There are a lot of great jobs out there, but it’s hard to imagine one better than guitarist for Paul McCartney. Just ask Brian Ray, who has held that title since 2002. Most recently, his gig took him to the White House, which he admits was mind-blowing, when McCartney received The Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in Performance. In the PBS special, which begins airing tonight (July 28) -- and we review here -- McCartney plays a few tunes, but his band backs up most of the artists paying tribute to Macca, including Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl, Faith Hill and Elvis Costello.
Ray served as Etta James’ musical director and guitarist for 14 years and has also collaborated with artists such as Peter Frampton, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Cornell and Smokey Robinson. He releases his second solo album, “This Way Up,” Aug. 3 digitally and Aug. 9 as a physical disc via the Sony-distributed Icon Music Group.
Hitfix recently talked to Ray, who indulged our McCartney questions. Hear two tracks, “Happy Ending” and “I Found You,” from “This Way Up” here.
What have you learned from Paul McCartney about songwriting?
Paul is one of the, arguably, two best songwriters in rock and roll history. John [Lennon] would be the other one. He’s responsible for music that makes up our DNA and he is an inspiring guy. Not just for this incredible canon of work he’s produced over the years in his solo work and with Wings and with the Beatles, but also just who he is as a guy. That he’s still making records with the same passion and love and thought and caring that he’s always made them with at this point in his career is, to me, inspiring. Just that in itself--that he’s continuing to create.
And then, just on an hourly basis, being around him, you just see that he is music basically. He’ll be walking across the kitchen during rehearsals out in the country with us and he’ll whistle a melody that is beautiful and he might run into the other room and start writing a song. He just lives and breathes music and that, in and of itself, is so inspiring. Even if I don’t end up writing a song that sounds like a Paul McCartney song, and I hope that I don’t do that since w should all be individuals, [there’s an] inspiration that you get from someone whose spirit is so musical.
What did you learn about songwriting from listening to the Beatles growing up?
Lennon and McCartney wrote songs that were full of promise and surprise and they were vehicles for escape. For a guy like me, whose upbringing wasn’t the best--it wasn’t the worst by any stretch--but all kids want to escape, and the Beatles and so many of the other British Invasion groups, offered an incredible vehicle… You could paint it as you want, you could see in your own life what you wanted these songs to mean and you could drive that escape vehicle right out of your own reality and we all did it together at the same time.
What is your best moment of every night on stage with McCartney?
Oh man, there’s 36 songs and all of them start with so much excitement for me, but I guess when we get to “Band on the Run.” That signals a run up of 15 of the largest songs, the tallest songs, that I’ve ever heard in my life and I’m fortunate enough to get to play that 12-string guitar break that’s all alone in the middle of “Band on the Run” and you feel a shift because we’ve been on stage by then for an hour and a half and we’re up there for two hours and 45 minutes. It’s like the sun comes up right there. It does in the song with that guitar and then the songs just get taller and taller until you’re just been beat up by Mike Tyson by the end of the night, but in a loving way.
What’s something about Paul that you know that the rest of us don’t?
He is funnier than hell. All of us have seen interviews with Paul by now and we know that he’s cheeky and funny. He’s also very warm and he’s very intuitive. You can feel that he is still curious about others and about this world and about this life like a kid would be and that he’s very childlike in the most positive ways. If it were up to him, he’d be barefoot and hanging out in loose khaki pants and a t-shirt. He likes to have a laugh. I mean, it’s all gotta be funny to him.
What was your best show with McCartney ever?
I’m going to have to say second night in Fenway last summer, 2009. It was just one of those stunning gigs. It’s almost like a ballet; it’s the light, it’s Paul’s mood, Paul’s voice. It’s the way the five of us play together. All of those things come together and then there’s another X factor and that is the crowd--and what you get back from a crowd and the venue. And then a full moon happened to be rising over my shoulder. At one point, Paul looks my way and he does one of those things where he raises his head to like ‘look up there,’ while he’s singing. I look to my left and the moon was coming up. I don’t remember what the song was, but it was just one of those melt your heart moments. But we’ve had so many great moments.
You’ve played with a lot of people. Best non-McCartney gig?
I’d say playing with Etta James at the Montreux Jazz Festival when I was 19 years old. I started playing with Etta when I was right out of high school. We played a fantastic set there and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin was our bass player. Hanging out with Led Zeppelin at the age of 19 wasn’t bad. And then we opened some shows with the Stones with Etta that were remarkable too. I remember Anaheim Stadium for 50,000 people in the daytime with the Stones was pretty remarkable because everyone was already there. They weren’t trickling in. It was packed. I remember a giant beach ball being kicked up on stage and Etta, who’s wonderful on stage, kicked this great big beach ball back into the crowd. It was just one of those magnificent days, you know.