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.
PGcaught 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 recordingThis Way Upand 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 with McCartney?

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, fine.”

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.