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Interview: Ray Chew – Musical Director, Composer and Producer

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The life of Ray Chew parallels that of characters depicted in Horatio Alger's famous "rags to riches" stories. Although raised as a child in the Grant Houses of Harlem, Chew's successful transition from Harlem to Hollywood has been the sheer product of luck and pluck in the competitive world of the music business.

Over the course of Ray Chew's career, he has served as a member of the Saturday Night Live Band, music director of Showtime at the Apollo and bandleader of NBC's The Singing Bee. His impressive resume was given a significant boost, however, when he was tapped to serve as the bandleader of the 2008 Democratic National Convention and President Barack Obama's Neighborhood Ball. More recently, in June 2009, Chew coordinated the musical direction of the 9th Annual BET Awards, which paid tribute to the late Michael Jackson.

As the 75th Anniversary Gala for the Apollo Theater appeared on the horizon, Ray Chew managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Quincy Jones, Showtime at the Apollo, and the necessity of mentorship.

My pastor always used to say, "A man cannot have a testimony without first having a test." When you look back over your long career, is there a pivotal moment – in your transition from Harlem to Hollywood – that you feel has defined you?

Yeah. I have had several transitional moments. Through them all, I have learned that life will have its fair share of ups and downs. And those are just moments. You can have a great wonderful moment but that's a moment, too, and that will pass. So will the ones that are not so pleasant. You want to strive so that you can create more pleasant moments than unpleasant moments. The only way to do that is stay in this game – the game of life. Some people make early exits. I have friends of mine who committed suicide, things that put a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Over the years, I have become known as somebody who perseveres, a warrior in life, a learner and a student of life and I continue to be. That's kind of my philosophy in life. Every day I wake up, I start anew. I'm refreshed. I ask for a new anointing. I pray to Jesus who is my Lord and Savior. Every day I look very enthusiastically upon what's in front of me. Whenever I have an opportunity to speak, I like to speak to the ear of young people, so that they don't give up on themselves or their dreams.

As an active member of the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences, you are known for being a firm believer in the power of mentorship. Is there a particular lesson that you find yourself sharing constantly with your mentees? 

Yes. I moderate a panel every year at Pace University and we speak to college-bound students through NARAS, the GRAMMY organization. They do a thing called GRAMMY University. When I speak to these young folks on GRAMMY Career Day, the first thing I say to them is that "You are going to be the ones who are the next caretakers of this business. We have a panel of so-called experts up here. They're only experts with what they've already done, not in what's going to be done. What's going to be done is going to be effected by you in the room." So when I'm speaking to young people, that's what I'm trying to instill in them – a sense of ownership into the future. That's the lesson: have some ownership into your future. It will take a minute for your crop to harvest but you certainly won't harvest if you don't plant the seeds now; the sooner the better. More than anything, I always stress to young people that they must continue to strive to be a student of life. When I speak specifically about the entertainment industry which I'm an expert on – [laughing], how do you become an expert? Well if you learned more than the day before, hopefully you're an expert on the day before. If you really made it a part of your daily life curriculum . . . What's my life curriculum? Well, I've started to set up dreams and goals and I take one small step at a time, get to a plateau and set up again. I'll start again. So the journey, if you keep striving, will always be enjoyable. Those are some of the things that come out of my mouth as I mentor to young people. 

When I look at your musical resume, I am amazed by all of your accomplishments. I noted that you had a credit on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's classic duet album. I'm curious to know what life events led you to participate on that record?

Well, I tell you, a lot of people think I kind of picked up my career around the Apollo days but that was part two. Part one was this young man at age 16 who started working with Melba Moore. While I continued my studies and stuff like that, I started playing around and gigging and learning about the business. At 19, I became musical director with Ashford & Simpson. From that point on, they introduced me to the New York sessions team which was very close-knit and tight. Your ability to break into that, sessions, was based upon having a combination of great skills – player, reader, studio recordist, somebody who knows how to navigate and produce a good sound of the instrument in the studio fast, quick in takes, work with engineers – having skills like that and talent. I was able to excel really well doing that thing. I think there was no greater time in the history of recording. The top call guys would be going from session to session to session. We'd see them all day long.

So at 19 and 20, I excelled very highly as one of the top-call musicians as a pianist and later on as an arranger. I was called upon to lead the sessions, now. I would lead the sessions with all of the Ashford & Simpson records and other artists like Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan, Stephanie Mills, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. I got the opportunity to work with Diana Ross when she came to town.

On top of that, we were doing all the jingles of all of the commercials. A typical day for me would be 9:00-10:00, jingle at one place. Go do another one at 11:00-12:00. Maybe do a 2:00 somewhere else. Take a break and then do a double-date, night session from 7:00-11:00. That would be my schedule every day, sometimes including the weekends. That was me before I got to Apollo. I was doing that all the time and also touring with Ashford & Simpson. A couple of years after that, I started my TV career at NBC's Saturday Night Live. When I got there at the NBC orchestra, I started off as an arranger and a writer. That was my first entrance to doing steady TV work.

A year later, there was a shift in the music industry. Things were different and I had to transition. A lot of my contemporary musicians who didn't make the transition, you kind of saw less and less of them. I did and I made the transition. I started working at the Apollo and building my own brand. People started to really hear my name out front on TV and stuff like that. Then the second half of my career started. 

Over the course of your career, you have had a long partnership with Diana Ross — starting with The Boss in 1979. What kind of professional bond did the two of you have? 

When I worked with her on The Boss, Ashford & Simpson were the producers and I was the arranger. Diana did not attend any of the basic track sessions. She only came in to do the vocals. When I did the whole Boss record, I didn't even see her. When she left Motown and signed with RCA, she wanted to be in the production seat. Then it was a different Diana Ross in terms of how she wanted to handle her music. She wanted to get in on the writing and on the production and learn about that. She came to New York looking for New York's finest and I was recommended to her. She called me up to her Connecticut mansion. We sat and I met all the kids, ate and had some fun, started writing some songs together and we came up with a really great album [Why Do Fools Fall in Love?]. I guess the rest is part of her history. 

During the ‘80s, you would eventually become a member of the Saturday Night Live Band. How did that opportunity prepare you for long-term residence as musical director of Showtime at the Apollo?

The Saturday Night Live opportunity came as a result of some of the associations I had during the sessions thing. The musical director at that time was Tom Malone, who's now part of David Letterman's band. One day, we were sitting at a sushi bar and he said, "Hey Ray, we're getting ready to set up a new band for Saturday Night Live. Would you love to do it?" That was as simple as that, somebody giving you an opportunity based upon many years of you being able to deliver at a high level. I have to say that experience prepared me in terms of learning the pacing of television, learning how television production needs to be delivered and to what level, to what degree and what is expected. At Saturday Night Live, we would pre-record some stuff, but by and large, everything was live. We would do a rehearsal the day before and run everything down, then we do a live full rundown with all of the skits and everything probably about 9pm, take a break and then come back at 11:30 and you're on the air live. When you're on the air live, you just have to be right; there's nothing in-between. That prepared me for what life would be like from then on.

When we did Showtime at the Apollo, that was a very tough show because of the schedule that we had. Even though it was broadcast as a weekly show, we had to tape a full-season in one weekend. A season is like 24 shows and the rest were repeats. There were two separate weekends and we would do 12 shows each. Let me just help you with the math here.

One episode of Showtime at the Apollo had ten pieces of music for every episode at the very least. We would do three shows per day, so we would have to prepare 30 pieces of music that must sound absolutely perfect because most of the contestants are not used to performing with a band. They're used to performing with some kind of tape or a recorded piece and all that. It's not like I could get with them for rehearsals. I only saw them the morning of – at six in the morning I get there. We would then have about five to ten minutes each to try and work out what the arrangement is going to be and in what key. For each act, I have to document the arrangement in some form so I would know what I was coming back to 30 songs later. So the big challenge was working with non-professionals that I couldn't get on the phone and practice the song with them. I only saw them at six in the morning the day of and that day we're taping three shows with 10 pieces of music each, including professional acts.

So if you're in the audience or watching this on TV, you expect this to sound like we do when we have Tyrese or somebody up there; it's got to sound like his record. The amateurs, every time they forget something – which happens a lot – they'll turn around and make it look like, "the band messed me up" or something like that, or make it try to look like there was some kind of confusion. Anyway, we go ahead and do that four days in a row. That's what the math would be: a weekend has 120 pieces of music. It's a lot.

Here's the other thing: with the live audience, it's not like we could do any retakes if somebody messed their thing up. We have to figure it out and turn-on-the-dime. It's live TV plus it's a contest. If you were a contestant and somehow it didn't work out and you didn't feel like you did your best, you can't go back and say, "Oh, let me go back and do it again." No, you can't do it again; it's a contest. You had your shot, that was it. The ones who got booed, you can't redo that. It's a boo. So that was it. At 3:00, it's live, we hit it, boom. Next day, same thing. That was a very, very tough schedule, and very tough show. At the Apollo, there is the potential of having a hostile crowd out there. They could be loving or they could just as easily turn on the band, too. If they've got relatives in the crowd and their son or daughter didn't do that well, "Well the band messed him up."

Anyway, those were my years doing that show. That show also prepared me for all the shows that I've been doing on television during and since. I have to say nothing shakes me after that, nothing at all. I've dealt with all kinds of artists and temperaments. 

As the old saying goes: "If you can make it at the Apollo, then you can make it anywhere."

You're right [laughing]. From the Apollo to President Obama's Inauguration! There you go [laughing].

During your time at the Apollo, was there a particular amateur artist that you're proud to see today, who evolved into a professional artist?

If you asked me this question five years ago, I would say Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill had a very shaky start on the Apollo stage. She was very unsure of herself and didn't sound that great. Then she worked on it, did whatever she did, came back with the Fugees. I remember when she came back to the Apollo with the Fugees, everybody said, "Oh wow! That was the kid a couple of years ago." Of course after the Fugees hit, she came into her own and of course, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – that's such an iconic record, man. You could listen to that forever, man. I'm very proud of who she became as an artist. Having said that, I'm so looking forward to seeing Lauryn Hill have some kind of resurrection. We haven't seen it yet. Lauryn Hill is kind of one of my favorite stories. 

Who else would you say?

There are a lot of people, for instance, Ne-Yo. A lot of people don't know that he came off the Apollo stage. He was part of a group that didn't do that good. He swam his way through the muck of that situation and came into his own. He's heading to great heights. I always say superstardom is ahead of him. It's not that far to reach.

Even though you are widely known for your Apollo years, I am quite certain that the whole inauguration experience has got to be surreal. When you look back on that experience, what immediate reaction do you have?

Well, the setup for that was the 2008 Democratic National Convention. I was called in by producers Ricky Kirschner and Glenn Weiss to be the musical director. The convention, of course, lasted a week or something like that and we had to prepare some days before that. So it was like a two-week experience. We did that in Denver, very intense, a lot going on, layers of security, every media, every news, every everything. I was like, "Wow, this is really a lot." I've done big events, like the first Live Aid and all kinds of stuff at the stadiums, but this was really at another level because it wasn't even like that inauguration ball that we were at. In the Democratic National Convention, every network and every news outlet, every kind of coverage is there. Wolf Blitzer is set up in the corner. Ted Koppel is in another corner. Everybody's doing interviews and microphones were all over the place. The convention transformed the whole town. It was quite an experience.

So, the preparation for the inauguration was… of course, we had to wait until November and see who won the presidency. Even after the win, Barack Obama's team was still focused on transition and some bigger issues. They weren't necessarily locked in on entertainment and what was going to happen at the inaugural ball. The call for that only came two or three weeks right before the inauguration. We were waiting on the call, of course. "Hey, I got elected." We expected it because it was going to have the same producers.

But now, we had to scramble around and pull all these artists. The good part is that every one of the top names that appeared wanted to be there. Beyonce wanted to be and actually stated it so openly. I'm watching on TV, and man, she wanted to do something for the president but nobody asked her. I think, "Wow!" at that point. So Beyonce, Sting, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Shakira, Maroon 5, Stevie Wonder . . . my job was to pull them all together. I had one particular that everybody had to do "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." I had to make sure everybody knew what was going on and give everybody their assignments of what lines to sing and work it out. It's a real testament of how all the combination of all my years of experience came together, because you have to learn and you have to know how to deal with all of these superstar personalities. You just don't run up to Beyonce. She's got security around and all those kind of stuff, some caretakers and gatekeepers. Some people you can do that. Stevie Wonder, you have to learn to communicate with him differently because you actually have to get in his ear but you have to make sure the security guy gives you a nod first, all these stuff.

I'm sitting there trying to work out the arrangement of the song. Nobody can really make it to rehearsal or they can make it to rehearsal at different times so lots of challenges. Then finally, they have to have confidence and respect in you as director in order for them to turn over their career at that moment. Remember, all these people spent a career lifetime building up superstar status like Sting and people like that. Sting is not going to be in a moment where he sees that his artistic integrity is going to be compromised. You know, you're going to give him some funny lines and not give him the right kind of direction and make him look stupid or look bad. He can't afford that. He said to me, "Man, you're cool. Just tell me what to do. I'm good." Same thing with everybody up there in the line-up: Faith Hill, Adam Levine from Maroon 5, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Shakira, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Beyonce. I'm giving them all direction pulling this "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" thing together. That was a special moment. 

Do you have any insight on why that particular song was the marquee song of the night?

Well, the president just happened to be a really big Stevie Wonder fan and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" is one of his favorite songs. It kind of had the right little bounce and movement and feel for it. All the songs had to be scrutinized and agreed to by a committee of folks – we're talking about from the producers, executive producers of the show to network people and then the artists. So that one little moment where the president was up there dancing and then you got a whole group of artists like that and they're singing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," imagine what that song had to go through to be approved. The network people had to approve it; that's ABC. It's the biggest show arguably of the year or the decade, whatever you want to say. The historical ramifications of what took place made the whole occasion not just another inaugural but the inauguration of Barack Obama. Anyway, the song had to go through a lot of scrutiny and debate and discussion and there it is at the end of that. Here I am and you can also imagine that the musical director of that show had to go through the same kind of scrutiny. 

This year, the Apollo will be hosting its 75th Anniversary Gala. What are you looking forward to the most?

One of the things I look forward to is seeing Quincy Jones, who will have a tribute in his honor. He's been a mentor to me since I was a young man, since I was a very young man, like when I was 16 or 17. I studied him. I always knew all his music. When I finally got the chance to hang out and get to know him, it was just big for me. I've known him for a lot of years and we've been a part of several moments with him. This is going to be special to him so it's going to be special to me. 

Is there a piece of advice that he's shared with you that you often incorporate into your own career?

I would say I learned a lot just in terms of how this business can be very rewarding if you continue to invest in those things which can help you to continue to graduate. One thing I did learn is it's sink or swim. You can't tread water; you have to actually go somewhere. If you're treading water and imagine yourself out in the middle of the ocean or some large lake, you can only tread water for so long. If you're swimming, you got a chance; you got a shot. You might swim to a log or something or some place where you can catch your breath and keep swimming. So I've learned to keep swimming from this man. He's done so much in his career! I knew him as a big band/jazz arranger, then going into producing Michael Jackson and stuff. Then producing movies. So I've learned from him to place no limits on what I can do. He said, "If you can dream it, then you should go for it." Those are his words, you know. Dream and go for it and go beyond your dreams. Don't place any limits. I've taken that to heart. By no means am I resting on anything I've already done. When I get to be 80, I'll look back and compile it all in one big story. Right now, I'm busy looking forward to my next thing, which is producing for TV and film. As executive producer, I'm coming up with some great content, so look forward to that.

For more information on Ray Chew, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry