Brian Ray having a blast onstage with Paul
McCartney (second from right), guitarist
Rusty Anderson (left), and keyboardist Paul
“Wix” Wickens (far right) August 18, 2010,
at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Photo by MJ Kim
Duke Ellington once said that his idea of
good luck was “Being at the right place,
at the right time, doing the right things, in
front of the right people.” Luck is also about
preparation and opportunity, and Brian Ray’s
entire life has been an amazing preparation
leading him to the enviable position of being
both guitarist and bassist for Paul McCartney.
During his long and illustrious career,
which has included a 14-year stint as Etta
James’ musical director, Ray has worked
with some of the biggest names in the
music industry. Joe Cocker, Peter Frampton,
Carlos Santana, Keith Richards, and Smokey
Robinson have all benefited from their relationship
with Ray, but he’s also a fine songwriter
and solo artist in his own right. His
latest solo album, This Way Up
, is a rockin’
power-pop opus that weaves a variety of great
guitar tones, old-school textures, evocative
lyrics, and tinges of Beatles-esque psychedelia.
caught up with Ray in London, where
he was in rehearsal working up new material
for the next Paul McCartney tour. During a
break, he talked about recording This Way Up
and what it’s like to back a Beatle.
You’ve played with a lot of people—Carlos
Santana, Peter Frampton, Van Morrison,
Dr. John, Keith Richards, and Etta James,
to name a few. How did you get the gig
I was having a birthday party and my good
buddy, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., had just
recorded with Paul. They were getting ready
to do a tour. At some point I asked, “Who’s
playing bass when Paul’s playing guitar and
piano?” He said, “Actually, we’re looking for
a guitar player who plays a little bass.” I put
my right hand in the air and said, “I’d love
a shot at that.” I got a phone call a couple
of weeks later from Paul’s producer. He said,
“Can you get down to my office in a half
hour? We’re doing one song at the Super
Bowl with Paul McCartney. I’d like to know
if you’d like to come and play?” I flipped
inside but tried to act cool and said, “No, I
can’t get there in half an hour, but I can get
there in an hour.” [Laughs
.] He said, “Okay,
I took that extra half hour to change my
pants—because I’d just pissed myself. I went
down to his office at A&M Records, and we
just hung out and talked. It was very low key.
He handed me a Telecaster to play, then he
handed me a Höfner violin bass to play. He
was just talking to me, looking at my hands.
Then he said, “I have a good feeling about
this. I’m going to put your name forward,
along with some other names, and we’ll see
what happens. Good luck.”
I left and thought, at least I have a shot.
I got a call the next day from Paul’s office,
saying, “Can you be on a plane tomorrow to
come play with Paul McCartney at the Super
Bowl opening ceremony in New Orleans?”
I said, “Yes!” I learned the song “Freedom,”
they rented me a P bass, and I performed it
with him at the 2002 Super Bowl.
Were you in the band at that point, or was
it just for that one show?
It was just for one gig. It went great. I was
nervous, but it all went fine. We went up
to the skybox to watch the rest of the game
together. All these superstars were popping
by to meet Paul and say hello, and Paul
would introduce me to this and that person
and chuckle about my intimate little audition
in front of 80,000 football fans and
a billion people watching at home. It was
getting near the end of the game, and I
thought, “I’ll probably never see him again—
this could be it.” I decided to get up and go
over to him. He was sitting with his [then]
wife, Heather, and I said, “I just want to
thank you for this amazing privilege. This
was really fun. If I don’t get to see you again,
thank you very much for having me.”
McCartney and Ray engage in a Les Paul duel
at their June 20, 2010, gig at Hampden Park in
Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Lorna Cumming
We were whisked out of there at the end
of the game, and he asked me to go back to
the hotel. We all went back there for drinks.
At the end of a bunch of stories and a couple
of drinks, he stood up and was about to go
off to bed. He gave us all a hug and came
up to me and said, “Brian, welcome aboard.
Stick with Abe and Rusty, and they’ll show
you the ropes.” Then he walked away and
that was it. I thought, “Oh, my God!” I said
to Abe, “Did he just say what I think he
said?” I ran home to woodshed every day for
five weeks to learn every Beatles, Wings, and
Paul song I could get my hands on.
Did they give you a set list or did you just
start learning popular McCartney songs?
I just grabbed everything I knew. There
wasn’t a set list until the week before the
rehearsal. Then I just homed in when I got
it. There was just me, a stack of CDs, an
acoustic, an electric, a bass, and a mic stand.
I just sat there, Unabomber style—shut in
and learning how to play Paul’s music.