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Back to Bond Street: An Interview with West End Legend Ray Shell

Photo: Flying Perfect Media

Forty years after Ray Shell left New York for London, the original Rusty in Starlight Express finds his way home to the East Village.

From New York to London

How exactly did you make the transition from Boston to New York?

It wasn't so much about moving because I grew up in New York and my parents lived in Queens. I was in a band called Zamcheck. We were a progressive art rock band. We didn't have a lead guitarist, we had a lead violinist! Michael Levine played his violin like it was a guitar. It was badass. I think that kind of honed my frontman skills.

We played at the Newport Jazz Festival. We had gotten signed to a local record deal by the people who were handling Aerosmith. Mark (Zamcheck) didn't agree with the deal. I didn't know enough at that time to influence anything. I was "just a singer". I had to make sure that Zamcheck wasn't happening before I left Boston for New York.

When you got back to New York, how did you find work?

I was at André's house. He got a phone call from Tom Eyen, who subsequently wrote Dreamgirls (1981) and wrote for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I do believe Tom's words to André were: "Do you know any pretty chocolate boys who can sing?" I heard André say, "Yes. One's sitting right in front of me." André took the address. He looked at me and said, "Go get this job!!" I went down there and got the job in The Dirtiest Musical.

For those who are not familiar with the piece, what's the premise of The Dirtiest Musical?

[Laughs] The Dirtiest Musical was a very bizarre show for me. Tom Eyen had written a show called The Dirtiest Show in Town, which starred Madeleine Le Roux, who was incredible. I was scared of her! She didn't have to do anything. She just stood there. She had the most amazing voice.

The Dirtiest Musical was a musicalization of that show. It was about exploring the sexual mores of the 70s. From what I remember, it didn't really have a straight-through book as such. They were more vignettes. I remember Henry Krieger being this bouncy, smiley, happy person that wrote these incredible songs. I sang one song called "Rainbow Shine". The lyrics were, "I am the highest man …"

I didn't know what was going on, I gotta tell you! [Laughs] It was outside of my experience. I was wearing these little white briefs singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" going into this orgy circle. Every time I sang it, the audience would crack up. I didn't know what the allusion to it meant. I didn't get it, at all, but what I did get from it was a powerful feeling of accomplishment.

That play was where I met Nell Carter, Michele Shay, and Anthony White. Nell was the Queen Bee. I didn't know her fearsome reputation. I remember during tech rehearsals, Nell was just being unpleasant. I could see the other kids were nervous. I just looked at her one day and said, "Will you just shut up?" Nell came over, put her arm around me, and said, "He's my little brother — he's the only one who can tell me to shut up!" She adopted me. I learned then that to be in this business and survive, you had to be able to stand up for yourself, protect yourself, and not be afraid.

Nell was a force of nature, besides having all of that incredible talent. Dreamgirls was never intended for Jennifer Holliday. It was written for Nell. In fact, one of the songs in Dreamgirls, "I'm Lookin' for Somethin'", was in The Dirtiest Musical.

For awhile, you lived on Bond Street, which is halfway between the Truck & Warehouse Theater where The Dirtiest Musical was staged, La MaMa, and the Public Theater — the heart of the downtown theater scene. Aside from proximity to theater, why did you move to Bond Street, specifically?

My mother threw me out of the house. I'd had a nervous breakdown when I was 21 and got sectioned in Boston. My body doesn't manufacture lithium. That's what keeps your moods together. A lot of artists and athletes burn it up. When I came back to New York, I hadn't been taking my medicine. Lithium doesn't encourage your creativity. It makes you flat, so I stopped taking it. My mother said, "You can't stay here."

I called my friend Keith Follette Smith. He said, "Come down here." He was going to take care of me. We were in a band together called Black Magic. We used to rehearse in a cellar. We practically lived there. It was in the middle of winter. There was no heat down there. The amps made it warm … if they were on. Keith said, "If we stay here, we're going to die."

One night, we went around the corner to CBGB's. We met a girl named Jada. She had a loft on Bond Street. She liked Keith. The deal was: the two of us would come and live at the Bond Street loft as long as we helped them build it. Keith did. I sort of …. supervised! I tried to drill something in the ceiling and the drill got stuck so I just left it up there. People would come in and say, "Oh, that's very unusual op-art!"

I was amazed to learn that Black Magic became Mystic Merlin, the band that introduced Freddie Jackson to many listeners for the first time. Barry Strutt, the band's sax player, told me you were the most dynamic front man the band ever had.

When I was in the band, it was gritty. It was more rock 'n' roll. People were trying to get me in bands that did steps. I didn't want to do steps. That was an art form of its own. I wasn't denigrating it. I just didn't know how to dance! They used to call me the black Mick Jagger because Mick Jagger can't dance at all! [Laughs]

For me, I have the attention span of this (snaps fingers). I wasn't willing to wait for Mystic Merlin to become famous. After Black Magic, I was in a punk band with Carl Weaver. If you have The Wiz album, there's that song called "He's the Wizard". The high part at the end is Carl. We wrote two songs, one of them was called "Pretty Boyz". In fact, that was going to be the name of our band. We got a gig to play CBGB's … and then I got the call to go to London. I told Carl I couldn't pass this opportunity up.

Photo: Flying Perfect Media

Ostensibly, Little Willie Jr's Resurrection (1978) was your ticket to London. How did you get the title role in that show?

I was sitting with a friend in my room at the Hotel Opera on Broadway between 76th and 77th. I'd since moved uptown. I was looking through Backstage. It said there was an audition that day at that time for a gospel musical that was touring. It had the weirdest name. It was called Little Willie Jr's Resurrection. Oscar L. Johnson and Lon Satton were the producers.

I ran down to the audition and they were leaving! I said, "Look, I want to audition!" They said, "You missed it. You got to come to Philadelphia." I said, "I ain't got no money to come to Philadelphia. Can I sing now?" They opened up the door and said, "Go sing." I sang and they hired me on the spot. I was Little Willie! It was probably less than a month later that they took me to Philadelphia. That's where I met my wife-to-be Charita. We rehearsed there and had an amazing time.

What's the story of Little Willie Jr's Resurrection?

The story is about a black college student who is a basketball star, which I wasn't. Thank God I didn't have to do any basketball playing! I just had to sing. He falls in love with a white girl. I bring her home and my dad goes ballistic. It was like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? in reverse. It ends in tragedy. Her family sends a detective. They shoot my father. I jump in front of the bullet and I get shot, but my son lives.

The tour started in Philadelphia, then went on to Detroit, Chicago, D.C., and back to Philadelphia. Oscar was always saying, "We're going to London." I'd think, "Yeah, right!" He'd tell me, "Ray, you don't have enough faith." It just sounded so incredible — "we're going to London" — but we did! Years later, Lon Satton would play "Poppa" in Starlight Express. I never would have been in Starlight had Lon and Oscar not brought me over to London for Little Willie Jr's Resurrection.

The show had its London premiere at the Regent Theatre in November 1978. What were your first impressions of London?

I remember it being grey. I remember people talking very quietly. At that time, they didn't have the black products that we have in the states like cocoa butter and Ultra Sheen. Everybody's Afro was lopsided! There was no McDonald's. It was Wimpy. They served fish and chips in newspaper wrapping and you'd see the letters from the newspaper on the fish!

What was amazing about London was the sense of style and the electricity of it. I knew something big and amazing was going to happen there for me. I just felt like I was in a very special place at a very special time. You could walk into a record company and come out with a record deal, which is what happened to me. Punk was at its height. I was staying in a hotel with a band called Magazine. I got to sing on their album.

Yes, I heard one of the songs you recorded with Magazine, "About the Weather" (1981). You and Howard Devoto have such a striking contrast between your voices on that record.

London gave me a platform. I was very "exotic", which is why I got into teaching. It's different now but at that time, I'd say that the black singers that were there came from an African and a British-Caribbean tradition, which is different from our tradition — R&B and gospel. That's why the British were so interested in American R&B. I brought that to them because that was my background.

I learned how to be "Ray Shell" in London. You won't find a "Ray Shell" birth certificate or anything like that. You'll find an Actor's Equity name. My name should be Ayries Lancaster because James Lancaster Jr. was my biological father. Charles Shell is the name of my father who adopted me at 13. I named myself Ray because I got tired of people murdering my first name. There's a girl who, to this day, thinks my first name is Harry because that's as close as she could get to saying "Ayries". [Laughs]

You briefly returned to New York to perform in Dementos (1980) by Robert I. Rubinsky, who was in the original cast of Hair, and Marc Shaiman, who you met through André De Shields. How would you describe that musical?

It was about gentrification. It was about the inhabitants of this hotel having to leave and find someplace else to live. It was their stories, the dreams and aspirations of the people in this hotel, the stories of people who were on the street. Camille Saviola, myself, and Zenobia Conkerite played the three homeless people.

Dementos had the most incredible music. Beautiful, beautiful songs. Zora Rassmussen had a song called "I Saw God", which I'm going to do in Phoenix. Now I realize that song's about a person struggling with mental heath. I think Jonathan Larson (Rent) owes a big debt to Dementos because it was way ahead of its time.

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