandt hears the song, plays it for her hubby Little Steven that night, the day it’s released, he goes wild for it — and before it’s even midnight, I get an email from him: “I’ve done an edit; check this out: Do you like it? I want to go crazy with this on the radio.” I’m like, whoa. That’s just too cool. And there you have it.

NICK DERISO: Describe the feeling, when everything drops out in the middle of the song “Band on the Run,” and it’s just you, playing that 12 string.
BRIAN RAY: It’s very special. The word “panic” comes to mind. (Laughs.) We did a gig once in a small club, it was a great gig, a fundraiser in London. There was (Faces/Rolling Stones legend) Ron Wood, over on the side, talking away. There we were and we come to “Band on the Run,” and it’s going over great. This place is stuffed with about 200 people, over capacity. It comes to the guitar part and — it’s not plugged in. Dead silence. It had to happen sometime, it had to happen somewhere. And I’m just happy it was only witnessed by about a 150 people! (Laughs.) It was actually kind of funny. But, you know, it’s just a joy to be given that little moment — and there’s so many new moments coming up on the new tour. Paul just gave me lead guitar on a great song that he hasn’t played in some 30 years (the Top 10 1972 Wings hit “Hi Hi Hi”), and that’s a real joy. He just turned to me and said: “I want you to play lead on this.” So I’m excited about that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: 'Red Rose'-era Wings guitarist Henry McCullough talks about his time with Paul McCartney and Joe Cocker, and how addiction almost cost him everything.]

NICK DERISO:You’ve been a part of both Chaos and Creation and Memory Almost Full, even as this lineup has become McCartney’s longest-tenured band. Is it weird to think that you’ve played with Paul longer than (stalwart 1970s-era Wings bandmate) Denny Laine ever did?
BRIAN RAY: It’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? It’s longer than the Beatles recorded together, too. I wasn’t even thinking in those terms, at first. But once it got to eight years, I thought: “Oh my God, he’s going to let this happen. Paul is going to let this be his longest-serving band.” It’s an incredible honor. I owe so much of my life, my energy, my enthusiasm for life and music and people and my positive attitude, I owe all of that so directly to Paul. He’s not just my favorite bass player on the planet; he’s not only the best songwriter in our lifetime, he’s also an inspiring, cool guy just to hang with. I’m honored on every possible level.

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Find out more about Brian Ray’s new band the Bayonets via their official web site, and through Wikipedia.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.