“The day I walked out of Camp Pendleton, November 15th, I went and got my ears pierced. I did everything I could to become a civilian again.”
Sugaray Rayford spent ten years in the Marine Corps. “It was a way of getting out of the church, the country, the ghetto and just having a new start. It was the only way I thought I would ever be anything outside of Tyler, Texas.”
Decades years later, after several bands, three solo albums, and an appearance at this year’s Blues Music Awards, he sees his past in perspective.
“As decades roll by I’m more and more proud of what I did. Back then, I think I was young. I didn’t really appreciate. As I get older, I’m proud of the time I served. I wouldn’t have my wife and the life I have right now had I not served. I’m learning as I get older to appreciate the things I did in the past.”
The Marines were a ticket out of a childhood that had been fraught with a combination of horror and tough love as one of three brothers literally starving to death as their mother slowly died of cancer. She passed away when he was 11.
“My mother, God bless her soul, wasn’t the greatest mom in the world. I think she as too young and hadn’t got a good home life. Ninety five percent of my life mostly I was raised by my grandmother.
“My mother was the most unbelievable singer and dancer in the world. Shirley Caesar wanted my mother to sing with her, but grandmother said no. My understanding is this was before I was even born. My mother must have been 17 or 18 years old. When Caesar wanted my mother to go on tour, my grandma said no, you’re too young, you’re too wild. No, you’re not going.”
“My mother used to look at us and say, ‘You guys can’t sing. You guys can’t sing. You’re not my children.’
Under his grandmother’s roof, Sugaray and his brothers ate every day and went to church every day, too. He grew up in gospel church and became a choir director. At 16 he was with the Inspirational 300-plus-member Youth Choir and had the chance to work with some legendary gospel bands like “The Jackson Southernaries,” “Mighty Clouds Of Joy” and many others.
“So, I’ve been one of the people directing, singing, and playing drums since I was five years old.”
The church gave Sugaray the experience that would stand him in good stead when he went secular after leaving the Marines. No one in the family objected to his leaving his religious musical roots.
“I think most of the people I was with were just happy that my grandmother raised three ghetto children that never went to jail or anything like that. We beat the statistics. My grandmother loved me beyond comparison, but she was old school. She wasn’t the type to tell you, ‘I love you.’ There wasn’t gonna be a lot of love and kisses. She was gonna clothe ya, house ya, feed ya.And that was it.”
“She never said a thing (about my playing secular music). I don’t know if she even knew it till the last couple years of her life. I’m pretty sure my aunts told her. They’ve always been very proud. My brothers are very proud, but Big Mama never said much about it. One thing for me was just respect. A lot of people wanted me to do gospel and out of respect for my grandmother I’ve always said ’cause she always said, ‘You’re either in or out,’ and I just don’t feel right doing gospel after doing blues or soul music farther on. What I sing is from my heart, my soul. So, I haven’t been able to cross that bridge.
“I now I believe if I was just doing gospel and I wasn’t really feeling it, she might come out of the grave and hit me with a horseshoe. So, I want her to rest in peace. So, I can’t do a gospel number and not feel conflicted about it. That’s what it is. She never said anything before she passed about me, but I think as long as we were happy, she was happy.”
One thing Sugaray learned from the church that he’s applied to soul, R&B, and blues singing is to pour his life experiences into every song he sings whether he wrote it or not.
“I was brought up in the ghetto as well as in the country and grew up in the church, and we were always taught you can sing a lie easier than you can tell a lie, and what that means to me is, when I’m writing a song or someone else has written it, I’ve done a lotta living. So, I’ve actually lived most of every song I’ve ever done. So, singing is like playing the drums. (He’s been playing drums since he was five.) Everybody knows the difference between a drum beater and a drum player.
“A drum player makes the drums sound musical. A drum beater is making all that noise. So, vocally, this music – whether it be blues, gospel, soul, jazz, not so much rock and roll or country – is all about the story, and if you cannot put your horse in and have empathy for the story, you’re just making noise. But if you’re into the story and really understand what the lyrics are about, you get to live some of it. Then, you can give that ring of truth to your singing.
“You can’t fake that. You can listen to an album. You can listen to a video. You can see those who are singing a song or moving. You know they’ve been through that, that they’re singing about something that’s real, not just words someone wrote on a page, and that’s the difference between these singers and pretenders.
“So, a lot of people want to do a bunch of vocal gymnastics and all that. I can do all that, and I did all that when I was younger, but truly the song is about the lyrics that were written, and I do everything in my power to reach out and grab the real true life experiences in my own life and overlay those feelings into those lyrics so that it feels – not feels, but IS a real testimonial.”
Blues was not the first secular music he played. He started singing contemporary music in a group called the Urban Gypsies in 2003 and became lead vocalist in Aunt Kizzy’z Boyz in 2004. Asked to compare the two, he chuckles.
“Wow. They’re literally night and day. My wife convinced me to get back into music. My first band was called the Urban Gypsies, and it was a soul, funk and R&B cover band, and then they got really big and dominated the soul and R&B scene in southern California, San Diego, and all of that area.
“But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to go further. I wanted to do original material, and all the guys in the band had been in big bands before. They didn’t want to go to rehearsal. They were happy with playing the (hits) with some of the bigger venues as the opening band or come in a cover band and do that, but I wanted more.
“Aunt Kizzy’s Boyz was straight ahead blues band and a little bit of a rock twist with a couple of people in the band, but we were a straight-ahead blues band. So, I left my old band. I left the Urban Gypsies and a good friend of mine, Jim Moreno who used to be with the Ink Spots – the Crickets told me, ‘You need to be in a blues band. You can go far in the blues,’ and I was like, ‘It is close to the gospel thing,’ and I left the cover band.
“I went one night and sat in for a jam, my first actual blues jam. I sat in with a real band, but I had never sat in with a blues band. So, I went there and a lot of people knew who I was. They knew me from the soul, R&B stuff. And there was this guy Duane on the drums and some other cats around. They’re playing blues, and I only knew about five songs. I knew B. B. King’s “3 O’clock in The Morning Blues.” I would sing that one. I was singing “Further On Up The Road” by Bobby Blue Bland. Gosh, I can’t remember. My wife’s memory is much better than mine, but I know “3 O’Clock in The Morning Blues” by B. B. King, “Further On Up The Road,” and I think a couple of old shuffles or something I remember. That was it.
“So, I went and sat in, and after that the audiences knew me and who is this guy? I’d sit in and we got into it. Afterwards, Duane was like, ‘Hey, man, you got the kind of (chops) I got. Blah, blah, blah. We need to get together and jam.’
“I came back the next week, and I guess Duane had gone and told his business partner, this guitarist Jimmy King, about it, came back the very next day they called me and asked me to come up and play this big festival in front of thousands of people, but I was really apprehensive because we were in front of a whole lot of black people and black folks are different from white folks. Black folks will come up and tell you to your face whether or not you’re any good. They will tell ya. We used to say in church, ‘Not everybody is supposed to sing. Some people are supposed to be the usher.’
“Gospel people were different that way. They would just come up on stage. I used to tell people when you go to church you see all these great gospel singers and players ’cause by the time they get to sit in their chairs or stand up in front of their mikes in front of that choir, they’ve gone through the Crucible.
“They go through their American Idol, long, long before those shows were even thought about in the church. You were in the Crucible before you were in the church. You were in the Crucible before you were ever allowed to do that. By the time you got up there to direct the choir, play that organ, play the drums, be lead singer, you were a veteran.
“I joined the band. Six months later, we were doing our first album. Trunk Full of Blues. Then, we went down and competed in the International Blues Challenge. That was 2005. We played a lot of shows. Then, we went to Europe and things were going great, and I did that, probably 200 shows a year.
“It got to the point I had already outgrown Aunt Kizzy and had all these other ideas of things I wanted to do. I went to Casey’s and there was a well-known blues guy in L.A. named John Marx, like a blues emporium, this guy. He was running jams, and the first time I went they didn’t let me get up. The second time I went they let me get up. The third time was a show night. It was all these Mondays. They finally let me up. After that, everyone was like who are you, who are you? Who are you and all that stuff. A week later, the club owner Casey called me up and asked me if I was thinking of coming in and taking over from (the other guy had been doing it) 13 years. I didn’t want to make any waves. I don’t know anybody.”
Sugaray’s wife Pam is a certified nurse and also his manager. The most important piece of advice she’s ever given him is to be himself.
“As far as I can see for the foreseeable future she will always be my manager because the one thing about my wife, she tells me the truth. Not that I want to hear it. But she tells me the truth.”
The toughest piece of advice she’s given him is not to ever sing that song again. “But I don’t remember what song it was. Oh, the other one she tells me. She says either this is a hobby or it’s a job. You have to decide. I am who I am because of her. That’s just the truth. That’s not buttering her up. She believed in me before I believed in myself.”
Under her direction, he’s released four solo albums and toured as lead singer of the Mannish Boys. I saw him in that role last year at the Chenango Blues Festival where he popped out of the group with spirited performance that reminded me of Howlin’ Wolf in his heyday. Last year he recorded an album of original soul songs in the 1960s tradition for an Italian entrepreneur, The World That We Live In.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is I’ve probably done about 12 commercials and four or five TV shows. So, a lot of people just see me as blues, straight blues, but I’m a singer. It’s all about the story for me. I’ve done commercials for Jim Beam. I’ve done commercials for McDonald’s. I’ve done commercials for Cadillac, Toyota. My God, I can’t remember all the stuff I’ve done. We get offers every once in a while from different people to come in and do stuff.”
“Luca Sapio contacted me, and I had just come off the road and I (was home) a couple days and says ‘You got to go to Italy and record this album.’ I’m like what album? I don’t know nothing, but I land in Italy, and I walk into this studio. It’s a really nice studio, and I’m like, ‘Ok, all right. This is good.’ I was floored. The album was recorded in three days.”
“Between you and I, it was probably the best works and songs that I’ve done since I got in the music business. I had no idea how the blues world was gonna take to this, but everybody was, ‘This is a great album. You should do this.’ Once the album came out and I listened to it, I was floored. I’m still floored. I still will come in sometimes and listen to some of the songs. They’re so heart felt, steeped in the emotion and the way they’re done, these guys wanted to recreate the old soul, feel with a soul singer.
“There are not that many singers left, and I was like I don’t know if I’m a soul singer. I’m just a singer and they’re like uh-uh! We were originally going to do two more albums, but we wound up breaking up because they wanted me to leave my band to front their band, and I was, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’ (Chuckle) So, it did really, really well in Europe ’cause they pushed me. I got a couple write-ups in Rolling Stone magazine, all this stuff. But when it came to the United States at that point they realized that I was not going to leave my band to tour with their band. They didn’t push it in the U.S.A. It kicked butt all over Europe. Every magazine you can think of. Every magazine, every radio, every TV, thing you could think of they pushed it on, and it did well, and it came to U.S. just as we released it.”
In 2017 Sugaray was nominated for two Blues Music Awards, The B. B. King Entertainer of the Year Award and Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year Award. In May of this year he performed “I Don’t Regret A Mile” from his Italian album at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis. He was on second and had five minutes to rehearse with a house band. It didn’t phase him.
“I’m always me. Once I’m on stage I feel that where my soul belongs, and I’m happy, but that song, if you listen to the lyrics on it, it’s a very deep song, and it just goes about everything I’ve been through up to this point in my career. I don’t regret a mile that I’ve traveled. So, for me it’s just being real where I’m that way whenever I go up on stage. So, I don’t really have to pump myself up. I’m basically just being me. The very first lyrics are ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust/If God won’t help me/ then the devil must. I don’t regret a mile that I’ve traveled in this old world.’
“I don’t do set lists. Somebody asked me that. Why don’t you do set lists? The reason I don’t do set lists is we play so much that I don’t want this to become blasé. It must be real and virile every time we play, and that way people are getting a real party. I don’t want people saying, ‘He did this or that same show, the exact same show in the exact same place night after night after night that kills musicians’ spirit. You get the greats musicians in the world, and that just destroys them. Then, they’re just phoning it in.’ I walk out. I feel the crowd. I feel people’s spirits, the room, the venue, and I picked myself up right there on the stage. I have about 100 songs, originals and covers. I do it my way. When I feel it, I call it. That’s how we do it.”
Visit Sugaray’s website at: https://sugarayblues.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.