The spirit of Billie Holiday brought Ray Shell full circle with Diana Ross. He first met the legendary Motown vocalist during the 1980s when she took her children to see Starlight Express in London. Decades after originating the lead role of “Rusty the Steam Engine”, Shell was now standing with the singer’s son Evan Ross on the set of Lee Daniels’ film The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021). “I introduced myself to Evan,” Shell recalls. “He said [exclaims] ‘It’s you! We still have pictures of you and the cast downstairs in our basement!’ He called Diana Ross — ‘I’m with Rusty!'”
That kind of serendipity is the foundation of Shell’s career. Fifty years ago, he landed his first professional Equity role in The Me Nobody Knows (1971), winning rave reviews from the Philadelphia Daily News for his rendition of “What Happens to Life”. After performing with the “Mercury Tribe” in the National Touring Company of Hair, Shell arrived in New York where he found his own version of Oz and struck a lifelong friendship with “The Wiz” himself, André De Shields. He performed in two Off Broadway productions, The Dirtiest Musical (1975) and Dementos (1980), working with Nell Carter, Marc Shaiman, and a whole community of New York-based actors, singers, and musicians who’d influence cabaret and musical theater for decades to come.
Shell first visited London in 1978, performing the title character in Little Willie Jr.’s Resurrection — “The First Soul Gospel Musical” — before continuing a career trajectory that’s long defied convention. He starred in Menahem Golan’s The Apple (1980), a campy science fiction musical that turned a fun-house mirror on the music industry while experiencing the machinations of the business firsthand as a solo artist on EMI Records. After releasing a cover of Kate Bush’s “Them Heavy People” (1981), he formed Ray Shell & the Street Angels, sang lead with ’80s funk band Art School & the Mighty Motor Gang, and established Total Artist in Production (TAIP) at Pineapple Studios in London where he taught acting, singing, and writing.
“I was teaching at Pineapple three days a week and taking my children to school,” says Shell, who’d nearly abandoned his own acting career at that time. “I was happy because I had let it go, but the Lord knew, the powers knew, what my destiny was and my destiny was right outside my studio door. It was a poster. ‘Wanted: very young people who can roller skate’.” Indeed, Shell won his breakthrough role in the original London production of Starlight Express, the world’s first musical performed entirely on roller skates. Composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyricist Richard Stilgoe, director Trevor Nunn, and choreographer Arlene Phillips were among those who helped shape Shell’s portrayal of Rusty, but it was the actor’s powerful, impassioned vocals and sensitive approach to the character that imbued Rusty with heart, soul, and spirit.
Premiering at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre in March 1984, Starlight Express turned Ray Shell into theatre royalty. Over the next two decades, he’d star in a string of successful West End productions, including Miss Saigon, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Children of Eden, The Lion King, and The Bodyguard. In recent years, he returned to the states for a series of shows including Bud, Not Buddy (2017) at the Kennedy Center, Inner City: The Reunion Concert (2017) at Feinstein’s/54 Below, and American Conservatory Theater’s production of Toni Stone (2020). He also made his New York solo debut at Joe’s Pub/The Public Theater with Ray Shell: Phoenix (2018) and premiered an original musical he wrote with Chris Van Cleave, Starboy, at the Paramount Theater in Goldsboro, North Carolina earlier this year.
However, it was during Shell’s stateside visit in 1992 for “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” concert tour that he saw how the crack epidemic had decimated his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. He sought to understand the user’s point of view and interviewed several addicts about their experience with crack. Those conversations informed Iced (1993), a book that details the harrowing account of a fictional character, Cornelius Washington Jr., who’s in the grip of crack addiction. HarperCollins published Iced to wide acclaim, with The Los Angeles Times observing how “Shell’s writing is frighteningly compelling” and The New Yorker noted that Iced is “difficult to put down even during its most violent moments”.
Iced also won praise from the late Dr. Maya Angelou, who called the book “a powerhouse”, and director Lee Daniels, who says that Shell’s “ability to tap in and articulate the human condition is a gift from God”. In fact, Daniels is currently developing Iced for the film while Shell will re-publish the book, as well as the physical edition of his new novel Carolina Red, through his own Street Angels Books imprint. Shell’s also adapted Iced for the stage and will direct a theatrical version of the piece next year at the Institute for Contemporary Theatre (ICT) in Brighton.
“I know doors that will only open for me,” Shell sang on the searing, rock-tinged “Street Angel”, a song he wrote, produced, and released on the eve of his 50th anniversary in the industry. During a recent afternoon in Brooklyn, Shell met with PopMatters and shared where those doors have led and how he’s successfully navigated half a century of acting, singing, directing, writing, and producing. To paraphrase one of his signature performances, he is the starlight.
Earlier this year, you starred as Billie Holiday’s drummer Carl in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. In preparing for that film, what did you learn about Billie Holiday that was a discovery for you?
The fact that she was able to deal with so many different kinds of people. The people that were after her … she didn’t care that they were after her. She preserved herself and was true to herself. She basically said, “Fuck you! This is my life. This is what I’m going to do. I’m gonna sing this song [‘Strange Fruit’] because it needs to be sung. I’m gonna sing it because I’m not afraid to sing it and if you want to do something to me, go ahead and do it.” That was very impressive.
I felt that Andra Day caught that spirit. For that to be her first anything in terms of acting and to start at the very top was just really commendable, but I think it said a lot about Billie Holiday’s spirit as well. Andra was able to infuse herself in that spirit.
The biggest takeaway for me, just in terms of Billie and what she was about, was that she wasn’t afraid. She was true to herself. I admire that because so many people in this business are afraid and I would have imagined that it was harder back then. It was probably the same kind of danger but it’s just that because we have so much technology we know about it more. You can actually photograph somebody being killed whereas back then it was word of mouth if it was reported at all.
Back in February of this year, you performed your musical Starboy at the Paramount Theatre in Goldsboro. Audience members had just begun sitting together in theaters again, albeit with masks and social distancing. How did it feel to return to the stage, performing in those kinds of conditions?
It was scary because I hadn’t performed live since Toni Stone in San Francisco at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater). That was almost a year and a half. It was like, Oh my God, can I still do this? Since we couldn’t have a traditional rehearsal period, I had to rehearse myself in isolation. We had Zoom rehearsals with the kids and then we had four days of the entire company together. In fact, Chris Van Cleave’s daughter Jessica didn’t get to us until the day of the performance. We didn’t know if all of these elements would come together and work, but it did.
You set Starboy in 1955. Why were you drawn to that particular era?
I was reading about what happened to Sam Cooke. Our backgrounds are sort of similar. I thought, What if the Jackson Five had been a gospel group? What would have happened? I wanted to create something that dealt with the politics of 1955 because that was also the time that Emmett Till was killed. What would life have been like with the family at that time under those conditions? I don’t even think that people can appreciate how hard it was for poor people, basically, but Black people especially because of the constraints and the restrictions.
That’s why, for me, what’s happening now sort of hearkens back to that because we have similar constraints. I talk to my nephews about voting. They said it’s not important to vote. I said, “If it wasn’t important to vote, why are these people passing these laws to keep you from voting?” They said, “I don’t want to be in the system.” I said, “You got a birth certificate?” “Yes.” “You got a social security card?” “Yes.” “Then you’re in the system whether you want to be or not.”
There’s a whole generation of men — I don’t want to just say Black men — that are younger than me and younger than my nephews that don’t want to be in the system at all. They think the entire thing is rigged and to a certain extent it is rigged, but in terms of being able to effect change, I’ll say it again, if your vote did not matter, why are they busting their asses to try to keep you from voting?