Jazz, life and music legend ROY AYERS is a living bridge between the roots of sound's varied past to its ever evolving future. Not even his closest musical peer Quincy Jones, is as actively influential in the game over six decades in – let alone still successfully redefining himself. Developing for several years and supportable on Kickstarter, the aptly titled documentary "THE ROY AYERS PROJECT" is nearing the light of day in EXCLUSIVE CLIP offering a first look into the man and his influence. Below, we FLASHBACK to our vintage chat as he began his partnership with BBE Records and launched the Ubiquity series in 2004.
A sunny California native by spirit and temperament, vibraphonist / vocalist / songwriter / producer ROY AYERS has been raining good musical vibes over a devoted fan base for more than four decades. And at a creatively youthful sixty-four years old, he continues to broaden his expansive career with two full-length projects that redefine the meaning of classic and edify his undeniable relevance in most every musical genre there is. But at the root of all this greatness is a well-spoken, accessible industry treasure who flows as easily among music’s elder statesmen (like Dinah Washington & Lionel Hampton) and innovative new leaders (including Pharrell Williams and Louie Vega), as his music does in the mix at any great party (from house to hip hop and back again). For this extended chat we find out how he hooked up with England’s hottest indie label – BBE / Rapster Records, what he’s like in the studio and what he really thinks about the artists that have sampled his music…
Since you don’t really start at the beginning with Roy Ayers, let’s start with the beginning of your relationship with Peter of BBE Records.
Roy Ayers: I was recording some work [in mid 2002], a song called “Humming.” I mentioned to Peter that I had moved crates of what we call ‘hump tapes’ – these are recordings that you don’t use, into storage. It’s about two hundred, twenty-four track tapes that I had never used. When I was recording at POLYGRAM and other labels, I used to record a lot of songs then if I didn’t like them, I would just put them in storage. They were old songs that I thought were good but they weren’t really that hot.
As a matter of fact, I told Louie Vega as well. They were both aware of them, except Peter said, “Hey man, I’m interested.” He called back a few weeks later, flew over here and then we went into the studio. He was offering money and everything. I said okay, you haven’t even listened to it. So we looked and listened to them and he started doing what I call the ‘jamiroquai.’
Okay, what is that?
RA:That’s a dance. Jamiroquai is an artist and he does this little funny dance. I didn’t know that Peter was a huge Roy Ayers fan and I think anything that Roy Ayers does is gold to him. But we signed a deal and the rest is history. He’s got VIRGIN UBIQUITY out now and I am excited about it. As a matter of fact, as I started to get excited about it, I started to think – this is good stuff! I feel that I look at my material like I am sure a lot of artists do – not all of them, but I am sure some artists say well maybe this is just nothing and I don’t feel it. It could have been Leonardo da Vinci or whomever that says, “I don’t like this one. I‘ll put this one aside.”
Then along came Peter and I didn’t realize how good this stuff was. Now my wife and everybody are excited about it. They hadn’t even heard it! It was just some stuff I had put aside. Some were productions I was doing with Merry Clayton – who is featured on it, Carla Vaughn and of course myself – I’m singing on most of the stuff and it’s just ironic that it came out like that. We picked out about thirty tapes of the two hundred that we have then we had to take the tapes and put them in an oven. There is a special burning process that bakes the tapes because [they] are so old that they will start to shred [if you play them]. You bake [the musi c] back on and then we transfer them to modern technology. I am very excited. We have about three or four albums if I want to release them.
Now I don’t want to go too far off on the project without going back to the beginning to get all up in your business now that we have eased into this a little bit. (Laughs) You were born in California to a musical family but what was that early time like when you were shaping what would become Roy Ayers musically?
RA: Well it was very easy for me because music has always been in my life. My mother and father played and exposed me to a lot of music. I had two older sisters and one younger, so there was always music around the house and I would listen to people like Lionel Hampton, who was one of my greatest inspirations.
You met him as a child and he gave you those mallets, right?
RA:Yeah he did give me a set of vibe mallets when my mother took me to see him at the Paramount Theater in 1945. I was five years old. He used to come down the aisle, go around and come back on the stage [as part of the show]. I was sitting on the aisle and he gave me the set of vibe mallets and probably laid some spiritual vibes on me, too. Twelve years later I started playing them. It’s such a great story because of course I don’t have the mallets anymore but if I had them, they would probably be in the Smithsonian [Museum]. I think a set of his mallets is [already] there. But anyway, he’s my greatest inspiration. Then there’s Dinah Washington and all the blues guys. My father was into blues; I listened to all those albums while my sisters were playing Johnny Mathis and Ray Charles to everybody. My experience with music was that I was very much influenced by all the different facets of it, so I have such a variety of music in my repertoire. I’m jazz / funk / pop / blues / soul – you name it, I do it. All because it’s been a part of my life and that makes it really easy for me to do.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Want You…”
[Roy sings a little bit of the song…I try not to melt!] Want you, yeah…
And it seems to me to represent the best part of your music – the deep, dark and sexy part. Would say you are the same way?
RA:Well I try to be. I try to just keep it... I think I’m deep and I think I am kind of like mellow and sexy. I have this mellow vibe thing going and it really works well.
[Quickly changing the subject…] I met a group that sampled my music called Brand Nubian. I had never met them before and we (me and three of my guys) were on a flight sitting in the last row. In the row in front of us, were four guys from Brand Nubian.
We didn’t know it, but we were all sitting down and were talking. Then somebody said “Roy? Roy Ayers is that you?” He stood up, looked back and said, “Hi, we are from Brand Nubian.” In my many travels I just continue to meet people that have sampled my music and I just found out that I have more sampled hits than anybody else. I think James Brown has been sampled more but I have more sampled hits. People like Mary J Blige, Erykah Badu, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest and Big Daddy Kane, the list goes on and on and on. It’s like about forty-nine people who have had hits off of my music.
Well that segues nicely to my next question, how lucrative is it? And do you respect it as a part of modern day music making?
RA: I have a great respect for it. When they sample my music, I think it’s a compliment. I think they are saying that this is the best music for their words. Many hip hop artists, don’t write music; that’s why they take my music. I am very honored and it is extremely lucrative. It is money that you have no idea is coming in until it comes in. That Mary J Blige check – which was for “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” I was like, oh my God. I mean the checks just keep…they’re still coming in. You don’t always know exactly what it’s going to be but it starts off really nice and helps to pay your rent or your mortgage. These are things I had no idea would ever happen in my life and I am sure other artists who have been sampled had no idea either.
At one time there was no sampling at all. Then in the eighties when it started, it was a new day for everybody because this is your publishing. I own a publishing company and I am a writer. Then all of a sudden your publishing begins to really soar and money is coming in from everywhere. This is happening because of the hip hoppers so I can‘t see [why] anyone wouldn’t want to be sampled – unless it’s not in a vein that you want to do it. You know what I mean? I don’t want anybody up there talking about bitches and hos and all that. I don’t want that, I want them to say things that are positive with reference to using my music in that context. This is what has happened and I am very happy with it.
Another nice segue, because during the seventies the music business was very different and a lot of old-school artists tell stories about being ripped off or not owning their publishing. What was your experience?
RA: Actually, in the seventies especially going into ’75, I started making more money as a recording artist than I had before. VIRGIN UBIQUITY is comprised of songs unreleased from 1976 to ‘81 and that’s one of my highest periods of economic gain. It continued to be better after the rappers came in the eighties. I am having a great deal of success financially with my records getting sampled, along with releasing new music. Matter of fact, I release my records on my own label. A lot of my peers are having a difficult time now and they are not being recorded because the record companies have cut back. Fortunately, now that I have found Peter and BBE, it’s a whole wide new area.
I want to explain this briefly so you can understand it. The R&B recording industry is suffering with reference to sales now. But don’t misunderstand me, they are making money and doing well making money. Still they really can’t afford to record a lot of artists that have previously been recorded because they don’t want to take the gamble. They would rather get some new artists that are selling million plus to get those returns. So therefore, many artists are not being recorded and it’s a very bad thing. A lot of them are calling me and asking what they can do. I have been in the industry long enough to understand how to get my records pressed, marketed and distributed and I still had a hard time.
But BBE opened up a whole new door because Peter is a club DJ – in contrast to a radio DJ, with a network of DJs all over the world that is so wonderful. It really is wonderful Donna, because this offers me the opportunity to get international exposure everywhere. I’m sure a lot of times DJs from the radio stations come to the clubs, hear the records and if they like them, they will put them on. It’s a new move and I’m not just saying that it should be good for Roy Ayers. I think that all the other artists should start to look into it and venture with people who have connections to club DJs. They get right next to people immediately! They feel the vibrations of the people so I knew when Peter heard this stuff and I thought he was going kind of cuckoo right? He wasn’t cuckoo he was ready to put it out. He was right, this is some of my best stuff and at the time that I picked the music I thought it was not the best. It’s crazy because I am releasing stuff from a period when I was at my highest peak. I think that’s wonderful.
Tracks like “Mystic Voyage” with vocals now. That’s certainly not what everyone is used to hearing.
RA: Exactly. There is a girl singing on that, I mentioned her before, Vaughn. She did the YOU SEND ME (POLYDOR, 1978) album with me and she is very good. She does a great job on Mystic Voyage. You heard that?
Absolutely! We’ve been playing it since we got the promo (shout out to Gamall @ Backspin for the hook up) and I’ve been giving it regular spins.
RA: You know me better than most!
Thank my father for that because it was his record collecting and playing that got me open to all this and inspires me to do what I do today. I don’t claim to know everything but I know what I know and like what I like, that’s that.
RA: I hear that. And I thank you.
So let’s go into the studio a little bit. What’s it like there and what do you like to have in place when you start creating with people?
RA: Well it’s interesting. Let me say it this, I don’t record the same way anymore but I have been thinking about it since I started the VU project. During that period and even before then, I was recording with an electric piano, a bass player and a drummer. Usually the drummer would be one of the best drummers in the world like BillyCobham, Bernard Purdie or another one of the great guys. We would go in the studio and I would rehearse the track with them. After we got it down, this is something that I recalled after I started thinking about it; I would always sit down and have a microphone on my voice to record what I was saying. I would count the music off and I would talk to the guys while I was playing. That’s a personal thing that happened between the musicians and myself. Most of the time, musicians count the music off without saying anything to anyone and usually it works out fine. But I think me talking to the guys created another kind of vibe that came out through the essence of music and it gave us that groove that is so wonderfully represented here on VU.
In the studio, I always have a good time. It’s always a happy, up moment. Maybe there are a couple of moments when you have somebody come in and they are not really giving you what you want, that’s happened on a couple of occasions. But we cancel that and straighten it out. Usually I have a great time in the studio; it’s always high-energy and I am a marathon man. I don’t do it too much anymore, I might only spend about twelve hours now, but I used to be a 24, 27, 28-hour guy in the studio. I was a studio fanatic, that’s why I have so many tapes because I would record, then say OK let’s put that one over there and let’s do another one. Music was coming out of my brain and I am very spontaneous by the way. Quite often, I would go in the studio and would not have any idea of what I was going to record. I’d go in with piano, bass, drum and have no idea of anything. Anytime a song has been a hit for me, I always thought it wasn’t going to be a hit. I would think something else would be the hit. I never thought that [sings] 'Doo Be Doo, Run, Run' [from "Runnin' Away"] would be a hit. I just played it right? I never thought that any of those little songs like “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” “Can't You See Me?” or “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” would be hits and they all are along with others. I was shocked whenever promotion people would tell me, “Roy, we like Everybody Loves the Sunshine. That’s the song!” I’d say, what??? I thought it was going to be something else, but hey, I am still happy with it. It just goes to show you that sometimes there’s a case that musicians don’t even know what their best stuff is. So I was like, wow. Then right on!
When you worked with Louie [Vega] on his groundbreaking jazz NUYORICAN SOUL project, what was that like?
RA:It was fantastic. Louie is not a musician. He doesn’t play an instrument but he does know sound and he has become a great mixing engineer, mixing producer. He knows how to make sound because he plays in the club and he’s listened to everybody’s music. He knows how to make the audience respond. I went to the studio, after Louie called me up and said, “Can you come to the studio tonight?” He said, “We got money and we have music.” I said, cool, let’s go. I go to the studio with my singer Richard Shay and when we walk in, Louie’s there with Kenny Gonzales and a few other people. Louie has this song playing and he says “Roy, can you do something with this?” He had no melody on it or anything. It was just a track. So Richie and I go in the studio and we start doing this little scat thing – 'Shabba dabba doo yoow… ' it came out to be called “Roy’s Scat” and it was just spontaneous. But what Louie does is he let’s you do everything. Of course you split the writer’s royalties and it works out fine. Louie’s a wonderful guy to work with. Because he doesn’t play music, he doesn’t try to interfere. What he does is he suggests something, he’ll say “Roy, don’t you think you should do another one? Just asking for safety.” Then we’ll do it and he’ll say, “I like the first one’s feel.” (Laughs)
It’s fun and that’s what the studio should be about by the way. The musicians, entertainers and singers going into the studio should look forward to having a good time. Just like on a live set because a studio is the place to really perfect your music and make it almost spotless. Sometimes it’s not good to be spotless, it’s good to have a belch in the music. It’s part of the life experience and is what people like. When they started doing digital and people were used to hearing the little scratches in there, now some of the rappers are putting the scratches in their records. That’s the human essence. Some people don’t want to hear the perfect time metronome because the human beat is more real. If you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, till whatever number, some of the numbers won’t be in exactly the same tempo, it may sound like it is but it may be a fraction or a centimeter off, so that’s the human feeling which is not always perfect.
What are some of the highs and lows of being in love with music all your life?
RA:I think the high of music is to experience something emotionally from time to time that makes me almost want to cry. It’s so real that it’s frightening because I am on stage and I have to kind of grab myself and be like, Roy you are on stage. Maybe it’s my sensitivity to the song or sensitivity to how that song makes me feel or how it happens to sound. Sound systems differ at clubs or concerts and sometimes when it is so perfect, it makes me feel so very emotional with reference to what the song is talking about. I have a song called “Sweet Tears” and when I sing it, sometimes it gets next to me. I just keep thinking of it because the verse ‘sweet tears just keep falling, from my eyes’ well, that was the separation of myself from my son. He lived with my ex-wife and he had to go home. We were close and it was just an interesting song. So sometimes as I am doing it, I’ll just be singing it and everything will be fine and then sometimes I’ll do it and I will have a great high moment of feeling it more. Funny thing. Sometimes, you can just sing and you are not feeling it but sometimes I am feeling it more than just singing it. I’ll give you an example, if you or I were at a basketball game and we are singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” now sometimes I feel that and sometimes I don’t feel it. But I try to feel the “Lord’s Prayer” when I say that because there’s a difference when you get involved in it.
Now the low periods in the studio, or low periods in performing – this is the disaster of every entertainers life, when you are performing and it is a lousy sound system. My God it’s so horrible! Here you are on stage and you have 2,500 people in the audience that want to hear you. This part is amazing, almost everywhere the sound system sounds good to them and they can hear everything, but we are on stage and we can’t hear because sometimes the bass is too low or the voice is not high enough or the music is too loud. So in doing that, I have learned how to compensate for it when it happens. Realize when it is happening and consistently teach the band to overlook it and just go perform. Especially if you look at your audience and you see they are grooving, then they are pleased.
A little short story, I was in Detroit about eight or ten years ago at the Renaissance Hotel and there were about 3000 people there. After we started playing, the people on one side of the theater started screaming and on the right they were real cool. So we stopped the music and said what’s the matter? And of course everybody said at the same time that the speaker on the right side was totally off. So I said, you can hear me over there but you can’t hear me over here? Well we gonna fix that right now. I grabbed a chair and said I am going to sit down and wait until the soundman gets this stuff together. Everybody was looking at this sound cat and the sound guys were going crazy!
Yeah, the heat was on!
RA: Honey they fixed it! So that is one of the biggest sound fears you can have as an entertainer, a poor system.
What do you think the world would be shocked to know about you?
RA: I don’t have any secrets.
Why because it’s all out there in the music?
RA: I think it all comes out in the music. But what people don’t know about Roy Ayers is… I’ll tell you something that does describe me perfectly. [He begins] Roy Ayers is a witch doctor, saint, historian, comedian and lover. James Baldwin said this about me but I want to read it... hold on. James Baldwin said this about me on the liner notes of an album called IN THE DARK. These are the words; I got them right here and I think it describes me perfectly. I think these are things a lot of people don’t know that about me (laughs)! “Roy Ayers is witch doctor, clown, saint historian and lover. Striking notes in a lonely valley causing dry bones to live. The precision with which he guides his instrument, reveals the depth of his love for us all.” That’s what Mr James Baldwin said about me.
In whose apartment you live…
RA: Yes! In his apartment! When he and his brother passed – David [Baldwin] passed in ‘95 and Jimmy in ‘88 I think, I felt it was great just to know these guys! Such wonderful guys and they had so much knowledge about history, our people and of course, they were very articulate. You know what I loved about both of them? They were both good listeners. And sometimes when Jimmy was listening he would say, “Have you ever looked it at it this way?” He wouldn’t say, you’re wrong, he would say that. I would be like, ‘wow, that is a way to look at it.’ He was one of those brilliant people that we had here to speak out about human rights and good things. I am blessed to have been around people like that. The people that you are around, their values and their ways will rub off on you. I think that a lot of things they did or said were instilled in my brain and I’ll never forget them and what their contribution to mankind has been. It impressed me when he said that about me because I knew he wasn’t just making something up, he was really saying something to me to make me look at myself.
How did you feel when he said that?
RA:It made me feel even stronger about being true to myself, my race and my family.
Is there anyone specific that you really want to work with?
RA: There are probably several people. I’ve been talking with a young man named Pharrell [Williams of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D]. He’s very good and he reminds me of me. Hopefully one day we can do something in the studio. He talked about me having a great impact on his life and his musical career; that made me feel good. I also wanted to do something else with Erykah [Badu]. I was featured on something of hers and she is featured on something of mine. It’s called MAHOGANY VIBE [dropping October 26, 2004] and she is one of the greatest today. I love her spiritual essence. There is a strong spiritual presence and awareness about her. I asked her why she named her son Seven. She said because the seventh letter of the alphabet is ‘G’ and g is for God. She’s a deep woman.
I was in Dallas recording an album and she said Betty Wrightwas also in town. I said I know Betty, she’s a singer; we did two shows with her but we never hung out or anything, we just said hi and bye. I asked where she was performing and she said she wasn’t performing anywhere; “She’s here to see me, she’s my best friend.” Betty is from the old school, not old as me but she’s old school. I said that was great. So a second later, she asked “Do you want her on the CD?” So I said, yeah. She took her cell phone out of her little bag, called her up and said “here, it’s Betty.” I was like, ‘Hey Betty.’ She said how you doing, I said fine. I said, ‘will you come and be on my album?’ She said, yes! I couldn’t believe it. I said okay let me give you the address. I asked how long is it going to take you? She said forty-five minutes. “Bye!” She came there and this is so heavy – I couldn’t believe this woman was this is incredible – with a real recording contract, with real terminology. I was so shocked. She did the two songs like she had been doing them her entire life.
One of the last times I photographed you was at City Parks and you brought a young man on stage with you and let him rock, what was his name and did you give him any advice for the future?
RA: His name is Derrick. He’s a masterful young musician; he’s wonderful. I can’t believe he has his Pentatonic scale down so well, that is why he plays so well. I was just proud to be up there. His father said, “Roy he has such great respect for you.” I told him, ‘Listen Derrick, after you take your solo – and I don’t care how long or short it is – give people a little bow.’ It’s all about professionalism, even though he’s only fourteen. His father said, “I am so glad you told him that because he understands that.” Some [artists] don’t know what to do when people like them, and taking a bow lets them know you appreciate it and it gives them respect.
What do you have to say to anyone else who wants to get up in the biz and become a leader as you are?
RA: I think they should never give up and one should always remember that within each of us we possess a never-ending magnitude of strength, wisdom and will. And we must never stop persevering, going forward and reaching the next level. Once you reach the next level, then go to the next level. Never give up hope and never give up trying. If there is just one little finger left, let that little finger make it happen with every ounce of your soul and your spirit. I would also like to say, God Bless Martin Luther King Jr’s spirit because he was truly a great, wonderful human being who cared about all people, of all colors. As I reflect on that I remember to honor his work of doing something really positive and good for people.
RA:One thing I want to say is, Roy Ayers is still on the set. I am still happy and nappy as a matter of fact. I’m just happy that through the grace of God I am able to breathe and express myself to the world and that’s what I will continue to do as long as I can.
Thank you for talking with us and continued good vibes right back at you!