For 11 years, Brian Ray has enjoyed what for many musicians would be the dream gig of a lifetime--as well as perhaps the most nerve wracking job you could imagine: playing guitar and bass on stage for Paul McCartney. And Brian's instrument of choice to cover classics by The Beatles and Wings? An Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Bass.
After a few minutes speaking with Brian, we can understand why the former Teddy Boy from Liverpool hired the LA native who likes to say he started his career with “a transistor radio, an ice cream bucket and a vivid imagination." Brian cut his teeth in the business as a bandleader for Etta James (a Beatle favorite). And like Mr. McCartney, Brian fell hard for rock and roll—Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis. Ray is also just as expressive, articulate, and endlessly enthusiastic as Macca is in interviews. Everyone is obviously having a great time together. And why not?
Paul is selling out every concert he plays and his 11th album New is getting great reviews. Meanwhile, Brian’s band The Bayonets recently released their 5th single, “Whatcha Got” which was co-written with Oliver Leiber (son of famed songwriter Jerry Leiber). Thanks to Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show, "Whatcha Got" has become a satellite radio hit the old fashioned way—with lots and lots of spins. Epiphone caught up with Brian who will be very busy over the next few months promoting New as well as a few other surprises.
Thanks for speaking with us, Brian. Just before our interview I watched some of your recent gig with Paul from Outside Lands.
Oh, it's amazing there. When we did our rehearsal, we got a preview of the sight and its pretty magnificent. You have this open, what used-to-be a polo ground and then it's bordered by a forest of Cypress trees so it's just stunning looking from the stage. And for miles and miles there’s restaurants and tents and games and kid’s play areas. It goes on and on. I guess it's being voted the best festival on the planet right now by a lot of people.
You're from LA originally. Did you visit San Francisco when you were kid?
My first trips to San Francisco were back when I started playing for Etta James, back in 1974, and then I was up there quite a bit. But my father is from the area. My dad went to junior high and high school in piedmont near Oakland.
You’re a long time collector of Epiphones.
Yeah, I sure am.
Is the Epiphone Jack Casady your main bass on stage?
It's my main bass right now. I've got a gold one--as you've probably seen--that I've been playing for over probably two years now and then I have a black one that you've probably never seen on stage as a back-up. I haven't needed it!
With all the possible basses at your disposal, why did you choose an Epiphone Jack Casady?
One of the elements that I wanted to employ was a longer scale bass. The thing about, say, a P-bass is you’re not quite centered when you’re playing—everything happens a little far back to the bridge. Paul plays a lot of palm muting and picking with his right hand and it's just ergonomically hard to palm and pick when your hand is way over to the right physically. And the Epi is lot better for that. It's also a single pickup, which appeals to me. I like the tone of it. It has a bigger body to it than, say, an SG bass, that I was using. The Jack Casady has a bigger sort of tonal body and a very strong fundamental, and a nice point to it. I'm looking for a certain amount of point and a certain amount of pillow-ness on stage. And I didn't want a sound that people are overly familiar with. I wanted to be sort of a little bit alternative. Also, it's a cool old body style.
What are some of the challenges you found playing Paul’s Beatle bass lines on stage? Some of those songs have never been performed live before.
You know, first of all, it's a big honor to be an apprentice bass guitarist with Paul because as you've said, I get to play some of the most important bass lines ever written in any form of music. Paul just had a super talent—obviously--for writing melodic yet rhythmic bass lines that were always a perfect counterpoint to the melody. When you think about some of these bass lines like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” where John was singing lead and Paul overdubbed the bass part, it's orchestral. It so nicely arranged. And it never
stops. It's this beautiful walking bass line that's rhythmic and melodic in a perfect counterpoint to the vocal. And Paul, right now, is playing bass and singing the lead on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” It's like--insane
(laughs). I think you do have to be a Gemini to pull that off.
How did you even try out for that job?
Well, Paul was looking for a guitar player that also played bass rather than just a bass player. I play electric, 6-string acoustic, electric 12 string, lead guitar, and lead slide and rhythm guitar and bass. So, I'm always switching over the course of 37 songs. I'm rarely on the same instrument for three songs straight. I think he was just looking for someone who did a good job of holding down the bass on the songs that he plays guitar or plays keyboards or mandolin or uke. Just someone that can cover those low tones while he's delivering his songs. And I was obviously lucky to get the chance and embraced it and here I am, 11 years later.
What turned you onto rock and roll?
There were two things that conspired--when I was a young boy--to put me into rock and roll. One was at age three, my half sister Jean--who is no longer with us--who later became my mentor and earliest collaborator on stage for my first professional gigs, she was a high school senior and she fell in love with rock and roll. This was 1958. I'm 58 years old now. And she fell in love with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, the Everly brothers, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. She had a stack of 45s like you wouldn't believe--I still own the 45s.
So, she would play these records over and over again like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear” and “Big Hunk ‘O Love” and as a little kid, I was just in fantasy land. I thought: What is going on?!
They’re making the girls squeal, which I thought of as good! And plus, it's just so fun. As a little kid, you know what's real and you know what’s counterfeit.
The next thing, when I was about 5 years old, I was given a transistor radio with a little ear piece. And on my radio at night was this pirate radio station. During the day it would be playing Mexican music out of Tijuana, Mexico. But at night there was this change and it became XERB with this crazy dj who signed off at night with a (howls
) and it was Wolfman Jack, and he played original r&b and rock and roll and this wonderful music form the 50s and early 60s. That was my next big love.
And then it was onto hot rod music and instrumentals and all these great records from the time. The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and of course Motown and folk music. I was crazy about folk music. And then here comes The Beatles. The Beatles changed the game. As a young kid, I felt like: Man, if I just pulled three of my best guy friends we could be in a band of equals
. Because before that it was just solo stars--Elvis, Little Richard guys like that. It was like being in a secret club—the Rolling Stones, Kinks, The Who, the Animals--this new wave of music came along.
I have a band now called the Bayonets. We're kind of making a lot of noise right now with my writing partner of many years, Oliver Lieber, who is the son of Jerry Lieber who co-wrote “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me.” We started a band together and we have a sort of circle of friends who join us. And we’ve done five singles and our last one came out August 9—“Watcha Got”-- and it's been declared by Little Steven to be the coolest song in the world. He puts it in top ration, 6-8 plays a day. That’s old school!
Are you going to print 45s? You could do that in Nashville at United Pressing where The Beatles Vee Jay singles were printed.
Good idea. We may do it down the road. The first one, “Vagabond Soul,” featured Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) playing killer harmonica. That would make a good single.
You have a vintage Casino too, right?
Yes, I have a 1965 Epi Casino with nickel covers and those great P-90s. But what's really great about it is that it’s in a very, very rare color--Silver Fox. It's black with “TV” yellow grain showing finish. A kind of translucent black. I’ve never seen another one like it.
You need to do a custom model of that Casino for Epiphone!
Well lets do an Epiphone Casino. Let’s do one with nickel pick up covers, just like my ‘65. I dare you to find one like it. You’ll find a Rivera but you wont’ find a Casino. They’re so rare.
We know you’re going to be really busy now that McCartney’s New is out so thanks for taking the time with us. And thanks for playing Epiphone on the Olympics, too.
Oh man, well it was my pleasure. For a long time, way before solid body electrics, you guys were making big box archtops. People need to know the whole history of Epiphone. It didn’t just start with The Beatles. Epiphone is awesome and the world needs to know about it.