By Ricardo Burke
Born and raised in Americus, Georgia, Ray Greene came under the influence of soul-R&B-funk early in life as a result of his mother’s collection of 45 records. Ray’s father, who enjoyed the unadulterated grooves of Sam Cooke and the seamless harmonies of The Soul Stirrers, was himself a vocalist, performing gospel repertoire with The Sky Tone Jubilee Singers, a local group composed of Ray’s grandfather and other family members.
Greene attended Americus High School’s “top notched” music program, where he excelled as a vocalist and trombone player with the school’s show choir. The wealth of opportunities and stellar instruction he received there led to him being accepted to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
As soon as he arrived, he started working – meeting people and playing in all types of ensembles. “I fell in with the right circle of people, running into people who were on the same trajectory,” says Greene.
During this period, his musical growth was enriched by frequently listening to the music of stalwart jazz trombonists J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller. He absorbed a lot from Phil Wilson, one of his teachers at Berklee, and Tony Lada, his private instructor, as well.
“My influences varied across the spectrum and it only helped me as a trombone player. I think versatility is very important, especially in the music industry. I’ve always worked because I can cross over into different spaces.”
Road to Commerce
A new path was presented when a fellow trombonist at Berklee was putting together a soul band and asked Ray to audition, not as an instrumentalist but as lead vocalist. The group, High Function, was a nine piece ensemble that performed a mixture of James Brown, Chicago, and Earth, Wind, and Fire covers and original material. They worked frequently, getting regular bookings around Boston at clubs like The Tam O’Shanter and Ed Burke’s.
Ray did arrangements for the band’s four piece horn section and became the ensemble’s primary song writer, composing most of the group’s original material and writing lyrics.
Greene genuinely appreciated the Boston-area music scene during this period. “It kind of floats under the radar. People have slept on Boston for a long time. There were so many people there, and they were just doing it!”
By the early 1990’s, Greene’s desire to expand his horizons compelled him to explore new musical territory. He began performing with several groups including Universal Language, a five piece unit that won a Boston Music Award in 1994. He did weddings and corporate events with the band Nightshift and sang Curtis Mayfield and Steely Dan covers in Las Vegas with Worldplay.
Studio work also came Greene’s way during this period, with myriad opportunities as a background vocalist for projects and jingles for Converse, Cadillac, and Walt Disney. Greene invested the time and effort necessary to develop the specific skills required for excellence in the studio. “Studio work and live performing are different disciplines. In the studio, you build, construct, one piece at a time. The studio is controlled, you’re by yourself in the booth. You can go back and change a phrase. You don’t get that chance when you’re performing live.”
Years of work and preparation paid off in August, 2013, when Greene received a notification via social media that the well-established and commercially successful band, Tower of Power, wanted him to sub as lead vocalist for a single night on an upcoming engagement.
Greene had six weeks to prepare and was more than ready when the curtain rose that evening in Morristown, New Jersey. “You really don’t know until you’re on stage. It’s way more energy than you anticipate. But the sound check was magical – it went well! You put the time in and the payoff is the show.”
On October 27, 2013, Ray got a phone call from Emilio Castillo, the leader of Tower of Power, with an offer to become the band’s permanent lead vocalist. Greene accepted and his first official show with the group was in Sacramento, California on New Year’s Eve, 2013.
Tower of Power is a large aggregation (five horns!) and it took Greene until April or May, 2014 to get comfortable with the band. But being on the road 200 days a year sped up the learning curve. The group performed throughout Europe, visited Japan, and did a tour with Journey and the Steve Miller Band in 2014.
Ray was in Europe with Tower of Power in December, 2015 when he got a post on Facebook by someone representing Carlos Santana. An offer to join Santana’s group was extended, and Greene jumped at the chance. His first tour with the band began in March, 2016, with an itinerary that included engagements in Singapore and Dubai.
The Las Vegas-based guitarist performs a mere 80-90 gigs a year. “He does it for the love of the music, the love of playing his guitar, for the fans,” states Greene.
Ray Greene continues to warm hearts and win fans as an exciting live performer. Dates have already been announced for a 2022 summer tour pairing Santana with Earth, Wind, and Fire, where Greene will be featured on vocals, trombone, and percussion. Whatever the context, he always strives to make each performance a culmination of all the musical elements and experiences he has internalized over the course of his eventful career.
“You can create a masterpiece by moving an audience in real time. You see a person’s face, their emotions. Audience members are laughing, dancing, and sometimes there are even tears.”
Ricardo Burke is a Brooklyn based writer and lover of jazz, cinema and art.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @RicardoBurke14