Soul music was popular with British mods and skinhead in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the country produced many of their own singers in the genre—from Sade and Simply Red to Amy Winehouse and Adele. One of the exceptions was Ray King, born Vibert Cornwall, who despite being a regional sensation in the '60s and '70s is virtually unknown in the States. Originally from Caribbean island nation Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, King moved to England in 1961, eventually landing in the working-class city of Coventry, 95 miles northwest of London. By the late '60s his group the Ray King Soul Band was dominating English clubs, including the Playboy Club in London, where they held a long-term residency and recorded a live album, titled simply Live at the Playboy Club.
But King’s legacy goes far beyond being an underappreciated soul singer. As one of the first professional black musicians in Coventry, King was a mentor for the next generation of young black musicians in England. More specifically, he was a major influence on the 2 Tone ska movement of the late '70s, which spawned legendary bands like the Specials, Madness and the Selecter. Not only did he model racial integration—a crucial component of so-called second-wave ska—with the Ray King Soul Band, but several future 2 Tone luminaries played in King’s ‘70s band Nite Train before starting their own bands. By his account, King even suggested the idea of a ska revival to the young players. The suggestion was revolutionary: Ska had been a popular form of music in Jamaica (and with West Indian immigrants in the UK) in the early '60s, but by the '70s it was considered “old people music” and supplanted by the slower, more hypnotic reggae groove. By giving ska a jolt of punk-rock energy, the 2 Tone bands birthed one of rock’s most beloved and influential strains.
King took a call from us and chatted, in a soft, Caribbean-inflected voice, about his career as a soul singer, his influence on the UK ska scene and that one time Jimi Hendrix hopped onstage during a Ray King set at the Playboy Club.
What was it like being a soul singer in 1960s England?
My parents wanted me to be a preacher. My parents thought, you will go to America. I said, “No, I’m going to England.” I knew I wanted to come and do singing. When you think about it, there’s not any black singers when I came here. I did my homework and I realized, If I go I can take over. When I came to Coventry, that was ’63, they had lots of white bands and they were playing some music they had written themselves and some music from America. They couldn’t touch the soul music. Nobody knew a lot about it. It was played on the radio, but they couldn’t handle it.
How did you start the Ray King Soul Band?
There was this band called Susie and the King Size Kings. Someone came to me and said, “My friend is looking for a black singer, one who can sing soul music.” That wasn’t heard about in Coventry at all. But they said to me, “Look, we need to have a new name,” because the girl that was singing with them has gone to London and they only have left with the King Size Kings. My name is Vibert Cornwall. I started writing down names. The best one that came across was Ray King, because it had the ray of the sun, and I’m a king because there was no other people playing that music in Coventry. I said to them “It can’t be Ray King and the King-Sized Kings. There’s too many kings in it.” So we said Ray King Soul Band. Suddenly the name goes around like wildfire. There’s a black singer, and his name is Ray King. We didn’t look back. By the summer, we were the top band in Coventry.
Was it challenging to be a professional black singer in Coventry at that time?
Yes. I knew I was representing a nation, which is the black community. I was careful. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I played, and when I finished, I packed up and went home. There were some clubs that black people didn’t go in to. When you look and you see only one or two people, what I do is say, “Hey brother, hey sister. You know me. There’s four of us tonight.” That was a joke. I was booked in a pub in Coventry and the manager said, “No colored people.” So I went to him and said, “I’m Ray King. I’m the artist for the night.” He said, “If you are Ray King then I am King Kong.” So I said, “OK. If you stop me from going in, go get the money, because I have a contract.” That’s just something that went on.
At some point in the ‘70s you decided to play ska?
I had a band called Nite Train. It was with Jerry [Dammers, keyboardist of the Specials] and some of the other lads. I talked to them and I said, “I’ve been playing soul for a little while. I’d like to play something else and see how it works.” I came up with ska music. They said, “Ska?” You don’t hear much ska at that time. We practiced it, practiced it, practiced it, practiced it. Then we played on Saturday night. It went down very well, and you could see the reaction of the people. Then we played it again. We got a good reaction. Then Jerry stopped coming to practice, and Lynval [Golding, guitarist of the Specials] too. I went to where he was living, and I was looking for other musicians, but I can’t find them. Then someone said to me, “They’re hiding because they learning some ska songs to play.” Then suddenly they came up with one song [the Specials’ “Gangsters”]. Someone put up some money, it came out and that was it. Everything else is history.
I went to a function just a couple months ago. Lynval was there. I creeped in and stayed in the back. And Lynval was saying to the people that there was a lot of new bands of ska that started up. He said, “We have Mr. Ray King to thank for what he’s done. He started this.” So that was very good for me. It showed that I did my bit in society.
How long did your residency at the Playboy Club last?
A long time. I think we remained there for six months, every night. We were happy because we had a place to rehearse new songs and we didn’t have to set up our equipment every night. Somebody came up with the idea, “Why don’t we make a record up there? Because the band is good enough to record there.” We got the go ahead to do it. There was a lot of talk that we were the first band to play the Playboy Club and record it. People from other places came to see this band that played at the Playboy Club because the record went around. Most of my time spent was working an audience, working them up. You get one encore, two encores. I’d say to the group, “How much encores do you think we’re going to get tonight?” They’d say, “Two.” I’d say, “No, Four.” I would get it, because I’d work up to that.
What were the shows at the Playboy Club like?
When it was known, people were visiting the club. People came and said, “That’s a good band tonight”—people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. When you have people like the Beatles, the Who and Barry Gibb and other musicians come and listen to you, then you find out, Yeah, this band has something. All those guys are shouting and clapping for us. The manager came up to us when we finished our set and said, we have people coming back since you were here, two and three times. We had the Prince of Saudi Arabia, the big boys. They bought us a bottle of whiskey. We sell it back. Sometimes I give the boys champagne, but I didn’t want them to get too much into the hard stuff, so I swap it for something else. Jimi Hendrix came up and said, “Can I come up and join?” I said “Sure.” We gave him a guitar. He didn’t want the guitar. He took the bass. He turned the bass the other way and started tuning it. We had everybody. When they’re in town, they want to come over and watch us and join in.
Will you be releasing more music?
What I’m sorry I didn’t do is to make another record. I’m looking for a manager now who can guide me and help me so I can cut more records, because I have some very nice records to release. I feel I haven’t fulfilled my purpose yet on this planet.