The Texan defends his new album, Somebody Save Me, by asserting that he is a singer, and only a singer, because: that's how stories are told.
At his home in Arizona, Sugaray Rayford finally got the chance to spend a few days with his wife, after two-and-a-half months of touring and before leaving for new concerts in the United States and Europe. On the back of a new album and label, the bluesman defends his interests with a fury that circumstances have forced on him since his impoverished childhood in Tyler, Texas. “My two brothers and I had a pretty rough childhood,” he recalls, remembering that they used to play at knowing which of the three was the skinniest by counting the holes on their respective belts. Today, after just turning fifty, his stature is impressive, weighing in at 130 kg and nearly two meters tall. But the scars, where the blues come through, have not healed. “I was 11 years old when my mother died. So I went to live with my grandmother, who brought me up in the church, to the sound of gospel. Music was my thing, and I satisfied my appetite in the black churches of the South.”
Sugaray Rayford’s compass invariably points to the South where he has remained rooted, even when he relocated to California, near San Diego. Enlisted for ten years in the Marines, then bouncer, he was working at the door of a Carlsbad club when the blues belatedly knocked on his own door. “It was 1997 and the bar across the street was playing concerts every Wednesday. I heard Ronnie Lane & The Texas Twisters and it reconnected me to music. I started singing the blues, and I loved it, the same way I used to sing gospel in the past. Gospel speaks to us about God and the blues about everything else, but the musical feeling is very close.” The singer of the group Aunt Kizzy’s Boyz in the 2000s, Sugaray Rayford released his first self-produced album (Blind Alley) in 2010 before joining The Mannish Boys. His international career took off with his fourth album, The World That We Live In, released in 2017 on the Italian label Blind Faith Records and nominated in four categories at the 2018 Blues Music Awards. It was a success, somewhere between Stax’s soul and the Chicago blues, but it didn’t totally fit with the personality of its creator. “I had signed on for three albums but I didn’t want to continue in that direction. We ended the contract,” he says.
Sugaray likes Son House (1902-1988). “He’s my role model, for the truth that comes from his singing, not for the life he led” (born in Mississippi, he served a prison sentence after killing a man in self-defense). And he exudes the Deep South. “Europeans love the Chicago Blues because of its connection to the British Invasion. Whereas I grew up in the South, which produced many different kinds of blues and artists as diverse as Little Milton, Tyrone Davis, Albert King, Z.Z. Hill, often connected to soul.” Above all, even though he played drums in his youth, Sugaray Rayford is a singer, just a singer – a rarity among today’s bluesmen who are also instrumentalists, often guitarists. “I’m not Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Joe Louis Walker, or Joe Bey, great guys who play powerful music. I am from the old school, the one in the South where the bluesman sits down and tells a story. I’m like that. In my opinion, most bluesmen today are focused on their instrument first. I’m one of the last ones who sings the blues without anything, with just a microphone between the audience and me.” This does not prevent him from being one of the best entertainers on the circuit.
On “The Revelator”, the track that opens his new album, Somebody Save Me, Sugaray Rayford sings, “I’m a freak of nature,” to show his difference, then “I ain’t your preacher,” to express the fact that he doesn’t claim to hold the truth. The project was born while he was in Memphis to be a judge for the International Blues Challenge. “It was very strange,” he recalls. “I was in front of the Orpheum and was introduced to a man I had never heard of, Eric Corne. He was a nice guy who liked my previous album and wanted to work with me. I told him to check with my wife, who is my manager. Two days later, we met in Los Angeles and had a great conversation. A few weeks later, we signed.” Eric Corne, founder of the label Forty Below Records and collaborator of John Mayall and Walter Trout, among others, wrote and produced Somebody Save Me in its entirety. “I was on the road and I sent him my ideas, from which he composed these amazing songs. He understood me, as an artist and as an individual,” says Sugaray, who places all his intensity in each word as if it were written by hand.
Never far from soul, as long as it’s Southern, Sugaray Rayford promises that he has never compromised with sincerity, his feelings, or his story. It’s even what fuels his expression, and why the blues is not about to disappear. “People think blacks have abandoned the blues, but that’s not true. Come and listen to what’s being played in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Carolina, and Georgia. Come and listen to Kingfish Ingram, Jarekus Singleton, Mr. Sipp or my buddy Eric Gales – all Southern guys. Blues is American music and it will not disappear as long as people –blacks, whites, Latinos, whatever — need to express their suffering. I’m not worried about it.”
Sugaray Rayford, Somebody Save Me (Forty Below Records)