Ray J.’s Hat Trick

Raymond Jones, better known as Ray J., is a man who wears several musical hats. Currently a regular member of no less than four New Orleans bands—The Pinstripe Brass Band, Deacon John and the Ivories, Big Al Carson and the Heavyweights, and Sullivan Dabney’s Jazz Band—he’s also taught music in high school, acted as a band director, promoted records and squeezed in a short but modestly successful solo recording career. Collectors of classic soul are familiar with his name via his superb work in the 1970s as writer and arranger for Senator Jones’ family of R&B labels Hep’ Me, Jenmark, JBs and Superdome.

A youthful and energetic 60, Ray J was born August 17, 1939, and grew up in the Magnolia Housing Projects on Lasalle Street. “My father, John L. Jones, was my initial musical inspiration,” recalled Jones. “Any stringed instrument he could play—guitar, banjo, bass. He taught a lot of people how to play. We lived right across the street from the Dew Drop [Inn]. I used to sneak in there and catch the early morning jam sessions. My dad would sit on the porch and wait for me to come back home and I’d tell him the people I’d seen, like Ray Charles, Tommy Ridgley, Guitar Slim and Charles Brown. Patsy Vidalia was the emcee at the Dew Drop, you talk about something else—Patsy was ‘the Toast of New Orleans.’ Emcees like Bobby Marchan and Mr. Google Eyes that came along later got a lot of their routine from Patsy.

“Later I went to Cohen High School on Dryades Street where I played trumpet in the school band. My first professional job was with Herbert Leary’s band. I sang but I didn’t play an instrument. Herbert had a real popular band that played a lot of balls, parties and social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans.”

Piano would become Jones’ favorite instrument, and he fell under the influence of one of New Orleans’ keyboard legends. “I learned a lot from Edward Frank,” said Jones. “He lived near our family and when he’d play the piano at home I’d stand outside his door and listen. One day he said, ‘You’re around here every day, you must be interested in music.’ I told him, ‘I sure am.’ He showed me a lot of stuff. If I had to pick a favorite piano player, I’d have to say it was him because he was so versatile.”

Ray J. also proved to be versatile and eventually joined the circle of musicians that worked for Percy Stovall. Stovall ran the Continental Booking Agency, which booked both New Orleans and national acts throughout the South. With Stovall, Jones worked with Robert Parker and Bill Sinigal’s bands, backing everyone from Chris Kenner to Solomon Burke. Jones also realized the value of a good education and enrolled at Southern University in Scotlandville in their music program and he later earned a Masters degree in music from LSU.

Once he graduated, Ray J. returned to New Orleans and took a job at Xavier Prep, directing the band and teaching music. He also played keyboards with Oliver and the Rockettes, which had a regular gig at Club 77 on North Claiborne Avenue. After a couple of years with Rockettes, the band fell apart when their leader, Oliver Corning, fell ill. Jones formed his own band, Sweet Poison, which became the house band at Prout’s Club Alhambra in the late 1960s.

“That was a real learning experience,” reflected Ray J. “Prout’s was an upscale high class place. You had to have money just to walk in the door. We played there seven nights a week. Every weekend they’d have an out-of-town artist and we backed them. I played behind so many—Brook Benton, Arthur Prysock, Barbara Lynn, Etta James, Z.Z. Hill, Syl Johnson. I had offers to go on the road with Latimore, Bobby Bland and B.B. King, but of course I couldn’t go because I was teaching at Xavier.”

In the early 1970s Ray J. crossed paths with Senator Jones, who ran several labels at Jazz City Studio on Camp Street. “I was writing an arrangement for a female singer when Senator came in and asked me what I was doing,” said Jones. “I explained it to him and he was impressed. The kind of records he’d been making weren’t really arranged. The vocalists just stood behind the microphone and sang and the musicians played whatever they thought would fit.”

In Ray J., Jones found a talented writer, arranger and recording artist, albeit a reluctant one. “Initially he wanted me to record me but I wasn’t keen on that,” admitted Jones. “I wanted to write and arrange music. I’m a quiet guy and I like to stay in the background. I wasn’t comfortable being the center of attention.

Eventually though Jones convinced Ray J. to cover Dr. John’s 1973 hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and released it on the Jenmark label. “I was surprised when they wanted me to record that and I didn’t want to because I was a friend of Mac [Rebennack]‘s and I thought he’d get mad,” said Jones. “But we got a good arrangement on it and the record sold pretty well. They told me it outsold Mac’s version around New Orleans. After my record came out, Mac called and said he wished I’d have played on his session, because he thought my version was better!” Several Jenmark singles followed including “Love Vibration,” “Lost Girlfriend” and “Dream Girl, Dream Boy.” which sold well around New Orleans. He was also teamed up for several releases with Norma Jean (McDermott). “Senator brought her by the studio one day,” remembers Ray J. “We cut a single (‘This Is Our Love Song’) that did pretty well and then we worked on an album (Ray J. & Norma Jean). Those were all duets.” Ray J. also was responsible for many of early Senator Jones-produced local hits, including Little Eddie Lang’s “Food Stamp Blues.”

“Eddie was easy to work with,” said Ray J. “It didn’t take long to write that song. Everybody was talking about food stamps [in 1973] so I guess you’d say the words were topical. The record sold real well; in fact Senator leased it [to Jewel Records] and it sold all over the country.”

Other artists for whom Ray J. wrote and arranged were Chris Kenner (“We Belong Together”), James Rivers (“Thrill Me”), Charles Brimmer (“God Blessed Our Love”), Bobby Powell (“Queen Sized Woman”), Stop Incorporated (Second Line”) and Johnny Adams.

“I don’t know how Senator got Johnny to record for him because he’d had some very big records,” said Jones. “Johnny’s voice was God-given but he was also inventive and had good ideas. He could listen to a playback and right away he knew if the song would benefit by adding another instrument or extra voices.

“I really liked his version of ‘Stand By Me’ (initially released on JBs and later leased to Chelsea). A lot of people covered that song, but we’d been doing it live for a while and Johnny came up with a different approach to the song. I was on the ‘After All the Good Is Gone’ session that Wardell Quezergue arranged. That was like watching a genius at work. He knew the right musicians to pick to back a particular artist and how to get the best out of them.”

In addition to working in the studio, Ray J. worked live gigs with the artists recorded on Jones’ constellation of labels, delivered records to radio stations, picked up records from the pressing plant, and called on distributors and stores. He managed all this and taught at Xavier Prep. “I lost a lot of sleep, a lot of weight, and a wife,” admitted Jones. “I was never home and eventually it hurt my marriage and my wife left. You can’t do everything.”

Ray J. stayed with Jones until the early 1980s, not long before he stepped back from the record business.

“For a small label we had a lot of great records and fair bit of success,” said Ray J. “Senator [Jones] worked really hard, but I think what finally hurt him was that he had too many artists. He was trying to push too many records at the same time and the DJs stopped playing his stuff. Senator lives in Mississippi now and he still calls me once in awhile to put a band together and come up there to back him up and record again but I’ve got a full plate right now.”

Even after studio work slowed up by the mid-1980s, Ray J. stayed busy working with numerous local bands, including Tommy Ridgley and the Untouchables as well as Irma Thomas and the Professionals. Ray J. retired from Xavier in 1992, but he obviously isn’t letting the grass grow under his feet. When asked how he balances playing in four bands, Ray J. chuckled, “I tell each leader what nights I usually work with the other bands. But if I’m not working on the night I normally would with one band, I’ll take a job working with another group. I try to keep things balanced by having each band’s schedule.”

Ray J.’s most recent trip to the studio was backing Dabney on his recent CD, The Many Moods of Sullivan Dabney. Although he’s currently not kicking in the studio door, he has not ruled out recording his own CD in the not too distant future.

“I prefer playing behind other artists, but I’d like to do something on my own and I’ve got a few ideas,” said Jones. ”I’m sort of like Nat King Cole. I prefer playing to singing even though I can sing. If I were to do something on myself I think I’d like to do an instrumental jazz CD.”