Saturday, October 23, 2010
By the mid 60's, as the U.S. dramatically ramped up its involvement in the Vietnam Conflict, Philadelphia native U.S. Navy Seaman E3 Raymond Thomas Jones, was assigned to duty in Norfolk, VA. In February of 1967, Jones's ship, the USS Barney, was deployed to the combat zone off the coast of Vietnam. The ship would return to Norfolk seven months later.
Like many black sailors stationed in Hampton Roads, Ray found himself drawn to Church Street, the nucleus of African American nightlife in a still heavily segregated Southern city. He spent much of his precious off-duty time taking in live shows at legendary spots like The Eureka Lodge, The Enterprise, and The Plaza Hotel. This vibrant scene had a lasting impact on him.
Ray was just starting a family when he came to Norfolk. In a lot of ways the new life he and his wife Vennel had embarked upon seemed a world away from the North Philly neighborhood where they both grew up. With Ray at sea for as long as nine months at a time, and not much of a support system in place for navy families at the time, the young marriage was under strain. One day Ray came home to an empty apartment to find that Vennel had left him, taking their son Ray Jr. with her. As the split stretched on, Ray was moved to write about the situation, forming what would become the lyrics to his first song. "Cause You're Coming Home" tells the story of heartbreak and separation, but also hope, reconciliation and his wife's eventual return. While back home in Philadelphia visiting family, Ray showed the song to his brother Paul, himself an established bassist who had recorded and toured extensively with Freda Payne, Bo Diddley, Garnet Mimms, Jean Wells, The Coasters and The Platters among others. Paul helped Ray with the arrangement, got some musicians together, and booked time at the legendary Virtue Recording Studio on Broad Street. The resulting 1969 recording captures a young Ray Jones delivering a touchingly personal ballad. The tape would remain safely tucked away and unreleased for the next six years.
Ray T. Jones "Cause You're Coming Home"
Jones's military duty continued throughout the seventies. While serving as First Class Fire Control Technician on the Destroyer USS C.V. Ricketts, he facilitated classes and seminars for fellow personnel regarding race relations. In addition, Ray started singing in the ship's band. The racially integrated group performed at a number of USO functions throughout Europe with a repertoire that ran the gamut from R&B to Rock to Country & Western and everything in between. Ray was becoming a fan of all these types of music, and was incorporating different elements of them into his own emerging style. He was particularly enamored with the story telling nature of Country music. An idea started to form. Why not take his favorite parts of the Country sound and combine them with his Soul roots? The band began working with the "Country Soul" concept.
Back on Church Street, at the corner of East Brambleton, Queen's Lounge was probably the hottest club in town. Norfolk heavyweights The House Rockers were packing them in as the resident band upstairs at Queen's Top Side. In addition to the nightly House Rockers gigs, amateur nights were put on by the club. Adventurous souls would give it their best shot fronting the band and braving the usually merciless audience. After being back in town for a while on shore duty, Ray Jones decided to take the stage, no doubt bolstered by his Navy buddies. He put his USO experience to work, and won the crowd over. It probably didn't hurt that he had packed the place with his fellow servicemen ahead of time.
It took a few more strong showings from Ray to convince the club owner to grant him his own 30 minute slot for a set of popular R&B covers backed by the House Rockers. In order to capitalize on the opportunity, Ray sought out his neighbor, former House Rockers front man Sebastian Williams. He paid Williams $50 out of his own pocket to make a guest appearance during his set. Ray started promoting the show and creating a buzz. Sure enough, on the night of the gig Sebastian showed up at Queen's dressed to the nines. "Ladies and Gentlemen... Sebastian Williams!!!", Ray announced as his special guest stepped up to the microphone. The band launched into a smoking version of Wilson Pickett's "634-5789", and Sebastian proceeded to blow the roof off the place. When he was done with his one song, Seb mater-of-factly turned and exited into the Church Street night. Probably the best $50 Ray ever spent!
Word got around, not only about Sebastian's exploits, but the up and coming Ray T. Jones. Noah Biggs of Shiptown Records took Ray under his wing, acting as a mentor and manager. As much as his naval duties would allow, Ray began doing shows around the region at venues including the Moton Theatre in Newport News, supporting the likes of Barbara Stant and General Johnson.
With guidance and encouragement from Mr. Biggs and even a little coaching from the legendary Frank Guida, Jones decided to start his own label. In 1975, Ray used his connection with bassist Maurice Glass to enlist the mighty 35th Street Gang (AKA: Raw Soul) to back him on a recording date at Lenis Guess Studio. The first single from the self-produced session, "That Norfolk Sound" was paired with his earlier recording of "Cause You're Coming Home" and released on the newly launched Wee-Too. Ray decided to use his family's Philadelphia address on the label.
Ray T. Jones "That Norfolk Sound"
"That Norfolk Sound" is a gritty ode to the sometimes seedy, always exciting Church Street scene. Jones deftly fuses his diverse influences into a unique mixture of sustained psychedelic fuzz and folky acoustic guitar anchored by a stripped down funk rhythm section. Ray's delicate, almost mournful vocal takes us on a tour through a darker side of the seaport city, down Granby Street and even to a rowdy Country/Western bar to see "fists flying in the night". "Come on down to Norfolk and get some ghetto in your life".
"Are We Ready? Are We Together?" The follow up single came in '76. "Beat The Knees" is probably the record Ray Jones is best known for. It was born out of a vamp that Ray and the 35th Street Gang came up with on the spot in the studio. The hard hitting drums of Grover "Groove" Everett and Maurice Glass's beefy bass line lay the foundation for this deadly groove. Irresistible Fender Rhodes keyboard adds a whole other dimension of hip. The guy named Leroy that Ray raps about was actually a shipmate who was quite the ladies' man. You can use your imagination as to what "beating those knees" signifies. Turns out, last Ray heard, "do-it-do-it man" Leroy had become a man of the church, a preacher. These days he's hitting his knees to pray.
Ray T. Jones "Beat The Knees"
The flipside, "Take Me Back To Norfolk Town", with it's twangy slide guitar and tale of longing, sees Ray's vision of Country Soul fully realized. The song is simultaneously a love letter to his woman and the city he calls home. Out at sea, the sailor "left a lot of love, a lot heartache in Norfolk town". Not only does he miss his family, he craves "the smell and the taste of Virginia ham / the taste, the flavor of fresh steamed clams!" "There's no place like that Norfolk town."
Ray T. Jones "Take Me Back To Norfolk Town"
With two records under his belt, Jones approached Norfolk's WAVY with a proposal for a half hour TV special showcasing his Country Soul music. In December of '76 the project was green-lighted. That winter an outdoor show was filmed on a makeshift stage in a lot right next to the old Bishop Grace House of Prayer (AKA: Sweet Daddy G's) at the corner of Princess Anne and Church Street. The show, entitled "That Norfolk Sound", featured live footage of Ray Jones along with Navy bandmates Jerry Potter, Ron Morin (guitar), Mike Terlouw(Keyboards), Robin White (bass), Art Swimp (drums) and Dennis Eaves. The finished program also included interview footage and aired locally on Channel 10 in the Summer of 1977.
Ray had plans to follow this up with a full length LP entitled (what else) "That Norfolk Sound". He shopped the idea around and even struck an informal distribution agreement with Frank Guida, but a deployment to the Mediterranean put the project on hold. In the ensuing years, Ray's military service and growing family took priority over an entertainment career, although he never really fully gave up on his music. In fact, in the later part of the eighties Ray made a little bit of a comeback, re-releasing "Take Me Back to Norfolk Town" b/w "Cause You're Coming Home" on a Wee-Too 45.
After hitting the Cash 5 Lotto for $100,000 in 1995, Ray bought a house in Virginia Beach where he currently lives with his wife of 25 years Judy. A proud father of seven and grandfather of 14, Ray is retired from the U.S. Navy after 30 years of service, having risen to the rank of Master Chief.
Right now Ray is preparing to re-release his classic Wee-Too 45's. Also in the works is an album (on vinyl!), "I'm Going Back To Norfolk", which will contain unreleased tracks, including ones he cut with his Navy bandmates back in the 70's. Ray continues to write and record songs as Ray "2 Beers" Jones (a nickname he got in the Navy). These days his sound draws a lot more from the Country side of the Country Soul equation. You can get a sampling of what he's been up to on his myspace page. Ray also plans to eventually release a collection of his recent Country flavored material.
We would like to thank Mr. Jones for his enthusiasm, generosity and all the great stories (way too many to fit into this piece!), as well as the amazing photos and, of course, the music. Stay tuned for news on Ray's upcoming releases. We'll have them for you here at Funky Virginia as soon as they drop.