Despite his best efforts, Hastings musician Ray Cole never learned to master the guitar.
As naturally as it came for his father, Freddie Cole, and older brother Melvin Cole, it always took all the attention he can muster to hunt and peck even the simplest blues riff on his six-man instrument. hollow body ropes.
But as the Hastings native prepares for his much-anticipated trip to Northern California to attend his Pittsburg Entertainment Music Hall of Fame induction on October 24 at the Pittsburg Yacht Club, it will be what this rhythm and blues man from The 68-year-old has brought and continues to bring to the table musically what will resonate most with those who honor him for his remarkable contributions to the blues scene in the Golden State.
âThey call me ‘Big Daddy Cole’,â he said. “I tell them, ‘Call me Ray, but don’t call me late for dinner!’ Yes, I can play blues on guitar, but drums, harp, and a little bit of vocals, that’s what I do.
The youngest of six children who grew up in Spencer Park in Hastings (now the Village of the Good Samaritan), Cole was exposed to the spotlight from an early age. He and his family were once considered local celebrities of sorts, dancing like recurring guests in a Channel 10/11 television segment.
âI was 5 years old, I wore a mohair suit and I was showing people how to do the Twist,â he said. “This dance helped put food on the table.”
Playing live music was still far on the horizon, however, for the late-blooming musician. During his youth, Cole played flag football and pitched for the Hastings Chiefs American Legion baseball team which played in the American Legion World Series. He also wrestled and played baseball and basketball at Hastings High School before going to Central Community College to study sewage treatment and agriculture.
When jobs dried up after graduation, he moved to northern California in the mid-1970s to join his older sister in hopes of finding more lucrative employment.
âThere was really nothing here in Hastings,â he said. âI had worked for Armor Foods and a lot of bacon, but I couldn’t make ends meet. I started to play music intermittently in bars and bartenders. They wanted me to go on stage when some of the bands were playing.
Upon arriving in Pittsburg, Calif. In his mid-30s, he took a job as a bus driver and began to spot the local music scene. An impromptu performance at a local festival led to its discovery by Louis and Teresa Jones, a couple who ran Louis Jones and the Soul Sound Cavaliers, a well-established blues ensemble that frequented the Bay Area.
Longtime blues music advocate Louis Jones, who died in 2020, began his professional career playing bass for James Brown at the age of 16.
âI was running with (singer-songwriter) Curtis Mayfield’s son, Todd, at the time and he was teaching me how to play congas,â Cole said. âWe found an open mic night at Vinnie’s Bar and Grille in Concord, and the house band asked him and I to come and do ‘Black Magic Woman.’ Once we were done, Louis and Teresa came up to me and asked, âDo you want to be in our group? And I said, ‘Of course!’
” I could not believe it. From what I had heard, this was one of the hottest bands in the area.
A tryout was arranged and after his audition Cole found himself on stage the following night as the lead singer of the ensemble. This memory still brings tears to his eyes.
âThey chose me,â he says. “It was like a beam of light shining on me and I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
Working alongside the Joneses has helped him develop his own unique style as a musician and singer, he said. His talents as a drummer and harmonica player came more or less naturally, he said.
âWhen I got this call from Louis and Teresa for the first time, they said, ‘We heard you, can you do it? ” he said. âAnd we used to sing three part harmonies. They worked with me a lot and always had something up their sleeves.
âThe main thing was to work my voice and reach the right heights when needed. Sometimes, if I didn’t, Teresa would pinch me. This is how we got along.
Teresa Jones believes it may have been Cole’s vocal prowess that hindered his rise to regional stardom as a singer. A background singer in other bands, she believes it was the jealousy of her less talented comrades that kept her from getting a chance as a lead singer.
âHer voice is wonderful,â Jones said. âI heard it one night at a jam session and I said to my husband, ‘This guy can sing!’ We convinced him to go to one of our rehearsals, and he came and blew us away.
âRay should have been gone a long time ago. He was always in the background for someone else. He should have stood out years ago.
After playing for eight years with the Cavaliers, Cole returned to Hastings to be closer to his family. A few months later, he was invited to join Little Stevie and the Hellrazors, a well-established Hastings-based blues-rock band. Now in his seventh year with the band, he considers himself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time when the opportunity presented itself.
âIt was a blast,â he said. “I’ve been here for a long time and have met some of the most interesting and wonderful people.”
Although a bluesman at heart, he has an ear for all types of music, an open-mindedness that has served him well in his versatile career.
âI like everything,â he said. âYou have to have your ear open for a bit of everything. Don’t hate it. Just because you have it this way doesn’t mean you can’t figure out where they’re coming from.
Having been helped by many musicians throughout his career, Cole seeks opportunities to donate this generosity by working with beginning musicians.
âThe way I see it is when you make music your band is almost like family and everyone is going to know you and greet you that way,â he said. âNot only that, they see what kind of characters you are. It’s much better to be reverent than to be a heathen.