By Johnny Chandler
Ray Carless, one of Britain’s top saxophonists, has died after a long battle with cancer.
A multi-reed tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxophonist, he first rose to prominence during the ‘Brit Funk’ explosion of the late ’70s/early ’80s.
Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, his parents moved to London in 1958 as part of the Windrush generation. As the reality of their new life in Britain became clear, he and his younger sister Lorna were reunited with them in East London in 1963.
At school, his father, saxophonist (and tailor) George “Big Doc” Carless, insisted that he take up the clarinet and later transfer his skills to the saxophone, and Ray then honed his skills in the capital’s burgeoning Caribbean music scene .
He made his solo debut in 1978 with the reggae, funk and soul album Beautiful Weekend, but what would become a recurring theme throughout his career was only a few years later when Ray was heard in a very different musical environment. The 1980 TV show Live At Rockpalast captured the magic when he played alongside his father on tour with his East London compatriot and former Small Faces and Faces legend Ronnie Lane. Charlie Hart of the band recalled, “Ronnie, inspired by Ian Stewart, had taken more of a rhythm and blues approach and the combination of Ray and his father George became a crucial element. Ray was an incredibly strong but lyrical player. He was a very humble, kind man who fully understood the roots of R&B and other forms, and both Ray and George were wonderful additions to our humor-loving tour.”
In the same period, some uniquely homegrown jazz-funk records made good use of airplay and club DJ support, and as a result regularly topped the UK singles and albums charts. Now known as Ray Carless, he recorded and played live with many of the scene’s most important artists including Light Of The World, Linx, Beggar & Co, Central Line and Incognito.
Incognito’s Bluey Maunick recalled, “I will never forget the first day of brass recording for Incognito’s debut album Jazz Funk in 1981. Ray had already played lead parts on various plays and I had asked him to put together a horn section. He performed with a motley crew of two South African trumpeters, Claude Deppa and Peter Segona, who had played with the biggest names in South African jazz, alongside the unmistakable Jamaican trombonist Vin Gordon of The Wailers and The Skatalites fame and something , who looked like Ray’s older brother with a baritone sax case. It turned out to be his father George. The session was magical and a lasting friendship was born!
“Ray was a soulful saxophonist, a leading figure in the British jazz community and a friend to all. Unlike many session players of the time, he did not play flashy, repetitive and rehearsed scales or attempt to emulate other saxophonists, instead forging his own melodic style and tone. He loved playing and creating melodies that would find a permanent place in your heart from the first listen. Hear him on our tracks Sunburn and Shine On (both 1981), his own wonderful solo hit Tarantula Walk (1981), or the horn arrangement he created to open our biggest hits Always There (1991), and you will understand what I’m talking about.”
It’s hard to overestimate the impact Brit Funk had on the broader British pop music scene at the time, but some 40 years later at the BRIT Awards 2020, Tyler, The Creator stepped up to accept the award for Best International Male Solo Artist, one doubts that it still resonates when he said “shout to all the British funk of the ’80s that I’ve tried to copy”.
Ray Carless has been deeply involved in the development, growth and appreciation of black music in the UK and abroad
During this Brit-Funk period, Ray had continued to play jazz, soul and reggae, but was also heard and seen with a variety of artists, including ABC, on their 1983 Julien Temple-directed long-form spy pastiche Mantrap, with Billy Ocean on Top Of The Pops with When The Going Gets Tough (1986) and with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) affiliated band The Redskins, with whom he recorded, played live and appeared in individual videos.
That same year, Ray became a founding member of The Jazz Warriors, which grew out of the London-based organization Abibi Jazz Arts, which promoted black music and culture. The band became the launching pad for some outstanding British talent including Courtney Pine, Gary Crosby, Orphy Robinson, Steve Williamson and Cleveland Watkiss. The Jazz Warriors released one album, Out of Many, One People (Island Records) in 1987.
Ray once said, “I need a lot of variety in my music…I love my jazz, but I’m happiest when I can express myself using the diverse African-Caribbean flavors I grew up listening to”.
Over the years he has worked with Big Youth, Gregory Isaacs, Janet Kay, John Holt, Carrol Thompson, Alton Ellis, Beris Hammond, Rico Rodriguez, The Heptones, Aswad, Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie, Mica Paris and Jocelyn Brown, among others, Will Downing, Jazz Jamaica, Sun Ra Disciples, Loose Ends, Kool & The Gang and Hugh Masekela. More recently, he had joined the Sun Ra-inspired Heliocentrics collective for their 2007 LP, and the following year he went to Johannesburg with Township Express to perform at the Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations – a career highlight he missed only played but also got to meet the anti-apartheid activist and first president of South Africa.
Ray contributed tenor sax to Adele’s Rolling In The Deep and I’ll Be Waiting from her Grammy-winning album 21 (2011). He was featured on a string of Salute singles in 2018, joined the legendary band Cymande, regularly hosted his own club Skaaville nights in London and played on the Cleveland Watkiss Great Jamaican Songbook album (2022).
Shortly after his death, Cymande’s Patrick Patterson and Steve Scipio posted on the group’s website: “He has been deeply involved in the development, growth and appreciation of black music and black musicianship in the UK and abroad. We are grateful for the privilege of Ray contributing his skills and expertise to the Cymande cause.”
At family events Ray was always prominent and facilitating proceedings, while in the wider community he was the driving force behind many London music education workshops which he tirelessly organized and promoted. During the lockdown, the value of his weekly contributions to the performance of the Caribbean Social Forum for its members around the world has been immeasurable.
In his recent tribute, Orphy Robinson said: “Through his encouragement, many of us have studied, made music, made careers and traveled the world. He taught us that there’s a world just down the road, so don’t be afraid to take that journey.”
At Ray’s service at St Mark’s Church, Dalston earlier this month, old friend Peter Parkin said: “A couple of weeks ago we traveled to Wales where Ray was supposed to be receiving an award but when we arrived it turned out he was just didn’t go well enough to pick it up in person. It was a terribly sad moment, but the next morning I was woken up by a voice saying “Pete, Pete”. I slowly came to, opened my eyes and it was Ray. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t waste the day’.”
Unfortunately, he died just 10 days later.
Ray Carless sunrise 1/27/1954, sunset 10/8/2022.
He is survived by children Trevor, Evette, Annabella, Joshua and Raymond Jnr, sister Lorna and stepsister Lei, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
PHOTO CREDIT: Giuliano Eboulia