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Ray Chew


From Musician to Producer

Like many musicians, Ray Chew of Local 802 (New York City) attributes his love for music to the exposure he had as a child, and the inspiration he received from his parents. “My father played piano and used to sit me on his knee when I was three or four,” he recalls. “My parents discovered that I had a real aptitude and talent for music at age five.” The Juilliard School had a children’s program and Chew received a scholarship to start his musical studies at six years old. “From there, it became everyday study,” he says, generating a list of the places he received instruction that includes Third Street Music School Settlement, Manhattan School of Music, The High School of Music and Art, and The Harlem School of the Arts.

Chew’s mother, he says, was a visionary. “She was determined that I would not be a product of the street. She always kept us in programs.” As a child, Chew also studied French and took cooking classes, among other things, but it was clear that music was something special. It was something he did every day, for as far back as he can remember. “Music has been my only mission and calling,” he says. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s all I’ve done. The good part is that it just wasn’t my career, it’s been my hobby. It’s been everything.”

Though he has always known his life would revolve around music, it wasn’t necessarily clear what form that involvement would take. Along the way, Chew studied violin, cello, trumpet, bass, and in high school, he was an All City percussionist. “There was a period when I thought I was going to be a drummer. Of course, I got tired of carrying those drums around. I didn’t have a car, so I had to haul them on the train everywhere,” he recalls fondly with a laugh.

While his parents’ encouragement and his own drive are obviously largely responsible for Chew’s success, it is to his teachers and the musicians he studied with that he feels indebted and most grateful.

“I’ve always had a real thirst for musical knowledge, and I had great mentors,” he says, citing Local 802 member Warren Smith, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Merl Saunders, who was his roommate in the Bronx and brought Chew to the union on 52nd street, when Chew was just 15. He has been a member ever since, now for more than 30 years.

Ray Chew 2

Putting Things Together

The first gig that got Chew national attention was with Melba Moore, with whom he traveled all over the country when he was 16. “I did an audition and then started working with her on piano, eventually doing that full-time,” Chew says. “I got a taste of seeing the structure of the productions, and I was very interested in that. I was always interested in putting things together.”

A transformation began then, and Chew started to evolve into something more than a musician.

“One of the things I studied, one of my skills, is that of an arranger,” he says, referring to Local 47 (Los Angeles) member Quincy Jones as one of his mentors in that discipline. “An arranger is the ultimate organizer. A real arranger has to foresee the entire product and be able to break it down into the smallest of components. The minutiae involved—what a real arranger has to do—I carried those skills, my knowledge and ability, when I started out on the road.”

One of his first major jobs was with Ashford & Simpson, for whom he became musical director at 19. “That also got me involved in a lot more session work. Almost overnight, I went from never doing any sessions to being on first call and working with some of our session greats,” says Chew. “I would call it New York’s session heyday, during the late ’70s and ’80s, when disco was hitting it big, and we would do sessions from nine in the morning until late at night, every day.”
hat grueling schedule was just during the week; his weekends were spent on the road with Ashford & Simpson. “I learned a lot about production, especially about show production, by watching them,” explains Chew. “We would be on tour, and while a lot of guys were out partying, I would stay and watch how they were doing the lighting, how they were rigging the show, all the infrastructure, what the production manager was doing, all that kind of stuff.”

During that time, he also found himself entering a new arena, one that he continues to enjoy working in to this day. “My first television job was Saturday Night Live, and I learned a lot about how television works. You have to be quick and nimble on your feet. The preparation it takes, and trying to make sure all the components come together in a live show on network TV, with a big national audience—all that makes the stakes very high,” he admits. “I learned a lot about delivering at a high level, and I was able to carry a lot of those experiences forward.”

Television has been, and continues to be, very good to Chew. “One of the shows I did for a very long time was Showtime at the Apollo, and my experiences at the Apollo prepared me very well for the job I’m doing right now,” he says, alluding to his current gig as musical producer on American Idol.  “We did 12 shows over four days [for Showtime at the Appollo], and most of the contestants were from out of town, so I didn’t get to see them until the day of the show. So at 6:00 a.m., I would show up and there would be 50 people in a room waiting for me. We’d start shooting at 3:00 p.m. I’d have to prepare it, rehearse, get all the music together, and do it in front of an audience.” In his voice, there’s not a hint of the exasperation this pressure must have caused.

A Very Complex Machine

As if in a natural progression, Chew went  from musician to arranger, and now wears the hat of a producer. “While my class is that of an arranger, when I’m producing a show, I have very little time to do arranging. I don’t have as much time to put pen to paper, so to speak. So I employ a team of about 10 to 15 arrangers across the country who work with me on all of the shows I do, including American Idol.”

There is one ongoing production that is perhaps closest to Chew’s heart. “We do a very special series I’ve been producing at Carnegie Hall,” he says. A few years ago, he produced a number of shows at Carnegie Hall as part of a festival, forging a wonderful relationship with the Carnegie management. As a result, they asked him to curate and produce a series of his own shows, the first of which, called “A Night of Inspiration,” brought together secular and gospel artists to perform inspirational music in April 2009. It was different from anything that Carnegie Hall had done before, in that it was part of their internal program, which had traditionally consisted of classical music. Chew’s show featured the likes of Phylicia Rashad, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Bishop Hezekiah Walker, Local 47 member Shiela E., among other artists.

Most recently, he produced a show called “A Tribute to the Music of Motown,” which featured Boyz II Men, Dionne Warwick, Local 802 member Paul Shaffer, BeBe Winans, and Anita Baker as a surprise guest. There was a tribute to Motown founder Berry Gordy and, in a kind of pay-it-forward gesture, also one to Nickolas Ashford, who had recently passed away. The show was very successful. “It sold out, and the audience loved it,” adds Chew.

There’s no definite timeline for the Carnegie shows, but Chew says he will produce about one per year. Booking the artists is one of the biggest difficulties, and financing also draws out the process. He thinks he could otherwise handle the music in a couple of weeks.

Choosing the music is a give-and-take process, he explains, and he likes to make sure the artists are happy. “The dynamic between myself and an artist will finalize what the song will be. For instance, if I’m working with the great Dionne Warwick, I’ll suggest a song, and if she doesn’t want to do it, I’m not going to force it down her throat. I’m going to find a song that she wants to do, and that’s going to be the song that will ultimately go over better.”

Similarly, the consideration of what song should be performed plays heavily into the job description of his current position. “American Idol is a very complex machine. There is a lot of specific input from the executive producers, and between them and the contestants—I would characterize them as contestants first, because it’s about the contest; they become artists later on, after the show. So we want to make sure that the ultimate decision on what the contestants perform rests in their hands, because you don’t want to give anybody the excuse of, ‘Well, I didn’t do well because I didn’t want to sing that song,’ or ‘I didn’t sing it the way I wanted to.’” Again, the give-and-take approach comes into play. “It’s my job to organize it and give it the kind of preparation that it needs, and to motivate and inspire the contestants to do the best performance that they can.”

Always looking out for musicians, one of the stipulations Chew made as part of his negotiations with the Carnegie management was that his shows would all include an orchestra. “I get the opportunity to employ 50 to 60 union members,” he says proudly. The union, after all, has been great to him, and he appreciates the orientation it gave him into musical professions.

“The first thing you get is the community,” he asserts. “You realize there is a support system on a national basis. Most musicians grow up in localized musical communities. Some of it’s by genre, sometimes it’s by neighborhood or by region. And as you get into a larger scene, especially with the kinds of shows I do, which are nationally televised shows, you feel the support of the whole system and the musicians throughout the nation.”

His forays into different aspects of the profession can also be attributed to the union-provided understanding of the industry. “It’s certainly given me knowledge about how things work, about the mechanics of some of the jobs you step into. The wages, the collective bargaining, these are the kinds of things that individual musicians would not know how to go about doing by themselves. I think the groundwork that is laid is invaluable, because without it, a lot of musicians wouldn’t have a real idea of what they deserve.”

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