Ray Fuller


There’s an understanding among artists of all walks that the most gifted make their statements with the most refinement. From Picasso and Rembrandt to Miles and B.B., at the height of their artistry, each was able to express volumes with a few precise brush strokes or one and well placed note. Chicago native Ray Fuller, a guitarist, composer and band leader blessed with limitless capacities for taste, economy and sensitivity, is well on the road to such refinement, though it’s mostly been other musicians who have realize it... That will change upon the release of Ray Fuller’s first album as a leader "The Weeper", its title taken from the nickname he was given by none other than world class musician, George Duke.

From hard working teen on the scene in the ‘70s to A-list session player and world touring Guitarist/Musical Director in the present, Ray Fuller has earned the enviable title of the chosen few in his profession: that of musician’s musician.” For three decades, Ray has been honing his skills in the service of some of the greatest asked most diversified artists of all-time. His resume includes  legends Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Roebuck “Pops Staples & The Staple Singers, Nancy Wilson and “Mr. Motown” himself, Berry Gordy. It also includes all-around musician / producers such as George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, David Foster and Mike Post. It includes vocal divas Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Oleta Adams. And it includes Contemporary Gospel royalty The Winans, Kirk  Franklin,Tramaine Hawkins and Yolanda Adams.

This first solo project has been a long time coming for Fuller.’l started thinking about how much life had crept up on me,” he muses.”A musician known for supporting others (and very satisfied with that) began to see that life had become far too easy. I started thinking about my children how one day they would want to know about who their daddy was as an ‘artiste.’ I figured I’d better start thinking about MY legacy and getting a story told.”

Ray was gently pushed into this more foreground position by several people who recognized his greater potential as a lead artist. One was the late artist manager Howard Lowell, who told Ray he envisioned him playing beautiful melodies. Peer saxophonist Everette Harp keenly elaborates, ‘Ray’s ability to subtly emote through his guitar is merely an extension of his soul.With the exception of the late,great Eric Gale, I have never heard anyone play this style. And The Weeper has taken it a step or two further.’ Perhaps the biggest push came in 1997 in the form of some tough love from Ray’s frequent employer, George Duke. When Ray asked him to produce some music for him, Duke said,”No, because you already know what you want. All of the choices that you make around for me are the same ones you need to go ahead and make for yourself.”                            

I was frustrated with the overall musicianship as it related to artistry vs. business,” Ray explains. “I always felt I could make radio-friendly music yet keep my natural integrity. Just call what I do ‘funky deep!’We can groove but with a level of musicianship where we don’t have to be shallow about it.”

The Weeper album introduces Ray not only as a spotlighted musician, but as a keen arranger and heartfelt composer (note: Ray's very first composition, "Tell Me This Night Won't End" was recorded on soul singer Gerald Alston's Motown solo album, Open Invitation). For this album, the reluctant writer even stumbled upon a DAT of the song 'Friday," which he'd co-written with Jeff Lorber four years ago! He swiftly added it to The Weeper's tune stack. He wound up composing another song,Weeper's Thang," on-the-spot, just before a session with keyboardist Dave Kochanski. Ray relays,"Dave went in one room and I went in another. I came up with a groove in c-minor. He came up  with a verse and a bridge. Our individual pieces fit like a glove." Ray and Dave also co-composed the lush evocation of Mediterranean delights,"Spanish Flyer." Ray returns to the tropics on two warm and inviting instrumental covers of the Brazilian pieces 'Particlo Alto" and "She Walks This Earth" (the latter written by acclaimed composer and artist in his own right, Ivan Lins).

However, the album's powerful original is arguably "Speak Brother," a sunny affirmation of righteous communication that could bring the widest of grins to the most evil of faces 'I wanted to convey energy with something that says, 'Showtime,"' Ray reflects. "Going through a lot of spiritual awakening, I wanted to use as many opportunities on this album as possible to express something a little deeper. Jazz and blues are deeply rooted inside me, but I also wanted this particular song to have a gospel feeling within the vocabulary."

Ray picked up another song from mutual friends Larry Kimpel (a superb bassist) and Monty Seward (a prolific R&B lyricist). Titled "Free Spirit,'this piece was originally submitted but rejected for a George Benson project."When I heard it," Ray shares, "I loved the hip-hop bounciness of it, but felt it could be smoothed out with a more sophisticated, elastic arrangement"(a perfect description of the result).

Lovers of classic R&B and jazz have an unbeatable buffet of sensitively arranged cover songs to choose from on The Weeper. Ray, who is magnetically drawn to the drama in any good piece of music, hand-picked pieces that have inspired him for decades to refashion in his own sweet way."I don't believe in covering a song straight up and down," Fuller schools."I picked songs for their melodies and dynamics. And they must have a whole lot of souI."

Ray worked his magic on two Motown classics. First there's "If You Really Love Me," a Stevie Wonder & Syreeta Wright composition from Wonder's1971 album Where I'm Coming From that is renowned for its dual tempo and ride and fall dynamics. Then from ten years later (1981) is singer/songwriter Teena Marie's "Portugese Love," a soulful Latin Jazz rendezvous of breathtaking romance.In both cases, Fuller tastefully tempers the dynamics and adds subtle nuances that will surprise and satisfy fans of the originals. 

The late, great John Coltrane's timeless "Naima" (made famous on the saxophonist's classic 1959 Atlantic Records album Giant Steps) has inspired many covers. Ray's will stand among the most moving thanks to his brilliantly subdued use of Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone (introducing the melody on the head and adding a lovely coda at the end), which bookends two amazing solos from Fuller on guitar and pianist Terry Trotter.

The remaining two covers were perhaps most challenging of all given that they both have several already "definitive renderings." "Superstar," composed by '70s rock star Leon Russell with lyricist Bonnie Bramlett was made famous first by brother and sister duo The Carpenters (featuring the late lamented Karen Carpenter) the soulfully redone in the '80s by the masterful Luther Vandross). Ray loves other versions, but found his own singular way to tell the story by milking the slow tempo, caressing the melody softly with his guitar, then, on the galvanizing closing choruses, having Phil Perry answer his lines with crescenclos of impassioned vocal adlibs. Perry returns on a cover of The Isley Brothers'credo of the hard laboring man,Work To Do" (later revisited in the '80s in a battle-of-the-sexes flip by Vanessa Williams), within an unbelievably smoothed-out arrangement that might make Ronald "Mr. Biggs'lsley himself jealous. Joining Phil at the mic on background vocals here is Ray's sweetheart, Michele Cox (who hadn't sung professionally in years). "My baby must have been dying inside, but you'd never know it," Ray says with pride.'She was poker-faced strong on the outside, soft on the inside just like me.'                            

Praising all of the participants-friends first, musicians second-Fuller states, Every one is a master of texture and space.They are virtuosos on their instruments, but they know when and how to play what's needed within a song.The making of The Weeper, his first album as a leader, is something Ray Fuller sums up with a tired but happy shrug as a challenging but much needed and appreciated "process." The sheer determination that Fuller had to finish this project in the face of ceaseless personal distractions is a shining testament to his commitment to seeing it through.

"It's just real and a long time coming," Ray concludes. There's always something else for a popular musician to do, but at some point we know when it's time to tell our ownstory. I don't think I was prepared to tell the story before. I'm not saying it's absolutely necessary for an artist to go through tragedy and drama before they can tell a story worthy of listening to. It's more about fully having something of value to say musically, and having a well-rounded vocabulary with which to 'speak'it,"

A. Scott Galloway