Blues for Life
"He's drunk now!"
Paul Ray hangs up the phone. He's been talking to one of his loyal Twine Time listeners, a man named Charlie T. Earlier in the evening, Charlie called and offered to share his Crown Royal with Ray. Alas, he seems to have started without him. But no worries. Ray cues up a CD, sends Freddie King's "Sidetracked" out to Charlie, and goes on with the show.
It's Saturday night in the KUT studios at 26th and Guadalupe. Across campus, the Texas Longhorns score twice in the final two minutes to vanquish Baylor, 30-20. Upstairs, redheaded Reba-in-waiting Martina McBride is taping an Austin City Limits episode. And right here in the KUT control room, Ray is playing the blues. Last week, he emceed KUT's "homecoming dance" at the Texas Union Ballroom, spinning Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, The Coasters, Elvis, and the Everly Brothers for the 40 or so couples who braved the torrential rains, so tonight it's all Magic Sam, Junior Parker, John Lee Hooker and such, just the way he likes it, heavy on the Southern flavor of Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Cookie & the Cupcakes, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Frankie Lee Sims, whose "Boogie Real Slow" he sends out to Diana, his wife of 30 years.
Though today more people might know Ray from his jazz shows or as the voice reading the weather during NPR's All Things Considered, the lanky, bespectacled 56-year-old Dallas native is every bit as uniquely talented as the men and women he plays on Twine Time. Of course he's also much too modest to ever say so himself, but consider the evidence: Twine Time is a Saturday night fixture on KUT and one of the station's most popular shows (especially during fundraising time); he honed his chops in the shadowy, rough-and-tumble juke joints of early-Sixties Dallas; he was a charter member of Austin's early-Seventies Lost Blues Society, fronting the Cobras, who once upon a time rivaled even the mighty Thunderbirds; and besides being "emcee for life" of the Austin Music Awards, he's a living encyclopedia of jazz, blues, R & B, soul, gospel, and rock & roll. Not too shabby for a onetime UT advertising major. ("I thought I'd be good at it," says Ray the following Tuesday night of his early career choice. "And I probably would have. It's just a bullshit job, and I can bullshit. That's what I'm doing here.")
Ray, it seems, was born into R&B. He can remember boogying to Louis Jordan's "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens" and Dusty Fletcher's "Open the Door Richard" as a toddler, and there's no telling what he heard while the memory circuitry in his cerebrum wasn't formed yet. "They say you don't remember anything until you're 3 or 4," he says. "I remember songs from before that, but I don't know them as well. Some of that earlier R & B stuff is just stuck in the back of my head."
As one of 12 children, Ray had plenty of siblings around with radios and record players, and he was fortunate enough to live in an area of the country perfectly situated to pick up stations from just about anywhere. "Living in Dallas, we could pick up Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Shreveport, Acuna, Mexico, Nashville," he recalls. On top of that, music was in his genes; his father and uncles played live on the radio in Dallas in the Twenties, backing an organist named Narvell Slater, and "the church choir where we went was mostly my family; the majority of people in the choir were related to me."
No wonder he got an early start.
"I've got a tape of us from 1950 on the radio, WRR in Dallas, singing Christmas carols and shit," he says. "I think the first time I sang in public, I was in the first grade. My sister and I sang 'Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland,' only we sang it 'walkin' in my winter underwear.'"
Ray was practically a seasoned veteran by the eighth grade, when he picked up tenor saxophone in the junior-high band. He stayed in band (actually three: concert band, marching band, and ROTC band) his first year at Dallas' Woodrow Wilson High Schoolbefore joining the choir and fronting a doo-wop group. From there it was off to UT, where the erstwhile advertising student soon gravitated to music once again, prodded by a high-school friend and the promise of free meals.
"My buddy, he pledged a fraternity," remembers Ray. "These guys had a little combo, so he started playing with them during rush and said, 'Hey, this is great.' They didn't have a singer, so they got me to be their singer, and through that I got in the band and the fraternity at the same time. I was supposed to be a pledge, but I didn't have to do any of that pledge shit. I just played at all the parties, lived in the house, ate at the house mother's table, and wasn't even a member. It was fun."
So much so that studying took the proverbial back seat (something that, amazingly enough, has been known to happen at UT even today). "We all flunked out, and the three of us from Dallas went back to Dallas," says Ray. "We got two other guys from North Texas and started playing up there in clubs, right around '63, I think."
The first club Ray and bandmates played in (under the ever-popular Texas moniker the Playboys) was Jimmy's Club, a small room off Mockingbird Lane owned by the Ramirez family, whose sons doubled as house band Joe Ramirez and the Jumping Jacks.
"They were wonderful," he says. "The first time I went into Jimmy's Club, they were playing Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, just tearing this lowdown shit. They had their hair all pompadoured and greased back, and they wore black suits, skinny ties, they had French cuffs with about two inches of cuff sticking out of their suits, boots, alligator shoes and shit. Denny Freeman said Jimmy's Club ruined me. I thought Bobby Darin was kinda hip, in a way, then I went in there and saw those guys and I went, 'Man, forget him.'"
Sometimes Jimmy's would get a trifle, er, rowdy.
"That was the place where I was singing my heart out with my eyes closed," he recalls, "and I opened my eyes and I'm looking down the barrel of a pistol and I could see the bullets in the chamber.
"'You lookin at my wife?'
"'Uhh ... I had my eyes closed, sir. I can't see past this light. I can see your gun but I can't see you.'
"Luckily, somebody came and led him away before he shot me."
The Playboys filled in whenever the Jumping Jacks were out of town, but left because they weren't making any money; every time Joe and the guys would come off the road, Ray's band would lose their gig. They moved on to a club called the Beachcomber's (DFW soul legend Bobby Patterson used to play there too), stayed a few months, then moved on again after one particularly wild night on the town.
"We had gotten in this stupid [incident] with the clubowner one night," explains Ray. "Everybody was drunk, chasing everybody with guns and shit all over Dallas and had a wreck and wiped out a couple of cars, including the car I was driving. It was a loaner because my car was in the shop from me wrecking it. Everybody was just totally out of control."
After Beachcomber's, where his band would be replaced by the Pendulums, featuring an adolescent by the name of Jimmie Vaughan, Ray and company moved to the private Squire's Club, where they did much better financially, no doubt due to the club's lenient attitude toward Texas' stringent liquor-by-the-drink laws and its generous, if slightly seedy, clientele.
"This guy loved this song 'You Better Move On,' that Arthur Alexander song, and every time I'd do that he'd give me $100," says Ray. "After hours, they'd lock the joint and it'd be these rich guys and their concubines or girlfriends and the waitresses and all the employees, and we'd sit around and drink and he'd stuff $100 bills in my pocket every time I'd do 'You Better Move On.' I'd do it four or five times and give everybody $100."
Ray stuck around Dallas until 1969, even opening for Muddy Waters the previous year at the Family Circle. ("Muddy was a sweetheart," he remembers. "He came backstage and told me, 'You sing like a bird.'") First he lit out for California, then a commune in a 100-year-old farmhouse 18 miles south of Denison. It didn't work out too well. "We couldn't play up there," he says. "Nobody would hire us. Blues was out. Nobody wanted to hear that."
The situation wasn't much better when Ray and Diana, with whom he had been involved several years already, moved to Austin in the summer of 1970. But there was the IL club on East 11th and Alexander's Bar-B-Q on Brodie Lane, places that didn't mind a little blues.
"It was W.C. [Clark] and Angela Strehli, Denny Freeman, and Jimmie Vaughan and me, and Lewis Cowdrey and all those people, Derek O'Brien, Rodney Craig. We just played on weekends out there. There were enough of us to form two or three bands. The middle of the week at the One Knite, it was all the same 12 people but a different frontman every night. One night it's Doyle [Bramhall Sr.] in front, one night it's Lewis, one night it's Angela, one night it's Stevie or whatever."
Of course, what eventually grew out of those amorphous evenings was heady stuff: Storm, Southern Feeling, the Nightcrawlers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Triple Threat, Double Trouble. Ray's Cobras anchored Tuesday nights at the Soap Creek Saloon. Antone's came along in 1975 ("It gave us a home base," Ray says, "and the best thing was meeting all those old blues masters, like Hubert Sumlin and Junior Wells"). History was already well on its way to being written.
"I don't think anybody thought that we were going to get a record deal and get famous," Ray says. "We all thought we could live here forever. It's cheap rent, we could play blues, and none of these people we knew were gonna move, they were all gonna stay here with us. We just thought we were gonna stay here and play blues for the rest of our lives. It was the best time of my life."
Ray retired from regular performing in 1978, after a vicious Lubbock sandstorm wiped out his vocal cords, and he wound up at KUT, inheriting Twine Time from then-local scenester/scribe Bill Bentley. "We sat in the basement down on the first floor," Ray remembers. "We'd sit down there, drink whiskey, and play blues records. It was fun. Then [Bentley] went to California and I took over and made a regular show out of it."
Ironically, Ray still only plays R&B on the radio for those three hours. He says Twine Time isn't the same anymore due to the proliferation of the oldies format and other R&B-based radio programming (including KUT's Blue Monday). The rest of his 30 hours a week at KUT, afternoons 2-4pm and Tuesday nights, he spins jazz, which is fine with him.
"I enjoy playing jazz a lot, and I enjoy coming in during the day and hanging out with Aielli during the afternoon and getting a different perspective on life from that crazy guy," he says. "This show is really the most fun I have during the week. I'm totally alone, totally free to put on Archie Shepp and let him just wail his ass off and scare all the girls out there. I love that."