He jammed regularly with Hendrix, shared stages with Ringo at the height of Beatlemania, and set a standard that some of the world’s greatest players aspired to. Noted R&B/jazz expert Jim Payne tracks down the elusive groove pioneer and captures an era when sophisticated soul ruled.
Ray Lucas is an unsung drum hero who made significant contributions to the history of R&B, jazz, and funk. His incredible touch and time feel inspire even bona fide groove masters like Bernard Purdie to describe him as nothing short of phenomenal. “Ray had great time and a superb touch,” Purdie says. “He was like an acrobat—so light on his feet. He danced on the pedals. He could take sticks and make them sound like brushes. He could be the quietest person in the world and be in the groove, and when he had to be fatback, he had no problem. And he had no problem swinging either.”
Lucas was an important part of New York City’s dynamic soul and R&B scene in the ’60s and ’70s, appearing on record with legends like Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Jimi Hendrix, and George Benson. But he’s never gotten the credit he’s owed or even had his story told. This is partially due to the fact that after a ten-year stint with Dionne Warwick, Ray suddenly dropped out of the music scene. In fact, I’d wanted to include him in my book Give the Drummers Some! back in 1996, but I couldn’t locate him. Turns out Lucas was alive and well and living in New York City, the town of his birth. He just likes his privacy. But we finally connected, and he consented to an interview. We spoke on a park bench on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
MD: How did you get started with the drums?
Ray: I was playing when I was in high school. I heard Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Big Sid Catlett, and the rhythm sections of Count Basie, especially with Sonny Payne on drums, Walter Page on bass, and Freddie Green on guitar. At that time you had to play everything: calypso, jazz, Spanish music, polka, bar mitzvahs—whatever. The way I look at it, that education was perfect, just as if I went to music school. There are some things you can learn that a school could never teach. So that was pretty much my education in music, and it never stops.
MD: Did you woodshed?
Ray: I used to do that all the time. I played paradiddles and all that, mainly on my own. After a while I got to the point where everything was in really good control. You can’t force it. You’ve got to relax and let your fingers do it. The best thing that ever happened to me was I learned to listen. My thing was, you play the record one time, I got it.
MD: How did you first get in the King Curtis band?
Ray: I was still in high school when I heard “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, with King Curtis on sax. At that time I was playing bebop and jazz. I didn’t care nothin’ about rock ’n’ roll. I was born and raised in Harlem. All I knew was New York and bebop. If you didn’t know Blue Mitchell, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, you weren’t in my league. But Curtis had a unique style of playing, and when I heard him on that Coasters record, I was knocked out.
Eric Gale, the guitar player, was the one who got me the audition with King Curtis. It was downstairs in the basement of Small’s Paradise. It was King Curtis, me, and Roy Haynes. He had Roy come in to check me out to see if I was all right. No piano, no bass, no organ, no guitar—just Curtis on sax and me on drums.
The most important thing about being a drummer is listening. If he played the melody, I had to hear that and what the rhythm section would play. You’ve got to be able to do your own thing by yourself with just the melody. I had heard his band, so he could play any tune he wanted and I pretty much knew it.
Afterwards Roy looked at Curtis and said, “That’s a good kid. He’s all right.” I was nineteen or twenty at the time. I played with Curtis from 1961 to 1966, and that was the best band I was ever in.
When I came in the band it was Al Casey on guitar, Jimmy Lewis on bass, and Paul Griffin on piano. Now and then Curtis would augment it, but that was the basic band. Man, could he cover some ground. And that’s when you’re good—when you can make it sound bigger than you are. We recorded “Soul Twist” in 1962, and that became a number-one R&B hit. It was a half-time shuffle with a backbeat.
Later Chuck Rainey came into the band on bass. What a lot of bass players are doing now, he did forty years ago. Then Cornell Dupree came in on guitar [see this month’s Backbeats for more on Dupree] and George Stubbs on piano.
MD: You played a lot at Small’s Paradise. What was that like?
Ray: When we played there, the people that came in, they never left. They were moved. When we came on that stand, we took care of business. Even the most non-musical person couldn’t leave that table without shaking back and forth a little bit. I thought that was heaven. It couldn’t get any better than that. We always had a good audience. [Comedian] Redd Foxx would come in. He was the funniest dude. He’d look at me and say, “Look, there’s God on the drums!”
Every now and then we’d do something like a Clifford Brown tune, and I’d have to take a solo like Max Roach, in that style. Curtis knew I liked Basie, so sometimes we’d do “One O’Clock Jump” or “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” You had to play different styles of music in the types of clubs we were working in. You worked in the club to please the boss and the audience.
MD: When King Curtis played the Apollo Theater, he’d use the Apollo horns but his own rhythm section, and you would also back up the other acts on the shows, like Otis Redding, Little Willie John, the Coasters, the Falcons with Wilson Pickett, the Supremes…. Tell us about playing at the Apollo.
Ray: The Apollo Theater will always be my Carnegie Hall. When I think of the people who stood on that stage—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakey—that’s where the best played, as far as contemporary rhythm and blues and jazz was concerned. I got out of high school but didn’t go to college, and I was on the same stage as them. That was special.
During the week it was five shows a day. Saturday and Sunday it was six shows. I was making $129 a week. After we got through at the Apollo, sometimes we had to go play a dance at the Audubon Ballroom. We also traveled a lot, all up and down the East Coast. We went on the road with the Supremes, Patti LaBelle, the Coasters. One time we drove from New York to Columbia, South Carolina, for a one-nighter. When you’re young you can do anything. I didn’t care. As long as I was playing.
MD: The King Curtis band opened for the Beatles on their second U.S. tour. What was it like playing on a bill with the Beatles?
Ray: It started at Shea Stadium. We played some of Curtis’s tunes and backed up some other acts from the States that were opening up the show. We really didn’t have to be there. We just added more excitement to the fact that they were coming.
Ringo and I had never met, but we had the exact same drumkit, Ludwigs, oystergray pearl. He’s lookin’ at me and I’m lookin’ at him…. [laughs] We spoke a few times. On the first two or three days we all rode on the same plane. After that they had their own plane and we had ours.
When they checked into a hotel they had three floors. They were in the middle, and they had security above and below. And every day it was a mob. I’d never seen anything like that. People just wanted to be around the Beatles. They were magic.
At the Cow Palace, there were 55,000 people in front of the stage. They were sold out everywhere, all the biggest places. The crowd was always screaming. You couldn’t even hear their singing! After that tour was over, we had to sign a waiver. We couldn’t associate ourselves with the Beatles at all. We couldn’t even have a marquee outside a club that said, “Just back from a tour with the Beatles.”
MD: King Curtis always had a featured singer or player. After the Beatles tour, he added Jimi Hendrix, who’d worked with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, among others.
Ray: Jimi Hendrix, man, you’re talking about one of the nicest guys. He was so kind and courteous. He played with his teeth and all that, but he could play. Jimi would play Curtis’s tunes and then do some of his own. He would sing more or less down-home blues, rather than the psychedelic things he got into later. We were doing mainly contemporary tunes. He stayed with us for about six months, and then he went on his own.
Jimi and I used to play together in the studio, just me and him. He’d try all kinds of different things. He’d plug into the Leslie speaker from the organ. I’d play a backbeat or a shuffle or whatever. This went on for maybe two or three weeks. It was a studio on 54th Street. That’s how he built his recordings. I never heard any of the final versions.
One day a little later I ran into Jimi on the street downtown. He said, “Hey, Ray, what are you doing?” I said I was in between gigs. He said, “Man, I got my passport and my papers from the State Department. I’ve been trying to do my thing here, but it’s not working out that great. I just got an offer from England. If you want to do it, I can get the finances together. Do you want to come with me?” Of all the drummers he knew, he asked me. I told him I couldn’t do it, and in less than two years he was the biggest thing out there.
MD: In April of 1966, King Curtis broke up his band.
Ray: When Aretha came on the scene and Curtis started working more with her, he decided to dissolve the band and change things around. I thought the world was over. But I didn’t fit. It had nothing to do with my drumming. There are certain things some drummers do and certain things other drummers do. I felt bad. But when I look back on it, it was the same thing as when I came in the band and replaced Belton Evans. I was the young upstart drummer then.
MD: Around this time you were doing a lot of studio work.
Ray: Cool ain’t nothin’ when you go in the studio. When you go in the studio you’ve got to know how to make things work. You’ve got to find the part that works for the song, and you have to set the pace of the song. Without that it’s just a bland song. [Lucas looks at a list of his recordings.] Honestly, I forgot how many things I played on. I just played and went on the next session. When l look at this list I really can’t believe it. I was lucky. I had a chance to work with some of the best musicians. So if my landlord gets on me for not paying the rent, I should show him this list, right? [laughs]
MD: How did you get involved with Dionne Warwick?
Ray: The guys wanted to keep me in New York to do studio work, but I always preferred playing in a live situation. The opportunity came up, and the money was good, so I went with Dionne Warwick. She was looking for a drummer, and I had always admired her singing.
MD: She was doing the music of Burt Bacharach at this point?
Ray: Yeah. Now, that’s something I thought I could never do: play 2/4, 3/4, 6/8, all in one song. And there I was in Lincoln Center with Dionne. It was a full hall. I can’t read an iota of music, and all these symphony musicians were there with the conductor, and everybody was looking at the music. But I knew the music.
I always thought that you don’t have to go to one of these great conservatories and say you studied with so-and-so to be a good musician. There are a lot of fine, educated, well-trained musicians, but I didn’t do that. That’s when I realized that it goes both ways. I had something that they didn’t have. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been there. If you had any sense—which I thought I had—you’d just shut up and listen. That’s all I had to do. I worked with Dionne for ten years before I stopped playing.
MD: Why did you decide to leave the business?
Ray: The music changed. I couldn’t stay with the disco. Some of it was good, but you can’t change everything. I’m not against it, but it wasn’t my taste. You have to be who you are. I always wanted to share something with the people I was playing with. But if you want to say, “This is how it’s got to be done,” then get somebody else. I didn’t want to jive around with something that had been so good to me. Either you do it or you don’t.
MD: What do you think was the secret to your success?
Ray: Being with good musicians. And I’m not talking about name musicians. I’m talking about listening to good musicians and being very conscious of what they’re doing.
Ahmad Jamal once told me, “If you got sense enough to listen to what somebody else is saying, hold your peace and cool it. Most people listen, but they don’t really get into what the other person is saying.”
I’ve been lucky. I played with some great musicians. I was a part of that. Miles Davis was the best-paid jazz musician in the world, but he still wasn’t happy. He wanted an audience like Jimi Hendrix’s. With me, if the music’s good, that’s good enough for me. There’s nothing like playing in a good live band.
I’ve got a friend, and every time I see him he says, “Boy, I sure would like to have a million dollars.” I say, “Don’t you look in the mirror? Look in the mirror, man— that’s the only million you’re gonna get.” We take so much for granted. That’s how I feel. And then on top of that I was able to be a musician? I’m cool. I’m seventy-two years old, and it’s not over yet. Maybe next week I’ll be playing again.
King Curtis Soul Twist, Soul Serenade, Plays Hits Made by Sam Cooke, Live at Small’s Paradise /// Various artists Apollo Saturday Night /// Mongo Santamaria Watermelon Man /// Illinois Jacquet Desert Winds /// Bobby Timmons Workin’ Out /// George Benson It’s Uptown, The George Benson Cookbook /// Hubert Laws The Laws of Jazz /// Freddie Roach The Freddie Roach Soul Book /// Brother Jack McDuff Do It Now! /// Curtis Knight with Jimi Hendrix The Summer of Love Sessions /// Junior Mance Harlem Lullaby /// Stanley Turrentine Common Touch /// Roberta Flack First Take, Chapter Two /// Aretha Franklin Spirit in the Dark; Young, Gifted and Black /// Charlie Mariano Mirror /// David “Fathead” Newman Lonely Avenue /// Bette Midler The Divine Miss M /// Donny Hathaway Extension of a Man /// Ray Sharpe and the King Curtis Orchestra with Jimi Hendrix “Help Me (Get the Feeling)” parts I and II /// King Curtis & the Kingpins with Jimi Hendrix “Instant Groove”
For more on Ray Lucas, go to moderndrummer.com.
Jim Payne has played with Maceo Parker and the J.B. Horns and has produced records for Medeski Martin & Wood. He teaches funk and R&B drums online for the Berklee College of Music, and his book/DVD Advanced Funk Drumming is available from Modern Drummer Publications.