Roy Edward Ayers, Jr. was born in Los Angeles, CA on September 10, 1940. He comes by his affinity with music naturally, as his mother Ruby Ayers was a schoolteacher and local piano instructor and his father Roy Sr., a sometimes-parking attendant and
trombonist. As it often happens in a household filled with the love and the appreciation for music, Roy began to demonstrate his musical aptitude by the tender age of five, by which time he was playing boogie woogie tunes on the piano. He turned to the steel guitar by the age of nine, had stints during his teens playing flute,
trumpet and drums before embracing the vibes as his instrument of choice.
Perhaps Roy’s karmic destiny as a vibraphonist was influenced by his parents’ decision to allow him to
attend a concert featuring the great Lionel Hampton’s Big Band. During “Hamps” customary stroll down the aisle to thank his audience for attending, he noticed an ecstatic five-year-old boy. So impressed was “Hamp” by the childs ebullience he walked over and presented young Roy Ayers Jr. with the gift of a lifetime- a pair of vibe mallets. During Roy’s adolescence, although his parent’s required that his schoolwork remain his primary focus, his mother managed to fit in piano lessons, which served to enhance his public school education. In addition to Roy’s involvement with various instruments, he also sang in the church choir. Then, at seventeen years of age his parents presented him with a set of vibes and the rest, as they say, is history.
Roy began at first to study independently, then eventually discovered that Bobby Hutcherson, a rising
vibraphonist, lived in his neighborhood, and subsequently he began to work under Bobby’s tutelage.
Their relationship as friends and musicians blossomed, with regular meetings between the two to collaborate and practice. During this period, Roy went on to form the very first group of which he was the leader, while a student of harmony at Jefferson High School. Appropriately enough, he first named the group the Jefferson Combo, later re-naming the group the Latin Lyrics. After graduation from Jefferson High, Roy attended Los Angeles City College where he studied advanced music theory.
By 1961 Roy had become a well-rounded, full-fledged professional musician, and as is customary in nurturing African-American households, at twenty-one the keys to the door. As the adage goes, if you are blessed, when one door closes another door opens.
Fortunately for Roy, he had just begun to receive his musical blessings, as early in his career, he
collaborated and performed with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Teddy Edwards, Jack Wilson, Phineas
Newborn, and Gerald Wilson. Shortly thereafter, Roy made his recording debut with Curtis Amy, a highly regarded saxophonist, with whom he recorded “Way Down” and “Tippin’ on Through”. In 1962 he was afforded the opportunity to appear before the biggest audience of his young career…at the Las Vegas Jazz Festival.
Roy, now evolving into a composer and arranger as well as a greatly sought after performer, met and
developed a relationship with one of the jazz world’s leading authors and producers, the noted Leonard
Feather. His alliance with Feather led to Roy’s first recording contract with none other than United Artists, one of the leading record labels of the day. His debut album “West Coast Vibes” was produced by Leonard Feather and featured an impressive array of talent: Roy Ayers on vibes, Curtis Amy, tenor saxophone; Jack Wilson, piano; Bill Plummer, bass; Victor Gaskin, bass; Kenny Dennis and Tony Bazley on drums. The album received high accolades in the jazz world.
The “Roy Ayers sound” was gaining in popularity…bookings throughout the United States, as well as noted musicians who sought out Roy Ayers to collaborate on their own projects, as well as his own soon became the norm. One of the musicians who reached out to Roy during this period was none other than famed jazz flutist Herbie Mann. Herbie needed an immediate replacement for a gig at the Lighthouse
Club in Los Angeles. Roy made the gig, the crowd went wild, and a new musical alliance was
formed…the Roy Ayers-Herbie Mann collaboration lasted for four years, with Roy touring with Herbies
band and recording several albums under his own name, produced by Herbie Mann for Atlantic Records.
The next three years brought the release of “Virgo Vibes” (1967) and “Stoned Soul Picnic” (1968)
arranged by Charles Tolliver, and “Daddy Bug” (1969) arranged by William Fisher, all critical and commercial successes.
The 1970’s found Roy embarking upon a long and fruitful relationship with Polydor Records, where Roy, committed to the search for and exploration of new musical concepts began to incorporate “wah wah” and “fuzz” tones on his vibes. It was during this period he formed the group Ubiquity. The term Ubiquity (from the Latin) means the state or capacity of being, or seeming to be, everywhere at the same time. Roy Ayers obviously took his group’s name to heart for the Roy Ayers sound was virtually omnipresent. As musical genres changed in scope and definition, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, pop and disco each fought for a niche with the public and the major record labels.
Meanwhile, a new sound was slowly emerging…the American audiences referred to it as fusion, the British called it jazz-funk. Regardless of its moniker, Roy Ayers became the undisputed champion of a sound that seemed to draw from his jazz, rhythm and blues, Latin, funk and dance music roots. For the next ten years, Roy Ayers produced what many regard as some of his finest works. The mere mention of certain song titles…”Virgo Red”, “Change Up the Groove”, “Mystic Voyage”, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, “Vibrations”, “You Send Me”, “Lifeline”, “Fever”, and the list goes on and on, evoke fond memories for fans ranging in age from their twenties through their seventies. It is rare when an artist is able to speak to, grasp and hold the attention of so wide a demographic, for so long a period of time.
1973 brought the opportunity to produce and record the soundtrack for a now legendary film of what was then known as the “black exploitation” genre, titled “Coffy, starring Pam Grier. The soundtrack and film were immensely successful, perhaps in no small part due to the caliber of writing, producing, and Roy’s incorporation of the musical talents of the likes of vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and Harry Whitaker on piano. In 1977 Polydor Records released the “Lifeline” album that contained the mega-hit “Running Away”.
Undeniably, to this day, “Running Away” receives strong radio airplay, is a jazz-funk anthem in dance clubs worldwide, and causes a party to break out whenever and wherever it is played. In fact “Running Away” was included in the soundtrack for the Spike Lee film “Summer of Sam” released in the year 2000, marking the beginning of its third decade of delivering the Roy Ayers groove to audiences across the globe.
His popularity growing exponentially, Roy Ayers’ name is now a household name everywhere, particularly in the United States in England. In fact, “Get On Up, Get On Down”, “Heat of the Beat”, and “Don’t Stop the Feeling” reached the British record charts at 41, 43 and 56 respectively, reaching notoriety the hard way…not through heavy radio airplay, but by winning over fans through the dance club circuit, which in itself is another musical phenomenon. Other landmark events of this era included Roy’s hugely successful tour of Africa in 1979 that resulted in the Polydor Records release of “Africa, Center of the World”. In 1983 Roy Ayers formed his own record label, Uno Melodic, offering “Lots of Love” as its first release. This album produced several outstanding and commercially successful tracks including this title track, “Chicago” and “Everybody”.
Many of the artists from Roy’s label have gone on to become major stars in their own right, including Bobbi Humphrey, Justo Almario, The Eighties Ladies, Ethel Beatty, and Sylvia Striplin. Thereafter Roy Ayers continued to tour, write and record with major labels such as CBS, Ichiban, Polydor (Japan), BMG, and numerous other smaller independent record companies. In 1985 he joined a concert tour called “The New York Explosion” which took by storm over forty cities in the United States and eventually traveled to London’s famed Hammersmith Odeon Theatre (now the London Apollo Theatre). The band featured the talents of Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Tom Browne, and Lonnie Liston Smith… it is no small wonder that those who were present at any of these concerts still rave about it nearly twenty years later.
Roy Ayers has continued to write, produce and be featured in collaborations with many major artists, and is currently one of the most sampled artists in the music industry.
To date Roy Ayers has released seven CDs under his own labels, Uno Melodic and AFI CD Records. Always the consummate showman, Roy Ayers has managed to incorporate his jazz virtuosity, with driving funk, melodic rhythms and stirring vocals into an amalgam that almost defies its description as “smooth jazz”.
This year marks forty years in the music industry for Roy Ayers. His current album is entitled “Mahogany Vibe” which features Betty Wright and Erykah Badu, surely his best work to date. This years recipient of C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) Lifetime Achievement Award, Roy Ayers is and shall always be a music icon and a part of popular worldwide culture… Roy Ayers is, without question, a legend in his own time.
Frank Chapman-Roy Ayers Interview
Musicians, like all artists and scientists, have in common what John A. Wheeler called “A dream-and-drive spirit, a bulldog tenacity of purpose, and an openness to try any route to the summit.” Also
like good mountaineers they always climb to the rough side of the mountain.
Roy Ayers, the musician, the artist searching for the sunshine, driven by an intense longing to embrace the essence and beauty of life in a song; caught up in the alternating rhythm of confidence and exhaustion, finally emerges and stands in the candid light of truth, a mature artist refined by the march of time and crowned by the genius of his people.
Who was this seeker of perfection caught in the web of rhyme and rhythm? How did he come to be switched by the sound of music? Where did he learn to play so well? Who were his mentors? What were his achievements?
In this recent interview with Roy Ayers on his new CD release Mahogany Vibe I had an opportunity to raise these questions.
I asked Roy why this album at this time?
Roy Ayers: “I think music all the time. But this time I think I’ve been given a new opportunity to work with new and exciting people and map out new terrains in music.
I’m talking about Erykah Badu and Betty Wright. I have found a real soul-connection with these sisters, and I am very much delighted that they have nominated me the father of what they call ‘Neo-Soul’…They tell me that I have inspired people like Eric Benet and Mary J. Blige just to mention two different styles.”
What is Neo-Soul?
“Well you know people are always defining and re-defining music. For instance my style of playing has
been characterized as ‘smooth jazz’, and ‘acid jazz’. I listen as I play and I’m not caught up in defining the type of music I play. In other words others are more discerning than me when it comes to defining music have called what I do ‘neo-soul’ and that’s cool with me… You know its all about changing, really, and being multi-versatile. I’m not imprisoned within any particular style or category of music. I grew up in the be-bop culture or what people today call classic jazz. I’ve played with great artists like Hampton Hawes, Leroy Vinegar, Harold Land, Pheneas Newborn, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, Grady Tate and others. I toured Japan with Chico Hamilton in 1966 and shortly thereafter played and recorded with Herbie Mann. And I had very profound spiritual experience with the late Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s finest.
Working with him was not only exciting it also put me into intimate contact with my African roots. All these artists enhanced my ability as an artist and their sound became my sound. But as I said earlier I am versatile so I expanded into concepts of working with Rick James and Stanley Clarke. When I put out the CD ‘Smooth Jazz’ a few years back I couldn’t get my album played over the so-called smooth jazz stations. In Chicago V103 radio station played my smooth jazz album but the jazz stations would not play it. So you don’t always know who you’re making that soul connection with. I remember seeing Miles Davis at Radio City before he died. The Whispers came on first and to my great surprise they paid tribute to Miles by singing ‘Round Midnight’. That was the name of Miles Davis’ album when he first bought out John Coltrane. Damn! That was touching. You never know because ‘soul’ has no musical geographical or racial boundaries…”
Are you explaining your transition from jazz, to R&B, to neo-soul?
“I don’t think I’m really so unique. If every Black person looked at their life they would quickly discover that they have been influenced by every type of music prevalent in America…what we call ‘soul’ has been around a long time. It comes out of a particular culture that is African in origin, but influenced by 250 years of slavery, as well as other forms of racial oppression. When it comes to dealing with people of the dominant culture, often it seems cold and heartless and so ‘soul’ has been for us the heart of a heartless land imbedded in our struggles for human dignity and respect in spite of the odds against us.”
“And I guess that the true beauty of music is that it connects people in that it carries a message and we,
the musicians, are the messengers. I am versatile because I want my message to reach all people. I have
always played soul music.”
From where I sit, a curious observer, a devoted fan and a longtime friend, I have mostly heard and gratefully seen Roy Ayers work over these last forty-odd years with remarkable energy and passion. But I have never seen a tired face, a dismal countenance or heard a cynical comment on the follies of humankind. Roy has always shown a unique talent for playing the right not at the right time in the right place, and even if it’s a blue not, it has a happy and humorous twist. And he earned his right from the very best, from the musical heroes and heroines of the last century. At the golden age of 62 we see him on the slippery slope with the youth and I think to myself; he no longer belongs to any age group, to any defined category of music, but like all the icons past and present, he belongs to the friends of the
Berlin native and Inkal founder, Ben Rau delivers two brand new mixes of the Roy Ayers classic ‘Holiday’. Titled after his record label ‘Inkal‘, Ben’s first pass of ‘Holiday’ makes use of the original’s distinctive piano motifs over a bouncy…
Originally unearthed and released by BBE as part of the Virgin Ubiquity (Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981) project, ‘Sugar’ is a smooth funk/disco gem recorded in 1978, which features vocals from Carla Vaughan as well as Roy Ayers himself. Joey Negro’s iconic…
Sold out! Searching (The Africa 70 Version) The Players Roy Ayers – Vibes/ Vocals, Rhodes, Diane Venter – Vocals, Chuck Anthony – Guitar, William Allen – Bass, Bernard Purdy – Drums Mixed by John Hopkins, NYC Side B Brand…
The late ‘70s were such a creatively fertile period for Roy Ayers and his associates that many of his finest recordings never made it onto the official releases. Ayers kept the master tapes in storage until Peter Adarkwah of BBE…
Sold out! Roy Ayers – Baby Doll This is the second single to be culled from the Virgin Ubiquity experience. The idea is to give the collectors and the real music lovers some exclusive gems and this yet to…