Ray Shell
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

‘Starlight’ and Street Angels: An Interview with Theatre Royalty Ray Shell

From touring in the musical Hair to keeping time in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Ray Shell has done it all during his 50 years on stage and screen.

Carolina Red
Ray Shell
BookBaby / Street Angel Books
8 December 2020

So much has happened over the past year and a half. At a local level, the Broadway community faced a long-overdue reckoning in terms of representation and opportunities for BIPOC actors and other creative personnel on and off the stage. The Black Theatre Coalition and Black Theatre United are both fueling necessary changes in how the industry casts productions. How would you characterize the experiences you’ve had in London in terms of casting?

I’ve always been blessed to be cast in multi-cultural productions — though sometimes there were only a few of us Blacks in the cast— so getting back here and actually dealing with theatre was an eye-opener. Toni Stone was the first all-Black production I had ever done in the US. In fact, my Toni Stone experience wasn’t as happy as I would have liked it to be. I won’t go any further than that. There’s a whole lot of fakery in this country in the arts. If you don’t like me? Bye. You don’t have to pretend.

I guess it’s the pretense. In England, I’m sure there is the pretense there as well but it’s a different kind. It’s more classist. In terms of class, you’ll be seated over here because your great-grandpa was cousin to the king or something. It’s that kind of a thing. Africans that I had met over there never actually experienced the kind of racism that we experience here. They don’t have that prism of colonization in the same sense that we’ve had it.

There’s so much money in this industry here that isn’t in the UK at the same level. Because of the opportunities for Black performers here, it’s one of the reasons my friends from England come over here to get these jobs. I am still learning about those dynamics.

Let’s go back to your life in New York. What is your earliest memory of music?

Oh, wow. Charles Shell, my stepfather, couldn’t afford to take us to see My Fair Lady and West Side Story and Hello, Dolly!, so he gave us records. Music was really really important in terms of my connection to stage and Broadway. He also liked Marty Robbins and cowboy songs. He loved Miklós Rózsa. Ben-Hur and King of Kings soundtracks were the thing.

Plus, there was a choir called the Institutional Church of God in Christ. They had a radio broadcast every Sunday night. Gospel music was another reason I wanted to get involved with Starboy because quartet singing — the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys — were my earliest musical experiences. It was church music. Music has always been a part of what I do.

The quality that I hear when you sing is this uniquely powerful, clear, strong tenor. Who were some of the singers that helped you find your own voice?

Sam Cooke and Ronnie Dyson and Frankie Lymon — those three guys, especially Sam Cooke and that little yodel thing that he does. I heard Sam Cooke when he was with the Soul Stirrers. We were all aghast when he became a pop star and was taking those same gospel songs and putting “love” in them instead of Jesus! Before even Sam Cooke, there was the brother that Sam Cooke replaced in the Soul Stirrers. It was that gospel sound, heavenly and angelic, that pureness of tone. Ronnie Dyson was the voice of Hair. He was the voice of “Aquarius”. Every tenor that came into that show was emulating the Dyson voice.

When I interviewed Melba Moore, she talked about how being cast in Hair gave her the opportunity to break the rules within a very safe environment. André De Shields described his experience as liberating. What did being a member of “the Tribe” give you at 20 years old?

The show was a wonderful blossoming for me, just to discover who I was. What is Ray Shell? That show gave me the chance to do that because we had to play different parts. In fact, I never had any rehearsal. I watched the show once and they stuck me in there. I got to play a white boy! They didn’t cast me as Hud because I wasn’t muscled. I was this skinny little kid. I got to sing all of these dirty words. [sings] “Sodomy, fellatio …” I loved singing it. I told my mother, “Ma, I’m gonna be in Hair.” She said, “Over my dead body.” I said, “Ma, lay down. I’m in Hair.”

It was liberating because I was a church boy. Half the things I didn’t know what the words meant. It was an eye-opener for me. I remember going to a party that was actually an orgy. I just sat up on top of this desk braiding my hair. They were all like [gestures] “Come on Ray …” I said, “No, I’m alright.” They put me in the room with the stage manager. He said, “You know, I’ve never seen you naked.” I said, “You ain’t, either!” It was alien to me. I would do the nude scene and stand behind the table so it meant that all I had to take off was my top. They liked to have the Black boys in the front row. Seriously, there were girls inside that show that would sit there and — how can I put this nicely — encourage the erections of these Black men. I was not ready to go there. I still ain’t ready to go there!

The show gave me a chance to discover what was inside of me, what I wanted. It made it possible for me, without judgment, and to be with a whole bunch of people who are enjoying the same experience. These people are friends of mine to this day. They had a company of Hair in every major city. They would send us here, send us there. Hair was like our American Idol and The Voice. It was so diversified. It had so many Black people and people of color in the show. It was an incredible experience.

Even before that with The Me Nobody Knows, I got to meet Irene Cara and Giancarlo Esposito. That boy sings like an angel. All of these people that I knew back then, seeing their careers, gave me the encouragement. “If they can do it, I can do it.”

Ray Shell
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Musically, the opening line to “Aquarius” is so powerful. You had the opportunity to sing that on stage. How did it feel to deliver that kind of an anthem?

For me, it was empowering, but I was scared shitless because I didn’t want to mess it up. It was so classic. I was like third in line — the other two guys had to be sick. Arnold McCuller sang “Aquarius” and Meat Loaf sang “Aquarius”. He was probably one of the few white boys who got to sing “Aquarius”. He tore that shit up! The person that we were emulating and trying to get the sound of and ignite in the audience’s mind was Ronnie Dyson. He was the king of it. It was a shame that he didn’t live to go on and show what else he could do.

Even though you’re a New York native, you went to school in Boston and toured with Hair. What drew you back to New York?

The Wiz. I was in Boston and The Wiz album came on with Stephanie Mills singing “Home” and then André De Shields singing “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard”. I said “I’m gonna meet this child!” I went to the Majestic Theatre and went backstage. I went there to meet the Wiz. André comes out in this red robe — open — with nothing on! “Darling, come in.” He basically put his arm around me and took care of me.

What struck you the most about André’s performance as the Wiz?

He levitated. I remember the lip of the stage would come out, but you didn’t see him touching the ground. He was very majestic, very regal, very sure, very confident. All of these elements of things that I had to learn. You know how some people have their performance face on? He was very real and very consistent. He taught me that fakery doesn’t get you anywhere but with other fake people.

I knew that I wanted to be in this business and I knew that I could trust him. I knew that he would look after me and he did. One of the first things he said to me was “Darling, don’t ever get fat”. I didn’t know what he was talking about back then, but I understand what he was talking about now. André can still get into that Wiz robe. The costume did not wear him, he wore the costume.

I got my first Off Broadway show because of André De Shields. I was sitting on André’s floor and the phone rang. It was Tom Eyen who went on to write Dreamgirls and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I could hear him say to André, “Do you know any pretty Black boys that can sing?” André said, “Yes, darling I’ve got one right here.” André sent me down to the audition and I got the part.

And that was The Dirtiest Musical (1975) at the Truck & Warehouse Theater!

It was like coming to New York and finding a community of like-minded people. I will always be thankful for that. I met Michele Shay, who became August Wilson’s muse, and I met Nell Carter. The thing is, my daddy and mommy were scarier than anybody, but everybody was scared of Nell Carter. I didn’t know enough to be afraid of her. I got five sisters and she just reminded me of one of them. One day we were in rehearsal and I said, “Nell, will you please shut up!” Everybody just stopped. She looked at me and smiled and said, “This is my little brother”. She was always a champion for me after that.

Another reason I wanted to ask you about André’s performance is because then you created Shake, your own larger-than-life character, a few years later in The Apple (1980). How much of Shake was already written on the page versus what you added to the character?

It was written on the page, but I was given carte blanche. It wasn’t me. Shake was something else. [Director] Menahem Golan told me to go home four times. “No, no we want a dancer!” I said, “But I can sing!” “No, we want a dancer!” “I can sing!” “Okay, sing.” He hired me. I got the part. It pissed off the guy who was supposed to get the part but you don’t stop. You got to continue and that continuance is belief in yourself.

What is the premise of The Apple?

The Apple is the Bible on acid. It’s a re-telling of the Creation story with Mr. Boogalow as Satan and Shake as the snake. Basically, it’s a parable about the forces of good and evil, but I redeem myself at the end because I do let the character Pandi escape. There was a time when it came out that it was called the worst movie that was ever made, but now it’s achieving cult status.

It pre-dates the whole idea of the music industry being the Illuminati. Mr. Boogalow and Shake were a part of the Illuminati. This whole thing about selling your soul to the devil? I do believe that the powers out there know what’s in your heart anyway.

The timing of The Apple is interesting because shortly thereafter you signed with EMI Records and got to see the machinations of the music business upfront.

Me and my ex-wife Charita, who’s still my best friend, used to call EMI “Evil Men Incorporated”. I had just seen Prince at the Bottom Line around the corner from where I lived. I wanted to freak out with Prince! They wanted to turn me into this pop star. I didn’t know that turning a Black boy into a pop star was the epitome of the charts.

I thought, “You make a record, of course, it goes on the radio!” I didn’t know that there were zillions of records that never see the light of anything. Two singles by EMI were put out that week, Ray Shell (“Them Heavy People”) and Kim Wilde (“Kids in America”). The record came out on a Friday and on Monday it was all over the radio. They were going to send me and Kim Wilde on tour.

[EMI’s] Head of Press came to my house. I made him potato salad and fried chicken. He’s talking about the tour. My daughters, Katryna and Krystin, and Charita had just gone to America for Kristen’s christening. I didn’t go because I had to promote this record and we had to save money.

I didn’t understand what was at stake. I didn’t know that press people don’t come and visit you at your house unless they think you’re a priority.

I’m sitting there with the press guy and Marc Shaiman calls. He wrote this amazing show with Robert I. Rubinsky called Dementos, an incredible show that we had done but ran out of money before we opened on Broadway. Marc says, “Ray we’re gonna go to Studio 54 and we’re gonna send you a ticket to get you home.” Andrew Loog Oldham, who had managed the Rolling Stones, was producing. I looked at it this way: this is the Lord sending me home so I can be with my daughter for her christening.

If I would have had a manager, which I never had, he would have said, “Chile, you can’t do that. You got to stay here and do this record”, but my desire was to be with my family. I went there, did Dementos, went to my daughter’s christening. I got back and said “I’m back now! I’m ready to do this record!” Chile, that record is gone. The second record was a song called “Take My Heart, Take My Soul”. That went on to be a big song for the Pointer Sisters, but my heart wasn’t in it.

I do believe that you attract what your desire is. I’ve always prayed. I said, “Lord, Jesus if this isn’t for me, don’t let it happen. As long as you give me wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, y’all can keep all the rest of that stuff.” It’s not all about money. I never ever worried about money. For some reason, I always had it, even if it was just enough to take care of myself. You can only fly one jet at a time. What is the profit of man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? I think that there’s a lot of people in this industry that have lost their souls. They make these deals with the devil, but what you’re basically making is deals with yourself.