A chance meeting in Memphis laid the groundwork for a unique musical partnership between soul-blues powerhouse Sugaray Rayford and producer, songwriter Eric Corne. Combining classic soul melodies with funky R & B grooves, raw blues power, and mashed up with modern sensibilities, the pair’s first collaboration, Somebody Save Me, earned Rayford a 2020 Grammy nomination while later that year he took home Blues Music Awards for ‘Soul Blues Male Artist’ and ‘B.B. King Entertainer of the Year.’
Last summer’s adventurous single “Homemade Disaster” took things further, landing on multiple retro soul and new blues playlists on Spotify, with PopMatters declaring the track “will appeal to fans of Gary Clark Jr. and Chicano Batman.”
Now they are back with In Too Deep, Rayford’s second full length for Forty Below Records.
The album opens with “Invisible Soldier,” a song inspired by Rayord’s struggles with insomnia from PTSD. The track serves as a reminder that our cities and communities are full of veterans struggling with the aftershocks of war and how it’s invisible to most fellow citizens because they’re in plain clothes.
Rayford, a ten-year Marine, explains, “I shared with Eric some of what I was going through, and he asked me what I thought about putting it in a song, and that’s where “Invisible Soldier” and “In Too Deep” come from. We want to sing about social issues as well as just general feelings of love and loneliness and everything in between.”
A dynamic performer known to put his band through its paces with abrupt feel and style changes, Rayford thrives on funky up-tempo grooves, as is evident on another standout song, “Miss Information.” The song explodes out of the blocks with African flavored horns and percussion on top of a Farfisa organ, wah-wah guitar, and layered harmonies. Rayford delivers a tour de force performance like only he can, making some heavy points while keeping it fun.
In “Please Take My Hand,” Rayford raises the voices of generations who’ve struggled and persevered with love in the face of oppression, accompanied only by spare bass drum, handclaps, and cowbell.
Rayford reveals a whole other side on the soulful and sensual “No Limit to My Love,” poignantly orchestrated with harp, horns, flutes, and strings along with some of the funkiest lead guitar this side of Bobby Womack, courtesy of Eamon Ryland. It could fit just as easily next to Silk Sonic as Bobby “Blue” Bland.
“Golden Lady of the Canyon” is a lush soul-country flavored ballad infused with strings, horns, and Stax-style guitar work by Mavis Staples’ bandleader Rick Holmstrom. Rayford’s soulful croon rising and falling plaintively; it’s sure to please fans of the title track from his Grammy-nominated “Somebody Save Me.”
While not mentioned directly, you can view many of the songs through the lens of the pandemic. Such is the case with the Jackson 5 reminiscent, Gospel tinged “Gonna Lift You Up”; “Outta breath/Outta luck/The mountain’s steep/And you feel stuck/Don’t be broken-hearted/The world is just in flux/Keep on movin’/Don’t ever give up/Gonna Lift You Up.”
Corne’s production paints unique vignettes with each arrangement to suit the mood of the lyric and Rayford’s deft interpretations and portrayals. He enlists some serious heavyweight friends to help him orchestrate the strings and horns on the record, with violinist Eric Gorfain (Dionne Warwick, REM) and from Rayford’s current band saxophonist Aaron Liddard (Amy Winehouse), respectively. Also on hand are three other mainstays of Corne’s studio work, Taras Prodaniuk (Lucinda Williams), Matt Tecu (Jacob Dylan), and Sasha Smith (Priscilla Ahn), along with Rayford’s live Musical Director Drake “Munkihaid” Shining.
At his core, Sugaray Rayford is a unifying force. His live shows are a party. Some conversations may be had, and some self-reflection may occur, but at the end of the day, people leave feeling a sense of joy and togetherness. This shines through on the album’s closer, the slinky, funky “United We Stand”. As the album fades, Rayford takes us home with concert banter and good vibes, a feeling that lingers, tempting the listener to hit play again.
After finding some early success with the award-winning The Mannish Boys, Rayford struck out on his own with Blind Alley. In 2017, The World That We Live In helped Rayford break through to the upper echelon of the blues world while also putting the soul community on notice that he had arrived. Since joining Forty Below Records, Rayford’s sound has continued to evolve in compelling ways. “Eric and I talk about all styles of music from Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield to Anderson Paak and The Roots to Black Pumas and Alabama Shakes. We both love classic soul and blues, but we also dig old-school hip hop.”
Born in Tyler, Texas, Sugaray Rayford’s early years were full of turmoil. His mother struggled to raise three boys alone while battling cancer. “She suffered, and we suffered,’ Rayford says. “Then, we moved in with my grandmother, and our lives improved. We ate every day, and we were in church every day, which I loved. I grew up in Gospel and soul.” Rayford began his musical career at the tender age of seven, singing and playing drums in church, and his gospel influences shine through in his music. The soulful rasp and expressive vocal style hint at his first-hand experience with hardship, and a childhood marked by poverty and loss.
As an African American youth growing up in poverty, Rayford saw the military as a path out serving ten years in the Marines. Today he is as comfortable using his voice to deliver songs with a message as he is singing about love. “I believe in social justice and want that to be a focus in the music, but I also like to have fun. The light and the shade, baby!” says Rayford.
“Think back to, say, the Golden days of Chess and people like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters; then factor in the sound of classic soul men like Solomon Burke and add a sprinkle of the big-voiced icons like Teddy P and you’re getting near to the sound of Sugaray Rayford. Float that over an authentic soul backing in the manner of Daptone and Stax, and you’re getting near to the sound of ‘Somebody Save Me.'” – Soul and Jazz and Funk
In the studio and in person, Sugaray Rayford has developed a reputation as a force to be reckoned with and an artist to watch in the coming years. So, “Sit back and listen to one of today’s best blues-soul singers. Even better, attend one of his live performances where his energy can totally galvanize an audience” – Elmore Magazine