Vibraphonist/vocalist Roy Ayers is among the best-known, most-loved and respected jazz/R&B artists on the music scene today. Now in his fourth decade in the music business, Ayers, known as the Godfather of Neo-soul, continues to bridge the gap between generations of music lovers. In the ’60s he was an award-winning jazz vibraphonist, and transformed into a popular R&B bandleader in the ’70s/’80s. Today, the dynamic music man is an iconic figure still in great demand and whose music has been sampled by music industry heavyweights, including Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, 50 Cent, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, and Ice Cube.
Ayers recently recorded with hip-hop artist Talib Kweli (produced by Kanye West) and jazz/R&B singer Will Downing. Many of Ayers’ songs including “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,”, “Searchin”, “Running Away” have been frequently sampled and remixed by DJ’s worldwide.
Roy Edward Ayers, Jr. was born in Los Angeles, CA on September 10, 1940. He comes by his affinity with music naturally, as his mother Ruby Ayers was a schoolteacher and local piano instructor and his father Roy Sr., a sometimes-parking attendant and trombonist. As often happens in a household filled with the love and the appreciation for music, Roy began to demonstrate his musical aptitude by the tender age of five, by which time he was playing boogie woogie tunes on the piano. He turned to the steel guitar by the age of nine, had stints during his teens playing flute, trumpet and drums before embracing the vibes as his instrument of choice.
Perhaps Roy’s karmic destiny as a vibraphonist was influenced by his parents’ decision to allow him to attend a concert featuring the great Lionel Hampton’s Big Band. During “Hamp’s” customary stroll down the aisle to thank his audience for attending, he noticed an ecstatic five-year-old boy. So impressed was “Hamp” by the child’s ebullience he walked over and presented young Roy Ayers Jr. with the gift of a lifetime- a pair of vibe mallets. During Roy’s adolescence, although his parent’s required that his schoolwork remain his primary focus, his mother managed to fit in piano lessons, which served to enhance his public school education. In addition to Roy’s involvement with various instruments, he also sang in the church choir. Then, at seventeen years of age his parents presented him with a set of vibes and the rest, as they say, is history.
Roy began at first to study independently, then eventually discovered that Bobby Hutcherson, a rising vibraphonist, lived in his neighborhood, and subsequently he began to work under Bobby’s tutelage. Their relationship as friends and musicians blossomed, with regular meetings between the two to collaborate and practice. During this period, Roy went on to form the very first group of which he was the leader, while a student of harmony at Jefferson High School. Appropriately enough, he first named the group the Jefferson Combo, later re-naming the group the Latin Lyrics. After graduation from Jefferson High, Roy attended Los Angeles City College where he studied advanced music theory.
By 1961 Roy had become a well-rounded, full-fledged professional musician, and as is customary in nurturing African-American households, at twenty-one the keys to the door. As the adage goes, if you are blessed, when one door closes another door opens. Fortunately for Roy, he had just begun to receive his musical blessings, as early in his career, he collaborated and performed with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Teddy Edwards, Jack Wilson, Phineas Newborn, and Gerald Wilson. Shortly thereafter, Roy made his recording debut with Curtis Amy, a highly regarded saxophonist, with whom he recorded “Way Down” and “Tippin’ on Through”. In 1962 he was afforded the opportunity to appear before the biggest audience of his young career…at the Las Vegas Jazz Festival.
Roy, now evolving into a composer and arranger as well as a greatly sought after performer, met and developed a relationship with one of the jazz world’s leading authors and producers, the noted Leonard Feather. His alliance with Feather led to Roy’s first recording contract with none other than United Artists, one of the leading record labels of the day. His debut album “West Coast Vibes” was produced by Leonard Feather and featured an impressive array of talent: Roy Ayers on vibes, Curtis Amy, tenor saxophone; Jack Wilson, piano; Bill Plummer, bass; Victor Gaskin, bass; Kenny Dennis and Tony Bazley on drums. The album received high accolades in the jazz world.
The “Roy Ayers sound” was gaining in popularity…bookings throughout the United States, as well as noted musicians who sought out Roy Ayers to collaborate on their own projects, as well as his own soon became the norm. One of the musicians who reached out to Roy during this period was none other than famed jazz flutist Herbie Mann. Herbie needed an immediate replacement for a gig at the Lighthouse Club in Los Angeles. Roy made the gig, the crowd went wild, and a new musical alliance was formed…the Roy Ayers-Herbie Mann collaboration lasted for four years, with Roy touring with Herbies band and recording several albums under his own name, produced by Herbie Mann for Atlantic Records. The next three years brought the release of “Virgo Vibes” (1967) and “Stoned Soul Picnic” (1968) arranged by Charles Tolliver, and “Daddy Bug” (1969) arranged by William Fisher, all critical and commercial successes.
The 1970’s found Roy embarking upon a long and fruitful relationship with Polydor Records, where Roy, committed to the search for and exploration of new musical concepts began to incorporate “wah wah” and “fuzz” tones on his vibes. It was during this period he formed the group Ubiquity. The term Ubiquity (from the Latin) means the state or capacity of being, or seeming to be, everywhere at the same time. Roy Ayers obviously took his group’s name to heart for the Roy Ayers sound was virtually omnipresent. As musical genres changed in scope and definition, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, pop and disco each fought for a niche with the public and the major record labels. Meanwhile, a new sound was slowly emerging…the American audiences referred to it as fusion, the British called it jazz-funk. Regardless of its moniker, Roy Ayers became the undisputed champion of a sound that seemed to draw from his jazz, rhythm and blues, Latin, funk and dance music roots. For the next ten years, Roy Ayers produced what many regard as some of his finest works. The mere mention of certain song titles…”Virgo Red”, “Change Up the Groove”, “Mystic Voyage”, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, “Vibrations”, “You Send Me”, “Lifeline”, “Fever”, and the list goes on and on, evoke fond memories for fans ranging in age from their twenties through their seventies. It is rare when an artist is able to speak to, grasp and hold the attention of so wide a demographic, for so long a period of time.
1973 brought the opportunity to produce and record the soundtrack for a now legendary film of what was then known as the “black exploitation” genre, titled “Coffy, starring Pam Grier. The soundtrack and film were immensely successful, perhaps in no small part due to the caliber of writing, producing, and Roy’s incorporation of the musical talents of the likes of vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and Harry Whitaker on piano.
In 1977 Polydor Records released the “Lifeline” album that contained the mega-hit “Running Away”. Undeniably, to this day, “Running Away” receives strong radio airplay, is a jazz-funk anthem in dance clubs worldwide, and causes a party to break out whenever and wherever it is played. In fact “Running Away” was included in the soundtrack for the Spike Lee film “Summer of Sam” released in the year 2000, marking the beginning of its third decade of delivering the Roy Ayers groove to audiences across the globe.
His popularity growing exponentially, Roy Ayers’ name is now a household name everywhere, particularly in the United States in England. In fact, “Get On Up, Get On Down”, “Heat of the Beat”, and “Don’t Stop the Feeling” reached the British record charts at 41, 43 and 56 respectively, reaching notoriety the hard way…not through heavy radio airplay, but by winning over fans through the dance club circuit, which in itself is another musical phenomenon. Other landmark events of this era included Roy’s hugely successful tour of Africa in 1979 that resulted in the Polydor Records release of “Africa, Center of the World”. In 1983 Roy Ayers formed his own record label, Uno Melodic, offering “Lots of Love” as its first release. This album produced several outstanding and commercially successful tracks including this title track, “Chicago” and “Everybody”. Many of the artists from Roy’s label have gone on to become major stars in their own right, including Bobbi Humphrey, Justo Almario, The Eighties Ladies, Ethel Beatty, and Sylvia Striplin. Thereafter Roy Ayers continued to tour, write and record with major labels such as CBS, Ichiban, Polydor (Japan), BMG, and numerous other smaller independent record companies. In 1985 he joined a concert tour called “The New York Explosion” which took by storm over forty cities in the United States and eventually traveled to London’s famed Hammersmith Odeon Theatre (now the London Apollo Theatre). The band featured the talents of Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Tom Browne, and Lonnie Liston Smith…it is no small wonder that those who were present at any of these concerts still rave about it nearly twenty years later.
Roy Ayers has continued to write, produce and be featured in collaborations with many major artists, and is currently one of the most sampled artists in the music industry. A partial list of the artists and producers who have recorded with, performed with, or sampled the vibraphone mastery of Roy Ayers include Milt Jackson, Gerald Wilson, Bobby Hutcherson, Sylvia Striplin, Cal Tjader, Vic Feldman, Hampton Hawes, Billy Cobham, Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock, Teddy Edwards, Eighties Ladies, Herbie Mann, Donald Byrd, Phineas Newborn, Chico Hamilton, Jean Carne, Wayne Henderson, Rick James, Ron Carter, Branford Marsalis, Curtis Amy, Tom Browne, Stanley Clarke, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Bonita Brisker, Grover Washington, Jr., Miki Howard, Paulino da Costa, Stevie Wonder, Lonnie Liston Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Dwight Gassaway, Harry Whitaker, Harold Land, Gary Bartz, Marva Hicks, Edwin Birdsong, Lew Soloff, Greg Phillinganes, James Mason, Phillip Woo, Bobby Lyle, Jack Wilson, Val Young, Brian Jackson, Fela Kuti, James Mtume, Don Blackman, Galliano, Scott Grooves, Terry Burrus, Soul Society, Erykah Badu, Guru, Ed O.G., Cookie Crew, A Tribe Called Quest, Quark, Puff Daddy, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Brand Nubian, Ruth Joy, Masters at Work, Naughty by Nature, Eric Benet, Jocelyn Brown, Tupac, The Roots, The Jungle Brothers, and the James Taylor Quartet.
To date Roy Ayers has released seven CDs under his own labels, Uno Melodic and AFI CD Records. Always the consummate showman, Roy Ayers has managed to incorporate his jazz virtuosity, with driving funk, melodic rhythms and stirring vocals into an amalgam that almost defies its description as “smooth jazz”. This year marks forty years in the music industry for Roy Ayers. Roy Ayers current album is entitled “King of the Vibes”. The 2003 recipient of C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) Lifetime Achievement Award, Roy Ayers is and shall always be a music icon and a part of popular worldwide culture… Roy Ayers is, without question, a legend in his own time.