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Photo: Eric Sassaman

Interview Sugaray Rayford Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year

By Kevin Porter

Singer-songwriter Sugaray Rayford is this year’s winner of the “Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year” at the Blues Music Awards. Based on his highly acclaimed new album, Somebody Save Me, it would not be a surprise if Rayford wins more awards this year. The album is an appealing mix of funky, soulful R&B, Southern Stax soul and new blues. The songs are inventive and catchy, driven by Rayford’s powerful, full-bodied vocals.

Rayford’s charisma and star power shine through on his album, and in his live performances where people can’t take their eyes off him. Backed by a top-notch band, Rayford is touring the world and whipping crowds into a frenzy. Home for a few days in between tour dates, Rayford kindly took the time to talk to us by phone.

Kevin Porter: First of all, let me congratulate you on winning the Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year at this year’s Blues Music Awards – that’s just terrific. How does it feel to win the award?

Sugaray Rayford: It feels wonderful. I was very surprised to win—I’ve been nominated quite a few times, so I thought this year wouldn’t be anything different. But it was fun to go down to Memphis and see a bunch of friends, like a big family reunion so winning was icing on the cake. I’m just very blessed and still a little bit surprised.

KP: I wanted to ask you about the latest album, Somebody Save Me. What sort of sound or themes were you going with when you went in to record the album?

SR: The whole album is about darkness and light, and the songs reflect that. They go from being kind of dark and very moody to lighter material and love ballads.

KP: Let’s talk about a few of those songs. “Time to Get Movin’,” that’s kind of your social activism song. Is that sort of a call to action of some sort?

SR: Yeah, it’s definitely a call to action, and it’s observational of all the crap that’s going on. It’s like trying to be the grown up. Let’s stop all this crap and get movin’. It’s time to get everything straightened out.

KP: I guess “You and I” would be an example of the light and joy of the album. It reminds me of the old Stax songs.

SR: Exactly what we tried to do—get that old Stax or Motown sound that a lot of blues guys don’t touch anymore. We were channeling ZZ Hill and Johnny Taylor there. The whole album has a lot of soul blues, and it was very deliberate. Even with “Time to Get Movin’,” we wanted to get an activist song that you could still boogie to and shake what your momma gave you without thinking about it too hard.

KP: Like your song, “My Cards Are On The Table.” There’s a wonderful horn chart that’s on there, by the way.

SR: Those horn charts were written by Mark Pender (trumpet), Ron Dzibula (sax) and Richard Rosenberg (trombone) from the Conan O’Brien show. It was the second time I’ve worked with those guys and they did a great job. They came in and wrote the horn parts on the spot. It was a blessing to play with those guys – such amazing musicians.

KP:  That Southern soul, that’s hard to find, isn’t it? At least that’s been my impression.

SR: Yes, it is. It’s sad because the Southern soul stuff is amazing. People forget that that is blues also. Everybody’s kind of drifting toward Chicago-style blues, but they forget Bobby Bland, ZZ Hill and Al Green. There’s a lot of blues. It wasn’t just Chicago or West Coast Swing or the Delta—people leave out all of that stuff in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, St. Louis – that soul blues sound. I feel like a torchbearer because I want to bring that back. You have guitarists or harmonica players who also sing, but there’s very few guys anymore that just stand there and sing blues and soul.

Sugaray Rayford

photo: Laura Carbone

KP: You worked with Eric Corne on this record.

SR: Yes, Eric Corne and Forty Below Records. Eric produced it. He’s also the CEO of Forty Below. And it’s a really cool partnership. So far, it seems really, really good. He believes in the direction that I’m going.

KP: Did he write some of the songs in addition to producing the album?

SR: He wrote them all. For this first album, he just took ideas that we shared. I would send him text messages about ideas I had, and I just told him that I wanted to go in a totally different direction than what I had done on the previous five solo albums. I was on the road touring so hard and he took those and fleshed them out. I was shocked, surprised and elated that he had actually listened to the things that I said and put them into songs. That was pretty cool.

KP: How did you get into music and singing and so forth? Was it through your church?

SR: Yeah, of course, like a lot of people I started out when I think I was five or six years old. The music director of the church and my good friend, Tony Williams and I used to travel all over southeast Texas doing workshops and putting together mass choirs. It all started with the church.

KP: I know you had a really tough childhood with your mother passing away when you were 11 years old. What got you through it?

SR: During the time when my mother was alive, we were living in the ghetto of Dallas in a place called Oak Cliff. My mother would sometimes drop me off at my grandmother’s and leave me there for a year or so, and that’s when I would go to church. It wasn’t a regular thing until after my mom passed. We were still very young – my two brothers and I – and we moved in permanently with our grandmother. She became our guardian and raised us, and that’s how we went to church literally 7 days a week.

KP: You went into the Marines for 10 years or so?

SR: Yes, I did. I didn’t join out of patriotism. I joined the Marine Corps because it was an obvious choice to help me get out of the ghetto and better my life situation. That’s the main reason why a lot of low income or lower middle-class people join the military – we have an all-volunteer force, and that’s the reason why you don’t see very many rich kids in the service, because they have other options. But, when you’re really, really poor, there’s fewer options:  drug dealer, lazy bum or you can join the military. People say you can go to community college but when you’re living in the ghetto, you can’t even afford community college. Other than the part of going to war or going to a police action, it’s almost like being in college. It’s like living in a dorm and hanging out with friends. It really helped me grow as a human being and as a man.

KP: I assume you weren’t doing much singing while you were there.

SR: No, I didn’t sing at all. I went probably 16 to 18 years where I wasn’t singing. I still was dancing because I was young at the time. It was fun to go to the clubs and dance and all of that, but no, I wasn’t singing at all. At that time, my wife who was just a friend then, coaxed me back into music. I went begrudgingly at first, but I loved it and it re-awakened the passion and fire inside me.

KP: Isn’t she your manager?

SR: She is my manager. She’s always had my back and has much better foresight than I do. She does a great job. She’s got that big brain and I’m lucky to have her.

KP: I know you really like Son House. Tell me about your affinity for him and his music.

SR: The way that Son House sang always touched my soul, but it also brought back memories of what I remember hearing growing up with gospel and growing up in the deep south – that feeling of truth and angst. The straightforwardness in his music really touches me. When Son House sings, you know that he means and lived what he’s saying. You can’t write that and you can’t script that. Not only that, if you ever watch an old video of him, he may be sitting down, but he uses his entire body in the song. It’s just him singing with a pedestal guitar, but you know the aches, the passion, the pain, the sorrow he tells and his body remembers it as well. That passion of his, it just always moves me.

Sugaray Rayford

Photo: Laura Carbone

KP: You kind of do that yourself in your singing—you really put your whole soul into it.

SR: We were always taught if you tell a lie, you can sing a lie. The stuff I’m singing about are things I’ve actually done. You can tell the difference when you’re singing, and that’s what I love about Son House and I wanted to make sure I brought that to whatever it was that I’m doing.

KP: What can people expect from a Sugar Ray Rayford concert?

SR: My thing is that I don’t really like concerts. When you hear the word “concert,” you think about people sitting down and drinking red wine and eating cheese. I always tell people right at the beginning that this is not a concert—this is a party.

KP: I understand you don’t do a setlist?

SR: No, I do not. I think setlists have been one of the worst things that has ever happened to music. A setlist works if you’re a big name, you’re playing 20-30 shows a year and you change bands from time-to-time. That’s when setlist works great. But, when you’re in a band that’s playing as much as I’m playing, you’ve got to keep it fresh. How often can you play that same song in that same order, in the same way and still have a deep connection and feeling happiness or sorrow without being bored stiff and going through the motions? You got to be flexible and open. That way, when you’re going in front of an audience, you’re giving that audience a unique show. If I had to leave Columbia (Maryland) and fly to Philly, the people in Philly did not get the same show. They got an equally great show and the same amount of passion, sweat and tears, but they didn’t get the same show that was in Columbia. Because, in Philadelphia, it’s a whole different situation – it’s different people, and that’s the way I’ve always approached it.

KP: What’s next for you? I know you’ve been touring a lot and you’ve got a big European tour later in the year.

SR: I just came off one of the longest tours I’ve done in a long time. But, this whole year, I’ve been blessed. If I’m not mistaken, I think I’m booked all the way up to 2022.

KP: Wow!

SR: It’s a blessing. It’s tiring. (laughs). But I’m still enjoying it. The video for “The Revelator” came out. It’s doing well. When I get some time off, we’ll probably start working on the new album. But I sing on two other albums that came out – one with Mr. Bob Corritore – called Do the Hip-Shake Babywhich is doing really well. The other is Anthony Geraci’s Why Did You Have To Go. Of course, there’s my album and I also did guest vocals on another four albums that came out this year. So, it’s been a busy year. As a matter of fact, I was just asked to be on a great Christmas album for all those poor folks in California that got burned out of their homes. In a few days, I’ll be going to Los Angeles to put my part on this great Christmas album. There’s always something going on.

KP: Is that to benefit the folks in Paradise, if I remember correctly?

SR: Yeah, the whole town is gone. My old music director, Ralph Carter is putting this together. He’s got a great record company behind it and a lot of big charities behind it and all of the proceeds will go to charity for a foundation set up just for that, so that’s pretty cool.

KP: Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know that we didn’t talk about?

SR: No, just that tell them that when they come to a Sugaray show, come to dance and have a good time. This is not jazz. We’re not going to be sitting down, eating cheese and drinking red wine. This is a malt liquor, fried chicken type of event.

KP:  Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

SR:  Thank you, it was a pleasure.


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