Interview by Danny Coleman
There’s a bridge spanning the Delaware River connecting the town of Morrisville, PA to the city of Trenton, NJ and on this bridge are the simple words, “Trenton Makes The World Takes.”
These five words have been embedded in the hearts and minds of anyone from the eastern side of the river and stand as a reminder of Trenton’s once thriving manufacturing industry. Durable goods are not the only thing to have come from this state capital, entertainers and musicians have also made their marks and Kool & the Gang trumpet player Michael Ray represents just one of the many. “I’m a Trenton guy,” he stated from his Houston hotel room. “I grew up not too far from Ewing and I enjoy it when I’m back.”
Classified as an, “American jazz trumpeter,” Ray toured extensively with Sun Ra until his passing and then with the Sun Ra Arkestra as well as bands such as Patti LaBelle, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Phish and his own group,Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe but it’s his association with Kool & the Gang that keeps him hopping. “I’m an independent contractor of sorts but I’ve been with Kool for over 30 years,” he said with a slight laugh. “I love it, it’s a big ol’ nasty get down whenever we hit the stage. We’re getting ready to go to Cozumel on the, “Soul Train Cruise” and our schedule is booked out to September. We’re going to be going to China, Germany, France, Japan; Japan is always fun because those audiences know every word and they dance from start to finish, they really love American music.”
Over the decades of music making, both Kool & the Gang and Ray have gone through changes. Personnel, personality and maturity as artists in an industry that is the epitome of trendy have all been a part of the journey. “Being part of the horn section, guys come in and out but we all work together. Recording is always fun with this group of musicians and Kool, you know, he keeps things light; keeps us staying busy. We were classified as funk for a while, then pop and also R & B, it’s really hard to clarify Kool & the Gang in a genre; we change with the times and offer a little something for everyone and always have as long as I’ve been part of it. Heck, even I’ve gone through changes in my life and it was a non musical project that I got into. I was living in New Orleans and if you live there, there are storms, I was learning how to do sheetrock and take care of my own business,” he said with a laugh.
Those same changes can either make or break an artist or band and so can the current times and climate. Ray says that over the years, the keys to success for Kool and himself have been consistency and marketing but sometimes even the best laid plans don’t work as well as one hopes. “We’ve got some great songwriters in the band. Kool, Ron (Bell), Claydes (Smith), George Brown are fantastic at what they do and our last song, “Sexy,” did alright, it made the “Top 10″ but in this business, if you don’t follow up with a video or an album things don’t happen. Kool has so many different feels, jazz, funk, rock and so many things going on that we are busy in other areas and then again, take the example of the September 11 attacks; sometimes peoples attentions are focused elsewhere and things just slip by without as much attention. The beauty of it is, even though we can’t get away from playing certain songs, it’s still so cool to perform them and the new material too.”
Ray is proud to be part of the unit and its accomplishments, stating that it,“Never gets old going on stage with the band” and he looks back fondly on his time spent. “Yeah, it was quite an honor to have a street named after us in Jersey City (NJ). There is also the Hollywood Walk of Fame, we rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, there is a movie coming out in 2018, playing with the symphony in Holland, or the time we played to over 500,000 people in Nairobi; it’s all really mind blowing. We have a great musical director and he makes it go but being on stage with these guys, there’s an energy when the lights go down. that’s when and where it all comes together, it’s all good.”
To find out more about Michael Ray, please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Ray_(trumpeter). To see what’s happening with Kool & the Gang, please go to www.koolandthegang.com.
Danny Coleman (Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 10 p.m. EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.)