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

How exactly did you get signed to EMI as a solo artist?

Phil Sharp was head of publishing at EMI. He was publisher for Queen. He was publisher for Kate Bush. He was publisher for all those people who I did not know who or what they were. He wanted me to cover a Queen song. [sings] “Love of my life.” I was like, “Chile, this ain’t R&B …” I was stupid. I sang it but I didn’t know the importance of it. I stomped on my own career!

After I did those demos, Phil Sharp came back and said, “Well, we want to give you a record deal.” The advance was only £250. If a record company wants you, they will make sure that they do what they have to do to get you. They said, “Okay we’ll give you a publishing deal.” I had not written a song, did not know if I could write a song. The publishing deal was worth £5,000 but back then it was worth like £50,000. Phil Sharp said, “Now you’ve got a publishing deal. Go write some songs.” That’s why I started the band called Street Angels.

I got my band happening. Street Angels got their gig at Gullivers. Gullivers was the place. I met Heatwave down there. Anybody who was Black in the music industry that was doing a concert in London would wind up at Gullivers.

Explain your transition from Ray Shell & the Street Angels into singing with Art School & the Mighty Motor Gang. To this day, there’s a lot of love in the UK for the songs you did with Art School.

I hated to do any gigs. Me and my wife Charita were in this Street Angels band together. Every time we would have to go and do a gig, our children would scream and cry. Me and Charita would have the biggest fights. “One of us has got to stay here and take care of the kids!” She was excited as well that things were happening for us. I quit Street Angels. I said, “I can’t do this!” She carried on with Street Angels.

This guy heard me sing in Street Angels and asked me to be in Art School & the Mighty Motor Gang. He said we need someone to front this band. I wanted to work with Mickie Most because he was the producer. He was amazing. We did three or four singles, but I didn’t want to be in a band anymore.

I did not know that by doing these records and building up my name that it would lead to something else … but it led anyway. Right outside my studio door there was a sign “Wanted: very young people who can roller skate”. I didn’t go. One of my students went and came back and said, “Mr. Shell you’re always telling us to go and do something.” [sighs] Okay let me go and see what this is about. I had the roller skates from EMI, went down there, and that show changed my life.

And of course that show was Starlight Express. Before that show opened in ’84, you sang background for the Police on their Synchronicity tour. How did you get that gig?

I had a friend, Marsha Hunt. She was in the London company of Hair. After the Starlight Express workshop, she called me and said, “Ray I got some friends who are going on tour and they need some backup singers” because Sting had a cold. She wouldn’t tell me who the band was. Baby, this limousine that was about a block long turned up outside Chiswick Village. I got in the car, and they took me to Brixton. We got in front of Brixton Academy, which is almost like a smaller version of Madison Square Garden. I get out of the car, I go inside and I hear [sings] “Roxanne … Roxanne”. It was the Police. I sang for them and they hired me. That’s how that happened.

Ray Shell
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Describe the experience of touring with the Police.

It made me realize what being a number one international band was. The Lord showed me up close all of these things that I desired: “Do you really want to do that?” The background singers could go to bed, but the Police had to stay up and do all the rounds of promotion, which is why I understand why those people get involved in the drugs that they do because you have to be up.

Every city we’d go to, people would give them this and give them that. Godley and Creme hosted a party for all of us. As soon as I walked in, one of the Police, I won’t say his name, said, “Present left nostril [sniff]. Present right nostril [sniff].” Baby, I got so ripped and wrecked, I remember going back to the hotel and just sitting there shaking.

I was off that tour in two weeks because Sting got better. The boys started fighting. What they wanted was a girl. They didn’t want the world to know that I was a man. Sting had that high voice, that tenor. Nobody else was supposed to have that. It was something that Stewart [Copeland] said, “All for one and none for nobody else”. I was so angry when that happened because I had told my family all over the country “I’m singing with the Police”. They sent me home right before Shea Stadium when all my family would have been there in New York to see this.

I saw Sting years later. I was standby for James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy in London with Vanessa Redgrave. They were wonderful to me. They went on to do Much Ado About Nothing and I went to see them. They invited me backstage. Sting was in the audience. He was very pleasant. He was nice. At the end of the show, we all went backstage. Sting was like, “How have you been?” I said, “I just got through working with them.” He apologized. He said, “Ray, I just want you to know that we were young back then.” I didn’t push it. I didn’t say “Well, you still owe me $12,000”. I accepted the apology because he knew that what he had done was not right.

How all of this stuff could happen to me, a little Black boy from Brooklyn … I believe that I’ve had a career that’s so different from a lot of other people, in terms of the realms. All of these things came out of the work. I wanted to know what it was like so I did it and, boom, it happened. The whole Police thing came out of what I could do.

I’d love to know about the actual recording of the Starlight Express cast album. How did you conjure the character of Rusty in a recording studio?

I was just very aware that I was doing something that I always wanted to do. This was the cast album, so I knew that I had to represent myself and I had to represent the show and, more importantly, I had to represent Rusty. I also knew from all of these other shows that I had done that there were probably other Rusty’s in other productions and I was the first! In fact, I would go and listen to others. “Oh, you copied that! That’s nice. I like that.”

From Stephanie Mills in The Wiz, André in The Wiz, and by that time I’d heard André in Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Nell Carter, Jesus Christ Superstar, all those other cast albums … now this was my album and I just wanted to make sure that whatever I did was representative of what I did onstage with a little bit of extra magic. The extra magic Andrew Lloyd Webber provided aurally. It was just amazing. The sound was just all around you.

I remember when I heard the score of Starlight for the first time, I thought, “Hm, this ain’t Cats“. The songs were great but they were really pop songs. I was waiting for a “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”-ish kind of a song, which Starlight didn’t have, or “Memory”, which it didn’t have. What it did have was enough for it to become a phenomenon and for it to still be running in Bochum [Germany] to this day. I will always be thankful to Andrew Lloyd Webber because he gave this Black boy a chance.