Robert "Goldtooth" Ray is one of the most sought-after upright bass players in Whatcom County. He plays with several bands around town, including the Sonja Lee Band, Grooveyard and the Swing Gang.
He has several gigs coming up that are worth mention: He plays with Paul Sorensen and Thomas Harris at 8 p.m. Friday, June 28, at Skylarks Hidden Café in Fairhaven; with Quickdraw String Band at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29, at Honey Moon, 1053 N. State St. (behind Pepper Sisters); and, the "very last" (he says), Pirates R Us show at midnight Aug. 23 at The Shakedown.
Here's his story.
Question: What was your early musical experience?
Answer: The plucked bass violin has always been my favorite sound and was one of the first I experienced.
My mom was a singer-upright bass player in clubs and nightspots around the New York City area from the mid-1940s until 1970. As a working union musician, she gigged while pregnant with both my brother, who plays bass guitar, and with me.
I also play bass guitar, but these days prefer "slamming the doghouse" full time. I also play piano as a hobby and to work out harmonies. I played saxophone in high school marching band.
Q: What about the bands you play with in Bellingham?
A: Quickdraw String Band has recently reformed and it's great to again share the stage with my dear friend Allegra Ziffle. I also hold the bass chair in The Spencetet and the Swing Gang.
My main focus is co-leading the Sonja Lee Band, which has been together for almost three years. We cut a sultry swing and blues, featuring Julianne Thoma on piano, Thomas Harris on sax, Steve Faucher on guitar and Grant Wilson on drums. You can catch us at Skylarks in Fairhaven and other clubs in the area.
Q: What brought you to the West Coast?
A: I moved to Whatcom County in 2000 on the invite of Chris "Hambone" Wilson. We were pals from Morgantown, West Virginia, starting in the late '80s. We'd sit in with each other's bands and play some of the same venues and festivals.
Once out here I played with Chris for a few years and then branched out to hold the bass chair at various times with Raven Humphreys, the Bo Diddlers, Pirates R Us, Goldtooth Delux, Chad Peterson and others.
Q: What have you done besides play music?
A: I've played music part- or full-time most of my life. When music was slow I've also tended bar, done building demolition and maintenance and delivery. I also worked for West Virginia's Child Protective Services for four years.
Q: What makes you happy when you perform?
A: As a player I'm a roadhouse guy. It's not a style of music, it's the intensity. Music that opens the crowd's moods and emotions. A strong pulse that impels the body to move. Sonority and conviction conveying through melody and lyrics.
I've been entertaining the drinking crowd for almost 50 years. (Hope you all had as good a time as I've had.)
Whatever turmoil I've experienced, music has always brought me back to a better place. Music is one of the great universal healers. Over the years I've seen a multitude of people arrive sad and leave happy. In Atlanta, New York City area, Pittsburgh, Virginia, here in the Northwest and every roadhouse I ever played in Appalachia, folks come on in and put away their troubles, dance, socialize and maybe even fall in love
Q: What music do you enjoy?
A: I listen to whatever style I'm playing at the time, plus Mozart, Count Basie, Bill Doggett or whatever I feel like that day. Could be the Ramones, John Coltrane or Scott Joplin. If I was limited to playing one song for the rest of my life, it would be "One O'Clock Jump" with a hot swing band.
Q: Any gigs that stand out?
A: Although I've played mostly music clubs, I've also done some great festivals and events.
At Smoky City Folk Festival in Pittsburgh in the early '80s (with Ernie Hawkins) we were the first band on the bill following a clogging demonstration. We went on and about 2,000 people threw their clogging boards back down and clogged the blues for an hour or so.
And backstage in the mid-'90s at the National Capital Barbecue Battle in Washington, D.C., Pinetop Perkins and I compared dental work. Me, with my new gold teeth, and Pinetop having replaced his grill with new pearly implants. He declared, "You're the Goldtooth now." The band I was with (Blues Fuzz) introduced me as Goldtooth on stage a half hour later and the moniker stuck.