Gator by the Bay 2022 star Sugaray Rayford promises to deliver: ‘I don’t do concerts; it’s a party!’
The four-day festival, now in its 19th year in San Diego, bills itself as ‘Mardi Gras by the Bay.’ More than 80 zydeco, Cajun, rock, soul, blues, country, jazz and Latin-music acts will perform
Like many of the other 67 bands and solo artists performing at this weekend’s 19th annual Gator by the Bay festival, blues and soul vocal dynamo Sugaray Rayford got his start on the stage of a nightclub. But he is likely one of the very few who did so while working as a bouncer.
Rayford’s unlikely path began, back in the late 1990s, at Boar Cross’n in Carlsbad. Since then, the Texas native and former U.S. Marine — he was stationed at Camp Pendleton and saw combat during Operation Desert Storm — has toured the world multiple times and recorded six solo albums.
Rayford earned a 2019 Grammy nomination for his album “Somebody Save Me,” then won the 2020 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award. He is now on tour to promote his engaging new album, “In Too Deep.”
But it’s quite possible none of this would have happened if he hadn’t been working as a bouncer at Boar Cross’n.
“One of my jobs was to bring the bands into the club on Wednesday nights,” recalled the hulking, 6-foot-5 singer, who will perform Saturday at the 2022 edition of Gator by the Bay festival at Spanish Landing Park. The festival’s 19th edition runs Thursday through Sunday.
“The lead vocalist in this rock band at Boar Cross’n wanted to go talk to a girl — in the middle of a song — so he just handed me the microphone,” Rayford continued.
“I didn’t know the song the band was playing, but a song is a song and a melody is a melody. My wife, Pam — who was a friend at the time — was there and she was really shocked. She said: ‘I didn’t know you could sing!’ I told her: ‘I’m OK,’ because I knew people who could really sing.
“I was living in Bonsall at the time, and that’s when I decided to (pursue) singing, for real. Up till then, music had always been second for me. But my wife said: ‘Get on stage — that’s where you are meant to be’.”
But Rayford didn’t rush immediately into a new career as a singer.
He continued his employment as a bouncer at North County clubs by night, while working other jobs by day. After he and Pam married, the couple bought and operated a six-acre avocado farm in Fallbrook from 2003 to 2008.
In 2004, one year after purchasing the farm, Rayford became the singer in the award-winning San Diego blues band Aunt Kizzy’z Boyz.
Then came a stint as the lead vocalist in another band, The Mannish Boys, and a move to Los Angeles. Before long, Rayford was heading the all-star weekly Monday pro-jam sessions at the Sherman Oaks nightclub Cozy’s. There, he shared the stage with Blood, Sweat & Tears founder Al Kooper, members of The Dramatics, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, and — on one memorable night — comedy star and avocational vocalist Jim Carrey.
“I ran the jam for about four years,” Rayford said. “People had a lot of fun playing it because they realized the pro jam was exactly that — a pro jam.”
His debut album, “Blues Alley,” was released in 2010 and featured such heavy hitters as former Steve Miller Band drummer Gary Mallaber and bassist Tim Bogert, a co-founder of Vanilla Fudge.
Rayford’s sixth solo album, “In Too Deep,” was released in March. His most accomplished work to date, it finds him delivering blues, gospel, soul and R&B with equal passion and panache.
On the hard-hitting song “Miss Information,” Rayford laments the plethora of false news inundating social media. On “Invisible Soldier,” he sings movingly about his experiences with PTSD after he fought in Operation Desert Storm.
Rayford can also authoritatively perform a country ballad when the mood hits him. No matter the genre or the topic of his lyrics, his full-bodied, no-nonsense singing is rooted in gospel and the truth as he knows it.
“I don’t sing anything I haven’t lived,” he stressed.
“I stopped the vocal gymnastics I used to do when I was younger. I focus on the story in the lyrics and try to do that as melodically as I can, so people can understand what I’m singing. That was pounded into me doing gospel music: ‘You can sing a lot, or you can sing the truth.
“I’ve seen people with amazing voices, but if it doesn’t have their emotions attached to the words, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Encore performance at Gator by the Bay
Now an Arizona resident, Rayford grew up singing and drumming in a gospel-music ensemble in his northeast Texas hometown of Tyler, where he became his church’s choral director. He joined the Marines at 18 to escape a life of poverty and limited opportunities.
Rayford has spent more than half of his 53 years living in and around San Diego. But his performances here with his band have grown increasingly rare over the past decade, and his most recent Gator by the Bay performance was in 2015. He was booked for the 2020 edition, but it was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic — along with the entire festival — until this weekend.
“It’s like coming home for me when I play Gator, because I don’t play a lot in San Diego,” Rayford said. “So, I let my hair down when I play at Gator.”
Billed as “Mardi Gras by the Bay,” this year’s edition of Gator will feature 68 bands and solo artists.
The lineup mixes some of Louisiana’s finest zydeco and Cajun-music bands, including violinist Michael Doucet and the accordion-led Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express, with such award-winning San Diego favorites as Sara Petite, Whitney Shay, The Farmers and Sue Palmer & Her Motel Swing Orchestra.
The festival, which opened last night and runs through Sunday, will also feature a “musical instrument petting zoo” for kids, Louisiana seafood cooking demonstrations and costumed parades on Saturday and Sunday. As in previous years, a 24-foot refrigerated truck will bring in 10,000 pounds of crawfish from the southern Louisiana town of Opelousas.
“We believe this is one of the finest lineups we’ve ever had,” said Peter Oliver, who co-founded Gator in 2001 with Maryann Blinkhorn and Catherine Miller. Were it not for the festival’s two-year COVID hiatus, this weekend’s edition would be billed as the 21st, not the 19th.
Whatever the count, Rayford is ready to rock the festival with his eight-piece band. Its brassy sound and soulful delivery may remind some listeners of the bands that accompanied such Rayford favorites as Solomon Burke and Bobby “Blue” Bland in their 1960s heydays.
“It’s not economical to have a group this large,” Rayford acknowledged.
“But most crowds are blown away because they don’t hear a band that sounds like this anymore. As I always tell people: ‘I don’t do concerts — it’s a party!’ I just want people to have a good time. Sometimes my songs are reflective, but our music is festive.
“I recommend people put down their cups of beer while we play, so they don’t spill them. When people come to hear us at Gator, they’re not going to hear any easy-listening music!”
19th annual Gator by the Bay festival
With: Sugaray Rayford, Michael Doucet, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, The Farmers, Whitney Shay, Vanessa Collier, Sara Petite, Sue Palmer & Her Motel Swing Orchestra, Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express, Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys, Casey Hensley, Manny Cepeda Orchestra, Len Rainey & The Midnight Players, Big Time Operator and dozens more
When: 6 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday; 5 noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Spanish Landing Park, 3900 North Harbor Drive, across from San Diego International Airport
Tickets: Kids 17 and under are admitted free with a paying adult. $45-$115 Thursday; $55 Friday; $65 Saturday; $65 Sunday; $180 three-day pass (Friday-Sunday); $225 four-day pass (Thursday-Sunday); patron/VIP passes are $195 for Saturday or Sunday, and $350 for both days. Tickets for the Saturday night dance concert at the adjacent Sheraton Harbor Island Bay Tower Bel Aire Ballroom are $25. Discounted $50 tickets are available Friday through Sunday for active-duty military members with ID.
Phone: (619) 234-8612
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