Photo by Laura Carbone

Mark Thompson
Blues Blast Magazine

When viewed in its totality, life is a journey full of ups and downs, the inevitable twists and turns that knock us out of our usual routines with bursts of pure joy, heart-wrenching sadness, and all points in between.

That certainly holds true for singer Caron Sugaray Rayford over the last four years since his last interview with Blues Blast Magazine.

To start with, there was that morning in November, 2019. Rayford recalls, “I was in Metz, France getting ready to walk on stage in 30 minutes, so I was getting myself mentally prepared. Then I get a message from Willie J. Campbell, the bass player I worked with in the Mannish Boys, saying congratulations, Sugar!

“I wrote him back, asking congratulations for what? He replied that I was nominated for a Grammy Award. I messaged him back saying, you know this is Sugaray you are talking to, right. I didn’t believe him, thought he was pulling one of those musician tricks on me.

“After our set my wife called to congratulate me. I said, so is it true? My album, Somebody Save Me, was nominated in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category We were in the middle of a long tour. The whole band was exhausted. It took some time for it all to sink in. Once we landed back in the US we went out on the Blues Cruise. It all started to sink in a few days after we got back from the cruise. I was excited this year to see Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Cedric Burnside get Grammy Awards. They are two of the nicest guys I have ever known.

“I feel very blessed that my shows draw a variety of people – black, latino, white, young and old. It has been exciting to see the mix of the audience. Part of that is a result of moving away from the straight-ahead Chicago blues and West Coast swing I was doing with the Mannish Boys. I love that stuff, things like “Death Letter Blues.” But I realized that young people need a bit more excitement, and I love to entertain.

“My band has two horn players and a Hammond B-3 organ to give people that old-school sound that they don’t get any more. You don’t see too many bands traveling with horns due to the expense. I don’t care if it is a $200 gig or a $30,000 gig. I will have the horns and B-3 with me because that is my sound. Those instruments add so much depth to the music. Young people aren’t used to hearing that sound. Music has been a big disconnect for them because they grew up listening to nothing but deejays. The hip hop thing has died down a bit. Now more young people want to see live bands playing instruments. And my shows aren’t a concert – they are a party!

“A lot of musicians, the blues not withstanding, have forgotten how to entertain people. Think about groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire. You loved the songs you heard on the radio. But when you went to see them live, they couldn’t just play the song like the record. They needed to kick it up a bit and entertain. Otherwise it is no different than sitting at home listening to the radio, CD, or vinyl. I believe strongly that a lot of that entertainment factor has been lost. The songs mean a lot to me, and so does my performance.”

Since the release of his second solo recording in 2013, Dangerous on the Delta Groove label, Rayford has received four nominations for Blues Blast Music Awards and 24 nominations for Blues Music Awards, including eight straight years in the B.B. King Entertainer Award category, an honor the singer has taken home once, in addition to two Soul Blues Male Artist awards. That level of recognition speaks volumes about his ability to connect with audiences all over the world.

“It’s weird, I didn’t realize I had been nominated that many times. The attention is nice, but I never want to lose the fact that I am me. When I do a show, it should be a party. I am really focused on the people that spent time, money, and effort to come out to see me. I want to give them every bit of music that they are willing to take. They deserve that much. When I stop feeling that way, it will be time to find something else to do.”

Some of Rayford’s passion for the art of performing stems from his involvement in two theater projects that focused on blues music. The first one was “Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues,” filling a role that had originally been played by noted actor Ron Taylor.

“I had joined the Actor’s Equity Association so that I could do live theater. What happened was I got an invite to go to the Bohemian Club in San Francisco for a slide guitar showcase of styles from around the world. I met this guy, Danny Wheetman, who played with John Denver. He also wrote musical theater. A week later, I got a call from him. He said he was in Los Angeles to start casting a movie. He thought of me for one of the parts, and wanted to know if I was interested.

“Danny encouraged me to come down and audition. I told him that I had never done a audition. I only know how to be me, not anybody else. But my wife Pam also encouraged me to go, so I went down there. I had no idea how the audition process worked. When I arrived, there were all of these actors in the foyer, waiting to be called. They bring me in, take pictures, and hand me a one page script, telling me to go, study the script, and wait to be called for my turn.

“As a singer, we learn the song so that when you walk on stage, you don’t need a sheet of paper with the lyrics. That is how you get comfortable with the song. So I did the same thing. I thought that is what actors did, so I memorized the whole page. When my turn came, I went and delivered the lines to five people sitting at a table. They were all looking at me strangely as I did the lines. I was sure that I had messed up.

“They sent me back out to the lobby, asking me to wait for them to call me back. There was about 25 actors out there After four hours, there were three of us left. Each of us got called in one more time. When my turn came, they asked me why did I memorize the lines. I explained that as a singer, I sing songs, which tell stories, so I need to get them in my head where they stick & stay, because you sing those songs a lot. I thought that actors do that too.

“They explained that we were doing a “reading,” that you just read the lines. I apologized for doing it wrong. They quickly said, no, what you did was phenomenal! No one does that, so that’s why we had the weird expressions. Actors won’t take the time to learn lines until they know they have the part. Make a long story short, by the time it was over they had offered me two parts, one was Harry Belafonte and the other was Huddie Ledbetter. I was all excited until they told me the dates, which fell during my four month tour of Europe that was about to start. So that fell through.”

A year later, Wheetman came calling one more time. He was working with his partner, Randal Myler, who had written and produced the original “Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” that ran on and off Broadway. They had struggled to find someone that fill the role that Taylor had excelled in.

“I got a call about going to Portland, Oregon to do this play that was going to run for 3-4 months. I looked at my schedule to find that I had the dates open. So I asked them when the audition was. They said we don’t want you to audition. We are giving you the part. I was shocked to hear that. So I am in this play that over the years got nominated for four Tony Awards. It sold out every night with standing ovations. It was so cool. Eight shows a week with one day off, no understudy. They wanted to extend the run another 2-3 months, but I had obligations to go on tour. I am a musician first. They tried to get me back several more times, but I was getting too busy, doing like 170 live shows a year.

“So Randal and Danny got together to write a new play. “Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” had about 15 parts with a full orchestra. “Lowdown Dirty Blues” had three parts plus an upright bass player and a piano man. They wrote a part specifically for me. The other actors were Chic Street Man and Felicia Fields, who has won numerous awards. It was nerve racking to be working with these veterans in front of 300-400 seat houses. They made me feel like family. That production was another huge success, and they wanted to extend it. We did it in Milwaukee for about four months, and later in Cincinnati for at least three more months. After that, my touring schedule took priority. But I love doing the theater, they’ve been trying to get me back, and I will definitely do it again.”

Rayford got a Blues Music Award nomination for Southside, a release on the Nimoy Sue label that he started with his wife. His next album, The World We Live In, was recorded in Italy and released on the Italian label, Transistor Sound, also garnered a BMA nomination. At this point in his career, things took an unexpected turn.

“I had just come off tour, and was standing in Memphis during the Blues Music Awards week. My friend, guitarist Jonn Del Toro Richardson, was playing at the Orpheum Theater. He invited me to come down and sit in. By the time I got there, jet lag had set in, and I was just too tired to go in. It was after another four month tour. Then Rick Booth from Intrepid Artists walked up, and I had just signed with him. I told him that he had damn near killed me on that tour, working so much. Rick said he had someone with him who wanted to meet me. When I asked him who it was, he replied, Eric Corne. So Eric and I started talking, standing there on the corner.

“Eric started talking business, so I cut him off. I don’t do business on the street corner. I informed him that my wife Pam was my manager, and they should talk. They talked for a bit, then a few days later we were back in Los Angeles having a sit-down meeting with Eric. I really liked the directions he was talking about. The World We Live In album was a departure from the blues sounds of my other records. It got into my gospel, soul, and R&B grooves. I was really digging that. There were a couple contacts on the table from several record labels. But I didn’t want to do another hunka-chunka blues record.

“I wanted to keep experimenting in the direction I was going. Eric was on-board with that. Later, I found out that he was working with John Mayall and Walter Trout, releasing their projects on his Forty Below Records label. We just hit it off. Eric is a wordsmith. He has been able to take ideas from the journals I have been writing in for years, and turn those ideas into songs with great stories and music. It makes my life very easy. I am a songwriter, but Eric is a wordsmith.”

Rayford has always maintain that he has to feel a song in order to deliver the story effectively. The fact that Corne can take the singer’s journal notes and transform them into material that merits Grammy consideration speaks volumes about the effectiveness of their songwriting process.

“We talk over my ideas, then he starts crafting a song. It could take months before we finish. I might want to say something this way, Eric might suggest saying a different way. In the end, the songs are about what I have lived. Eric has a way of creating a higher level of understanding across a broader spectrum of people than I would. But it is still my life. Sometimes there is a song that I feel very deeply about, that I have worked on for a long time. The way I wrote it down made sense, so Eric didn’t need to rewrite anything. In those situations, we both take co-writing credit. On the other material, while they started with my journal ideas, Eric wrote the song. A lot of artists have people who go out and look for songs for the artist to sing. At my level, it is about the singer and the writer working together to create a song.”

On his current release, In Too Deep, on Corne’s Forty Below record label, Rayford tackles a number of issues that resonate with him as they pertain to the current state of the human condition. The opening track, “Invisible Soldier,” is an intense plea for help for our nation’s military veterans. As a former Marine, the singer has lived the life.

“I still suffer a bit with PTSD. It was really bad until I got with my wife. Pam is a great listener, and she has a very calming effect on me. She also offers true and real advice, even if it hurts your feelings. That truthfulness always lets you know where you stand. So if I am really tired or aggravated, something might pop up. It used to be that sounds could bring on severe panic or I might suddenly be in an uncontrollable rage for no reason. I don’t miss the nights of having to get up three or four times a night to check all of the doors and windows. Thankfully I haven’t been like that for some time.

“Eric was really respectful. He asked if we could write about it. My response was that if it was five years earlier, I would have said no. Now I am in a better place mentally and physically. By expressing my struggles, I hope I can help someone who doesn’t have the voice to get out and share them. We cover some pretty heavy subjects. But Eric surrounds them with great music. On the first couple of listens you’ll be up and dancing to the soulful music. Then you’ll start to realize that the song is serious with a fine dance beat.

“Mental health is such a taboo in our country. It is even more taboo among black people. On this album, I wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty and grow up a little bit. I am at the age where I feel comfortable talking about some really personal things and political things, stuff I have never spoken about on any album I have done. The only song we didn’t “jazz” up was “Please Take My Hand.” We wanted that one to be crafted like an old Negro work song. That song is a reminder of where we come from, and what it is all about. I believe in unity, in love. Eric was able to marry the tune to my lyrics.

”In Too Deep” is about the fact that no matter how bad things got, I couldn’t quit music. I am just too far in mentally, financially, spiritually, and physically. I’ve come too far now to turn around, as I have done in the past. “I’ve never had my hand out, gonna earn my keep. I keep trying to climb out, but I’m in too deep”. Even if I wanted to get out, I can’t. For twenty some odd years I have been doing music as my job.

“Covid was strange for everyone, but it was very strange for me. I had just been nominated for a Grammy. I won the B.B. King Entertainer Award, and I just signed with this huge booking agency, Intrepid Artists. Then my wife is struck by a major cancer, and two weeks later the Covid lock-down started. It was a very weird high-low experience. It was actually nice to have a break, something I hadn’t done for 18 years. I think that took a toll on me. And I needed to be here for Pam. The break was a blessing in that regard, and allowed me to take stock in what and who I am. Pam is in remission now. She was recently out at a festival dancing for the first time in three years. I am still feeding off of that high. It is nice to have my partner back.”

There is a story behind another song, “Golden Lady Of The Canyon”.

“That one is about two particular someone’s – my wife, and Eric’s wife. It is a tribute to them for the structure and support they have brought to our lives. Pam read the other day that someone asked a billionaire how he became a billionaire. He said that he stopped chasing women, and found one good woman who had his back. That has definitely been the case for me and Eric. That is our way of giving something back to them.

Another song, “Miss Information,” finds Rayford tackling the sometimes questionable spread of material throughout the various spheres of social media.

“I have always believed that subjects like religion and politics are best discussed person-to-person. Eric and I were watching all of the craziness that was going on in 2021, and we wanted to speak to that. We didn’t want to bash people over the head. But I wanted to put my opinion out there. So it seems like we are talking about a woman if you just listen to the music. Once you actually listen to the lyrics, it becomes very obvious what I am singing about, what the miss information is.

“I want all of my albums to be something that I will always be proud of. Life may knock me down, and I might get discouraged, but I will never give up hope. While many of the songs are deep on the new one, we wanted to have some that shared love, because that is at the core of my being. We have given people the truth, we have laid out the vinegar, now we need to lift their spirits.

“It is like the old Black church I grew up in. The preacher hits you with hell and brimstone, but leaves you with life is beautiful. The Holy Ghost is moving, the people are shouting, and you had a good time in church. But you also got knowledge. I approached this whole album like I was giving a sermon. I want people who purchase and listen to the album to feel the positivity of love and understanding. That is my core being, and that is never going to change.”

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!