Raymond Jones, a.k.a. Ray J, a New Orleans music educator, arranger, bandleader and recording artist, died February 6, 2011. He was 71. Jones was born in New Orleans on August 17, 1939, and grew up in the Magnolia (C.J. Peete) Housing Project, directly across the street from the Dew Drop Inn on Lasalle Street.
“I used to sneak in there and catch the early morning jam sessions,” Jones told OffBeat in 2000. “My dad used to sit on the porch and wait for me and I’d tell him about the people I’d seen. Ray Charles, Tommy Ridgley, Guitar Slim.”
Jones attended Cohen High School where he played trumpet in the school band. He also played piano and was schooled by one of New Orleans’ legends, Edward Frank.
“[Frank] lived near our family. He played the piano at home and I’d sit outside his door and listen. One day he said, ‘You’re around here everyday, you must be interested in music?’ I said, ‘I sure am.’ He showed me a lot of stuff.”
Jones went on the road with Percy Stovall’s band briefly, backing national acts on the chitlin circuit, but he also realized the value of a good education. Jones enrolled in the music program at Southern University where he captained the marching band. He eventually earned a Masters degree in music from LSU.
After graduating, he returned to New Orleans and took a job at Xavier Prep High School where he directed the school band and taught music.
Jones also joined Oliver and the Rockettes, an enormously popular local band that had a regular gig at Club 77. When the Rockettes dissolved, Jones formed his own group, Sweet Poison, which became the house band at Prout’s Club Alhambra.
“We played seven night a week. Every week we backed an out-of-town artist. Brook Benton, Barbara Lynn, Etta James, Syl Johnson, Solomon Burke. I had offers to go on the road, but I couldn’t because I was teaching at Xavier.”
It was at Prout’s where Jones befriended Senator Jones, who ran several local record labels, most notably Hep’ Me.
“Initially, he wanted to record me, but I wasn’t keen on that. I like to remain in the background. I wanted to write and arrange music.”
Eventually he did all three for Senator Jones. Ray J (as he was called on his recordings) had a local hit with a cover of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and he also waxed several locally successful duets with Norma Jean (McDermott).
However, it was as an arranger where Jones excelled. He worked on sessions with Chris Kenner, Eddie Lang, Charles Brimmer, James Rivers, Bobby Powell and perhaps most notably, Johnny Adams.
“Johnny was inventive and had good ideas. He could listen to a playback and right away knew if it needed an extra instrument or extra voices.”
Jones stayed with Senator Jones until the impresario shut down his labels in the mid-1980s. After 25 years of teaching at Xavier, he retired in 1991. Xavier still annually gives an award in his name to their most outstanding music student. Jones stayed active well into the new millennium working with the likes of Irma Thomas and Big Al Carson.
Jones is survived by one son.