If you’ve ever been blues dancing at The Joker in Islington on a Wednesday evening, you’ll know Ray Wallen.
If he’s not singing or playing the harmonica, he’s watching. Enjoying the music. Taking in the atmosphere.
One of the things I love about Ray’s music is that he re-works so many of the songs he sings. One of his talents is re-writing blues songs and giving them a ‘London’ spin.
My personal favourite is his Tom Waits/Ray Charles medley ‘Ice-cream Man/ Hit the Road Jack’.
Just. So. cool.
The very first time I met Ray he was playing in The Dan Nash Band at Blues Baby Blues 2013. I was still quite new at DJing and was super-nervous until Ray popped over to ask me what I was playing. (It was ‘Crawling King Snake’ by Etta James as I recall.) He told me he was really enjoying my music. (It means a lot to be complimented by a blues musician – especially someone like Ray.)
Me: Do you remember when we first met? You and Dan played at Blues Baby Blues, and I was DJing after you. You and Dan were so kind to me.
Ray: (Laughing) ‘I’ll always remember the first time I met Dan Nash. He stood out from everyone. I asked him, ‘Have you got a band?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘If you ever have a band, I’d like to play in it.’
I gave him my number. I’ve still got his number in my phone. I’ve got him down as Danny ‘Heathcoate’ – that was the name of the pub where I met him.
Me: How would you describe yourself as a blues musician?
Ray: I listen to old-school. I particularly like gospel. Whatever I do I like to be traditional but I put a contemporary spin on things.
I’m self-taught. Back in the day the music was quite complicated with all the rhythms they used. I play more percussive and try to pick out melodies.
Me: Who inspires you?
Ray: Little Walter was the first one. I heard him on John Peel. I liked punk and alternative music so I listened to the John Peel show. He was eclectic.
I remember he played Muddy Waters’ ‘Screaming and Crying’. If you listen to it, he’s screaming he’s in so much pain. I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ That’s what got me into blues.
Since then I got into Big Walter Horton. I love Sonny Terry. Kim Wilson is a modern day harmonica player. I like William Clark.
Me: How did you get your first harmonica?
Ray: There’s a music shop in Dalston. I went in the music shop and said, ‘I want to play harmonica.’
He said, ‘We’ve got a lot of harmonicas. What type of music do you want to play?’
I said, ‘I want to play blues.’
He said, ‘What key?’
‘I don’t want a key, I want a harmonica.’
I ended up buying an E harp! I didn’t know that then, but there’s NOTHING you can play in E! ‘Nine below Zero’ by Sonny Terry was the only thing I could play. (He laughs.)
Me: How did you learn?
Ray: I taught myself by listening and trying to copy people. I was encouraged by other musicians.
‘They believe in you before you believe in yourself.’
I didn’t think I was good enough to play in front of people. Everyone sounds so different. It’s your own voice, isn’t it?
Me: Tell me about your song-writing
Ray: I like to mix things up. I like the way Ian Drury uses lyrics. Or I might take a ZZ top number and put it over a funky blues or John Cooper Clark over a boogie. I take out the lines and blues them up.
Me: You know my favourite? Ice-cream Man/Hit the Road Jack. How did that come about?
Ray: I love Tom Waits so I asked a guitarist to play ‘Ice-cream Man’ as a rhumba. When I heard it played like that I knew. It lends itself to ‘Hit the Road Jack’. It fits.
Me: Tell me about how you started performing
Ray: The first time I was at Ain’t Nothin’ But (a blues bar in Central London). I was standing at the bar. A guy asked me if I played. I said,
‘I play in my bedroom.’
Anyway, he persuaded me to get up and play and that’s how it all started. Now I play with the Dust Me Down Blues Band with Davide Mazzantini.
Me: What it is like to play for dancers?
Ray: I love playing for dancers. Usually you’re just background music. With dancers, they’re putting their own emotion into it. It’s instant feedback.
‘The dance community has kept live music for the purpose that live music was there for.’
They appreciate and they’re listening. Dancers listen to music and they use their emotions to appreciate what they’re listening to.
So I want to thank the dancers really.
Thank you Ray. We are so lucky to have you and the Dust Me Down Blues Band playing for the London blues community. It’s been lovely chatting with you. Next time we’re at The Joker, the beer’s on me.
(And if you want to check out Ray in action, here he is performing ‘Ice Cream Man/Hit the Road Jack’ with the Dust Me Down Blues Band at Ain’t Nothin But, in Soho, London.)