Album review: Sugaray Rayford weighs in on the blues, scores a kayo with ‘Dangerous’

A fine onstage wardrobe led to the nickname Sugaray, who has a sharp new album, "Dangerous."
A fine onstage wardrobe led to the nickname Sugaray, who has a sharp new album, “Dangerous.”

This Sugaray is a “Dangerous” heavyweight.

Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard performed in a ring and were welterweights who moved up weight classes to win world title belts. A big man at 6-foot-5, Sugaray Rayford appears on stages and in studios making hits with a soulful voice. He, too, changed categories, moving from gospel to R& B and now to the blues. His new album, “Dangerous,” released today, Sept. 17, by Delta Groove Music is a knockout.

Like most champions, Rayford entered his studio arena supported by a large entourage. Several contributed songs and an all-star group played the sessions. In the end, 18 strong song contenders were trimmed to 14 tracks, still a lot for one record.

“I don’t think it’s sensory overload,” Rayford said. “I felt that people would be getting their money’s worth. I wanted to show people I could be a traditional blues man and not just the slick Memphis style blues, but real blues, and that I had a lot to offer.”

“Dangerous” explores several areas of traditional blues, which Rayford said is easier to accomplish as a singer than it is for a guitarist expected to remain in a certain style. The album concludes with a cover of Rayford’s favorite bluesman, Son House, “Preaching Blues.”

“In music, you always find that one person who talks to your soul,” said Rayford who applies his gospel background to blues. “The delivery is the same as if I was preaching the gospel. It’s the same feel, just change the words.”

While the delivery is the same, the two are distinct.

“You have two camps: The holy rollers and those who love the music but aren’t church-going,” Rayford said. “I won’t do a gospel album without being in church. It’s sacrilege to me. I do a lot of blues festivals and people will come up to me who remember me from the gospel days.”

Rayford’s gospel days began in Texas when he was just 4 years old. He said he was in church seven days a week singing with myriad choirs.

In summertime, Rayford found out about secular music.

“My uncle used to play Johnnie Taylor on his 8-track in his truck when I spent summers with my aunt,” he said. ‘In the winter, I was with my grandmother and that (music) wasn’t played anywhere near her house.”

As an adult, Rayford walked away from music for 15 years. His wife encouraged him to sing again.

“She believed in me before I believed in myself,” he said.

Rayford worked as a bouncer (remember, he’s a big dude) in Carlsbad. On slow nights he would walk across the street to watch a blues band play in a club called The Alley. Sometimes he would sit in, and while his voice impressed people, he didn’t know the lyrics.

“The bass player gave me a paperback book that had 2,500 blues.” he said. “I went home  and digested that for months and months and months.”

Rayford played in a large R& B band for about five years, but he wanted to sing blues. After sitting in at an open mic in Temecula, blues doors opened wide. His band Aunt Kizzy’s Boys placed second at the International Blues Challenge. One of the IBC judges was Randy Chortkoff, who Rayford joked “voted against me.”

Chortkoff recognized Rayford’s talent five years later when he saw him jam with a band that included John Mayall. He bought him an airplane ticket to Spain where he would sing with the Mannish Boys, Delta Groove’s all-star revue. Rayford continues to front the Mannish Boys, which was honored for best traditional album at this year’s Blues Music Awards.

Rayford is following in the footsteps of the great Finis Tasby who sang with the Mannish Boys until suffering a stroke. Tasby played in Texas with Lowell Fulson, Freddie King and Z.Z. Hill before moving West.

“We used to talk very candidly,” Rayford said. “Finis is a patriarch of the blues, and to have a guy like that where I could actually walk up to him and talk to him was great for me.

“He would tell me some of the do’s and don’ts and downfalls and pitfalls to try to avoid because he had been through them and he wanted to help me out. I was blessed he would want to share that knowledge.”

(To assist with Finis Tasby’s monumental medical bills please click: FINIS)

Chortkoff approached Rayford with the idea of making a traditional blues record. The producer, harp player and record label president wrote a few of tunes for Rayford, including the title track and the autobiographic and Muddy-esque “Goin’ Back to Texas.”

Jeff Scott Fleenor, the label’s vice president, added a couple of tunes, too. “I guess he had been trying since the inception of the company to do a Gatemouth Brown song,” Rayford said. “I heard that ‘Depression Blues,’ and said, ‘Man, we got to do that.’ ”

Rayford’s good friend Sugar Ray Norcia, a harp player and a singer, contributed a pair of songs. The playful back-and-forth duet “Two Times Sugar,” is especially sweet. There also is a cover of Pee Wee Crayton’s “When it Rains, it Pours.”

“Dangerous” musicians include harpists Big Pete and Kim Wilson and guitarists Kid Andersen and “Monster” Mike Welsh.”

Rayford proves his point he can reign supreme as a straight-up bluesman. Listen to “Dangerous” and it will be a unanimous decision.

"Dangerous"Sugaray Rayford

‘Dangerous’

Release date: Sept. 17, 2013

Delta Groove Music

Buy CD: DANGEROUS

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Picture of Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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