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Home » Member Profiles » Ray Chew: Jack of All Trades, Master of … Seemingly All of Them!

Ray Chew: Jack of All Trades, Master of … Seemingly All of Them!


Growing up in Harlem and the Bronx, Ray Chew of Local 802 (New York City) was fortunate to be given opportunities that many other kids in those neighborhoods were not so fortunate to have. This, he says, is thanks to his mother.

“My mom sent me to every music program in the city that I could get into,” says Chew, who started playing the piano at age 5. “Juilliard’s children’s program, the high school for music and arts—pretty much every one you can think of, I attended.”

Later, this included the Manhattan School of Music’s preparatory division in high school. Chew was already studying hard on piano and percussion in both jazz and classical music, and also learning arranging and conducting. “All of this, along with amazing mentorship, was in my formative years,” he says.

The upshot of this, says Chew, is that by the time he was 16, he already felt he was ready for a job. “A buddy in high school told me about an audition for singer Melba Moore. She was looking for new pianist and music director.” But, Chew went into the audition not even knowing if it would be for piano or drums. “I was the last one in. I played piano, she sang with me, and I left. Before I even got down the block, a guy flagged me down and told me that Melba wanted me to work with her.”

Chew assumed it would be for just a few gigs—and then he was handed a piece of paper with a full calendar of concerts across the country. “I took it home and showed my mother. We talked it over, and she agreed that I was ready, and told me I could go,” he says.

Early Start, Rapid Progress

“Some places had liquor licenses, so we had to fudge my age,” he laughs. “We went everywhere, and it was an incredible learning experience.” It was also, he adds, the start of a lifetime of musical connections and networking, with one job leading seamlessly and almost magically straight to another.

“After Melba, I started working with Nick Ashford of Ashford and Simpson,” he recalls. “And then I got into the session scene, recording jingles. I felt like I just suddenly went from zero to a hundred.”

Chew wound up working steadily for two of the busiest studios in New York City, recording jingles at the rate of two or three a day, every day. Concurrently, he also started playing on albums as a pianist, first for Ashford and Simpson, eventually leading to recordings with a huge range of industry luminaries including Diana Ross.

While making steady progress, Chew says he made sure to learn as he went. “Every time I’ve taken part in an event, I’ve made sure it was a learning experience for me,” he says. “I continue to learn from everything I do, while doing and delivering it, and also learn what I can do better next time. I first learned that while on the road. On tour, I’d go into a venue early to watch the production team, see how they were building sets, and setting up lights and sound. Even today, I’ll talk to cameramen to figure out what they do and why.”

At this point, immersed in studio work, Chew’s career path began to branch out. “I was a pianist, but at the same time I was also getting my chops as a young arranger,” he says. “One of the studios had a copying service right in the office. Arrangers would sit down to do a chart right there in front of me, and I got to learn from them how to write, arrange, and orchestrate, and also watch these master copyists do their thing. You needed a good and steady hand for that kind of work.”

The Small Screen

One of those arrangers was Tom “Bones” Malone of Local 802 and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). Malone was an original member of the Saturday Night Live band, on the popular late-night show. Seeing promise in the young Chew, Malone brought him on board for Saturday Night Live. “This was in my early 20s, during the show’s Eddie Murphy years,” says Chew. “It was my first TV job, and it really got things going.” It would indeed become just the first of many jobs in television, where Chew now does most of his work.

One of his most notable early television gigs as a music director wound up being back on home turf, at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. For nearly two decades, Chew directed It’s Showtime at the Apollo, NBC’s longest running show in syndication. Today, his work as music director and arranger for live television straddles multiple networks and a host of notable—and very recognizable—projects, including the 95th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the 2021 Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting, and scoring and music direction for Macy’s 46th annual 4th of July fireworks extravaganza, which aired on NBC in 2022. This last project is one he is particularly proud of.

“I knew the music had to speak to all of America, but there also needed to be stories that hadn’t been told yet.” The idea was a snapshot of New York’s Times Square subway station during rush hour. “You’ll see every ethnicity and culture represented in that shot. I wanted the score to reflect that in the fireworks sequence, including cultures across the spectrum.”

Chew’s television credits include programs on BET, and FOX’s venerable American Idol, which he was invited to lead at the behest of another mentor, legendary music industry guru Ron Fair.

Chew has also been sought after to lead celebrated awards shows, including both the Emmys and the Grammys, and has served as music director for the 2008 Democratic National Convention and President Barack Obama’s inauguration. “That was a huge event, historically speaking, but it also involved a historic roster of talent, and I was responsible for all of the artists,” he says. This year, he is set to return to Dancing with the Stars for his 14th straight season as music director for the Emmy Award-winning reality TV competition.

Ray with his band, Ray Chew Live, on the set of Dancing with the Stars Season 31.

Seizing Opportunities—and Giving Back

Chew is grateful for the opportunities that have come his way—including the self-created ones. “I’m a true believer in manifest destiny. That’s a term I’ve culturally reappropriated,” he laughs. “You can make anything happen. I wanted to get involved in more TV network shows, so I started going to California and finding people to meet. I would get a hotel room for a week and see if I could meet agents and set up meetings.”

Chew is equally thankful for the mentorship he has received over the decades. He and his wife and business partner, Vivian Scott Chew, created a foundation 10 years ago called Power 2 Inspire, which serves as a platform to provide those same opportunities to others. Among its offerings are internship and mentorship programs, providing professional training opportunities in the music industry; masterclasses; and scholarship programs supporting student musicians and young adults in their drive to succeed as music business professionals.

“Philanthropic work has been in my soul for as long as I can remember,” Chew says. “I’m a child of the ’60s, and we started out in the projects. My mother was an activist. She would take me and my brother to marches because she believed we needed to see history, live it, feel it up close and personal to really understand the meaning of it.”

She did this, says Chew, while working several jobs, being a social worker, and a drug counselor. “I learned the meaning of altruism from my mom, and it’s at the heart of everything I do.” Chew’s wife grew up under similar circumstances. “Vivian’s mother was also an activist, engaged in getting people registered to vote. We both learned from an early age that if you can do something to better the air you breathe in, that makes the world a better place for everyone, including yourself.”

Power 2 Inspire aims to help young musicians with high-level skills, but no experience, succeed after they finish school. “We work alongside them, offering hands-on mentoring with some of the most accomplished professionals in the business,” says Chew.

The Chews’ efforts also naturally extend to diversity and inclusion: December 2022 saw their sold-out Carnegie Hall co-production of “A Night of Inspiration,” an all-star concert promoting diversity and unity featuring notable artists from the gospel and secular communities, backed by a 64-piece orchestra and massive 150-voice multicultural choir. 

Union All the Way

That same spirit of altruism continued to fuel Chew’s acts of giving back during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Early in the pandemic, I got a call from a buddy who doing a jazz tour in Europe,” he recalls. “He was in Italy when COVID-19 hit. Everything suddenly shut down, and he was stranded. He ran out of money for the hotel, and the tour wasn’t paying anyone. He asked if I could help.” Chew considered how many other music colleagues were also suddenly out of work. “There was no way for them to earn money, so Vivian and I decided to do something to raise money for these musicians.”

Thus was the genesis for Ray Chew Live, a four-week series of virtual concerts to raise money for AFM members directly affected by the pandemic. “We were fortunate to work with the wonderful folks at the union, including AFM President Ray Hair and Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi. They were instrumental in setting up a pay portal so musicians in need could get relief and get it quickly,” says Chew.

The concerts raised thousands of dollars and included guest performances by many of Chew’s friends (and prominent AFM members) in the industry, all of whom he says immediately agreed to help. Chick Corea (Local 802, deceased), George Clinton (Local 47, Los Angeles), and Robin Thicke (also of Local 47) were featured among the headliners. “Getting all of this moving was a big undertaking, and we’re grateful to the AFM for its wonderful leadership in moving quickly to make it happen,” says Chew.

Chew’s own union roots go way back. “When I was 15, my uncle brought me in to meet some of the officers in Local 802,” he says. “He taught me the value of union membership, and how it could lead to getting health care and a pension. At a young age, I learned the strength of community created by the union. My years of working with Locals 802 and 47, just on TV contracts alone, have shown me how this community is stronger together, and it’s through the power of the union that we can make things happen.” With that in mind, Chew says he encourages young musicians to get in there and join as soon as they can. “I show them from my own example.”

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