Today’s guest is a true legend of the British jazz, swing, and jump blues scene. Ray Gelato was born in the swinging 60’s, and the streets of west of London where he grew up were his playground and classroom. Son of an American soldier and Jewish mother, Ray is widely known as ‘The Godfather of Swing’ and is perhaps the last of the great jazz entertainers.
He’s performed the world over at many great venues and privately for some of the most famous celebrities and royalty, and this year celebrates 25years of the ‘Giants’ band. It’s for very good reason that the Giants have been a favourite at the world famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, holding down a 16 years residency over the prized Christmas period. Join me and Ray as we ‘chew the fat’ over a cappuccino in his favourite restaurant Little Italy, Soho.
“You know the old lyrics—the Sinatra stuff, the Cole Porter stuff, you can’t better that stuff. It’s all about romance and lovely and the times they lived back then. But now I like to write things that piss people of sometimes—but in a humorous way.”
Ray grew up around what he calls “tough kids” which forced him to become one as well. Throwing rocks, climbing over school buildings, and exploring derelict army barracks were all a part of upbringing—a kind of mischief that might nudge someone into the direction of rock and roll. He was sneaking into venues at the edge 15 at the height of the Teddy Boy revival, and some of the bolder clubs would play jazz—something that would start a shift in Ray.
Also influenced by his father’s record collection, Ray picked up the sax when he was 17 and played along to those records. He was self-driven and without much encouragement at school or at home, and within six months he found himself gigging with a band, Rebound, where he started to develop his musical chops.
Ray’s musical career saw him taken under the wing of countless other musicians who all supported him and pushed him to further his music, be it through gigging far and wide or going to night school to learn music theory. He was wholeheartedly embraced by the scene and has undoubtedly given as much back as he has received from it.
“When I started, I guess I was on the tail end of the training ground—that live training ground where you could build a name, you could build an audience, and you could build your craft…it’s so difficult to build a craft now.”
Ray transitioned to leading his own band and becoming a front man, throwing his vocals into the mix and taking full charge of his musical destiny. But as we’ve noted on the podcast before, London’s live music scene has been slowly dimming over the years. Ray acknowledges that he too noticed the steady slide that makes it so hard for youngsters to break into the scene and make a name for themselves—something that television tries to push with “instant stardom” through its menagerie of talent competitions.
Ray is still playing away with the “Giants” and will be releasing a live album this year as well as touring the globe, and of course, stopping by to fill London’s night air with his notes.