He’s a huge 6-foot-5, 300-pounds but is as nonstop as a tiny hummingbird. Like the name implies, Sugaray Rayford leads a high-energy life, fueled by opportunities.
Last Tuesday Rayford released his first album,” Southside,” on his new label, NimoySue Records. On Sunday he concludes a more than nine-week run at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Monday will travel to Europe to start a tour with his band.
“I have a lot on the plate and I have a lot of energy but a lot of that is opportunity, and in our world it’s feast or famine,” Rayford told Tahoe Onstage. “I always think back to B.B. (King) playing 300 shows a year in a van or, in those days, a station wagon. I figure if those guys could do it, then I can do it.”
In order to attend the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Rayford took his one and only day off from “Low Down Dirty Blues,” an eight-shows-a-week musical in which he starred with Alicia Fields. It was Rayford’s second theater production. He earlier performed in the Tony-nominated “Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues.”
“I flew in Feb. 22 from Spain where it was 65 degrees and I landed here and it was minus-6 with 15 mph sustained winds,” Rayford said. “I said, ‘Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into?’ ”
Enduring a winter on Lake Michigan with its “hawk” wind described in so many blues songs was a successful decision for the Texas native who, if he ever gets home, resides in Southern California. Every “Low Down Dirty Blues” show was a sellout. Rayford has already agreed to return for another, shorter, run, Nov. 1-Dec. 20.
At the Blues Music Awards he was nominated for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Traditional Blues Male Artist. He is the lead singer for the Mannish Boys, which was nominated for Traditional Blues Album, “Wrapped Up And Ready.” It was the recipient of the award a year earlier for “Double Dynamite.” The Mannish Boys were also nominated for Album of the Year.
Although he didn’t return to Wisconsin with BMA hardware, Rayford’s rise in recent years is evident by his four nominations. The B.B. King award is the top honor a blues front man can receive.
“I was happy to see Bobby Rush win it because he deserved it,” Rayford said. “I was shocked and honored that they put my name in those categories.”
Rayford’s blue star has been rising ever since his former band Aunt Kizzy’z Boyz placed second at the Blues Foundation’s 2006 International Blues Challenge.
“Europe is always great but I am hoping to establish and re-establish myself back in the states,” he said. “I want to introduce myself to the other half of the blues population that doesn’t know me.”
It is hard to imagine a blues lover who has not heard the Mannish Boys, which was started in 2004 by Delta Groove President Rand Chortkoff. Chortkoff’s concept was to have a band that is also a revue with different artists coming and going onstage during a performance. Finis Tasby, Bobby Jones and Johnny Dyer each sing with the Mannish Boys. Rayford is the surviving lead singer.
Chortkoff died on May 4, but the future of the Mannish Boys is not in doubt, Rayford said.
“We will definitely continue; it was one of Randy’s wishes,” Rayford said. “You know this was his love.”
However, Chorkoff’s absence will be felt.
“He had such a large footprint on the blues scene that it will probably be decades before it ever starts to fade,” Rayford said. “I am actually kind of afraid and wondering of what’s going to happen to the West Coast blues scene because Randy’s been putting out about 12 to 14 albums a year. He gave a lot of guys like me a chance when no one else was giving us a chance, so I am apprehensively waiting to see how this unfolds as the years go by.”
“It allows you more freedom and if you have the wherewithal to do it, I say do it because it gives you control, but it’s also scary because you are out there on your own,” he said about starting an independent label. “People seem to enjoy the album and if it continues to go in the direction it’s going in, I’ll probably do another album on the label.
“Southside,” a soul-based blues CD with a full horn section on most of its tunes, is a contrast to Rayford’s penultimate release, “Dangerous,” which included harmonica and was in the style of Chicago blues.
“I needed some outside ears so my friends with Gov’t Mule Steve Holroyd and Jorgen Carlsson mastered the CD,” Rayford said. “I love what they did and the order they put it in. I was worried when I released this album because so many people were used to hearing me on the Delta Groove stuff. If you see my band live, it’s more of a Memphis Stax soul with a full-on horn section. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one style of blues when there are so many great styles of blues out there. I am thinking next about doing a live album that captures my voice the way I sing live.”
To read the Tahoe Onstage review of “Southside,” click HERE.