The musician now known as Go-Go Ray was only 9 years old when he was introduced to the drums, but the moment set him on a course that turned him into one of Kansas City’s favorite and best-known drummers.
The year was 1977, and Ray (born Ray Pollard) was a fourth-grader in Dallas, trying out for his school’s band.
“They already had enough drummers, so they tried to push me on to the saxophone, but I wasn’t having that,” Ray said. “It had to be the drums. So I was the last guy to get in the band, which meant I had to prove myself.”
That meant showing lots of discipline: practicing every day, listening to his teacher and taking class seriously, which he did. And it paid off.
“I was asked to perform with the advanced band as part of the Christmas show,” Ray said. “It was only a few months after I’d started as a beginner, and it was my first real crowning moment. It set the path for me.”
That path took him from Texas, where he studied music at a junior college and then at North Texas State University, to Kansas City in 1994, where he became the drummer for Billy Goat, the rock/funk band founded by Mike Dillon in 1989. By then, he’d changed his name legally to Go-Go Ray.
Billy Goat broke up in 1997, but Ray has remained in Kansas City since, drumming for several bands, teaching scores of students and earning the deep respect of his peers.
“Go-Go Ray is an anomaly in this drama-prone entertainment business,” said friend and fellow drummer Bree Plaster. “He’s a consummate professional and is the most humble badass I’ve ever known.”
“He has that rare combination of being ferocious, fearless and sensitive,” jazz bassist Jeff Harshbarger said. “He’s all killer, no filler (and) one of my all-time favorite musicians.”
Ray recalls two moments that persuaded him to become a drummer. Both occurred in 1977, the year he tried out for that elementary school band.
“The song ‘Brick House’ by the Commodores was popular then, a song with a famous drum intro that brings the song in,” he said. “I remember seeing their drummer behind this huge set of all-clear drums. It looked so cool.
“Then there was another band with this huge drum kit on a riser and you see all these cats on the riser and the drummer’s face is painted. It was Peter Criss of Kiss and it was like, ‘Wow. He’s got smoke and fire and flash. I want to do that.’”
The older he got and the more he studied and played, the more influences Ray discovered. He mentioned a few: Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and big-band greats like Papa Jo Jones, Shelly Manne and Philly Joe Jones.
“You see someone like Buddy Rich for the first time and you realize, ‘Man, you really have to practice to get to that level,’” he said. “It was inspiring.”
After college, Ray worked in Dallas, practiced a lot and performed in a few bands, including a funk-rock band called Slam Jam, which opened for Billy Goat. Ray was already a fan of the band and one of its former drummers, Earl Harvin.
“He’s a great musician,” Ray said. “He’s so diverse. He has his own jazz trio, but he can rock-out, funk-out and freak-out, too.”
In 1994, Dillon restarted Billy Goat in Kansas City and needed a drummer. He called Ray.
“He said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You want to join the band?’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ve gotta pack up and move to Kansas City,’ which I did on April 18, 1994,” Ray said. “I remember the day. And I remember seeing a QuikTrip for the first time. It was a big deal.”
“When we got Go-Go in the Goat, we started a return to where the band was when Earl Harvin was the drummer,” Dillon said. “In my mind, the drummer has to be able to make the dance floor infectious. If you have Go-Go Ray in the band, you have that power.”
After Billy Goat ended in 1997, Dillon started another project, an improvisational rock/funk trio called Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle, featuring Ray and bassist J.J. “Jungle” Richard, a fellow Billy Goat alum. They recorded two albums and toured hard, opening for bands like Galactic and Primus.
Ray also spent years in cover bands, exhibiting his fluency in a variety of styles. The most popular of those were the funk bands Simplexity and Karma and the 1990s cover band 90 Minutes, which covered all styles of music.
“In 90 Minutes, we did rock, metal, pop, hip-hop, even some country,” Ray said. “You could see people wonder, ‘How does the tattooed guy know Garth Brooks songs or the country guy know Pantera?’”
In 2010, at the encouragement of friends at Big Dude’s Music City, where he had been giving drum lessons, Ray entered the Roland U.S. V-Drums Contest. He resisted at first: “I’m an acoustic guy, not an electronic percussionist.” Nonetheless, he won his way to the finals in Las Vegas, where he was declared champion.
Tyson Leslie, who played with Ray for more than a decade, said Ray is a master of whatever he plays.
“His diversity is unmatched by any other drummer I’ve played with,” Leslie said. “He has a knack for adapting and falling perfectly into the groove of whatever he’s doing.”
Ray has done lots of local studio work. He cited three projects he is especially proud of: Leslie’s “Train Wrecks, Havoc & Heartbreak”; Tech N9ne’s “Strangeulation”; and John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons’ “Don’t Let Me Stay.”
Leslie said Ray’s ear sets him apart from other drummers.
“Go-Go listens in a way that most drummers don’t,” Leslie said. “He finds the nuances in your playing and locks into them like a machine.”
Velghe said Ray delivers more than impeccable technique to the project.
“In the studio, his musicality, positivity and work ethic are infectious,” he said. “Any producer or songwriter worthy of the songs they’re recording would want him playing drums on their album.”
And that sensitivity that Harshbarger cited is evident in Ray’s performance, Velghe said.
“Go-Go drums with his ears,” he said. “He gets the groove from the vocal melody. He said that’s where the feel and breath of the song lives.
“I remember when I came back to mix (the song) ‘Heaven’s Waitress,’ I realized he was playing this accent riff on the hi-hat that quotes a passing riff I played on the acoustic guitar. It’s not uncommon for a good drummer to do that, but when you listen to where he places his hi-hat riff, it’s a response to the vocal and it reinforces the melody.
“That’s something a skilled musician wants to do and a great drummer like Go-Go can actually pull off. It’s one of those tiny things that makes you love a song, every time you hear it.”
Style and technique and nuances like that have made Go-Go Ray a go-to drummer and led him to his current full-time gig with Samantha Fish.
Wise counsel for students
In the late summer of 2011, Fish, a rising star in the local blues community, was looking for a drummer. Someone advised her to check out Go-Go Ray.
“I had not heard of him then,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I stalked him, but I looked him up a lot on YouTube and then went to see him play a show. He was great, so I called him and asked him if he was interested in playing a couple of gigs.”
Fish, then 22, had just released “Runaway,” a full-length CD on Ruf Records, and was eager to get on the road and tour on the album.
Ray was part of a duo with Katy Guillen, another young blues-based guitarist. He had also expanded his teaching career, which started modestly with a few students but has since grown to nearly two dozen students weekly.
He calls himself a drum counselor, as opposed to an instructor, he said, because he gives his sessions a scope broader than a music lesson.
“It’s about a way of life,” he said. “It’s about making wise decisions. When I say, ‘Keep your gear clean and looking good,’ it should translate into keeping your room organized. When I say, ‘Take notes if you don’t understand and ask questions,’ that applies to school and learning.”
His teaching philosophy: Give your students guidance but help them discover, develop and express their style and uniqueness, something even some of his most successful students still hold close.
Lester Estelle II, a graduate of Olathe South High School (class of 1999), took lessons from Ray for a few years, starting when he was 14. Estelle has moved to Nashville and has toured with country stars Neal McCoy and Big & Rich. He is now touring with Kelly Clarkson. Estelle hasn’t forgotten how Ray taught him to be fundamentally sound, but unique.
“Most teachers taught out of their books or had certain lesson plans,” he said. “But Go-Go, when you first talked to him, was like, ‘What do you want to do and what are you trying to accomplish?’ He was more there to help you do that, to accomplish what you wanted.
“He would introduce me to new drummers and show me something from a book or a fill for the week, but he knew everyone had different goals in mind. I wanted to be well-rounded, so he showed me styles from drummers with all kinds of styles. Drumming is different for everybody, and he catered to that.”
Fish asked Ray to fill in on two gigs in September 2011. The first was before a Sporting KC game at Sporting Park. Fish discovered immediately that Ray had a following that, at that point, eclipsed hers.
“Kids were running up to the stage, and I thought maybe they were recognizing me,” she said. “But they were like, ‘Oh, my God, is that Go-Go Ray?’ And I was like, ‘Well, yes it is.’ He was like a superhero, a much bigger deal than me.”
In September, Ray will celebrate his fourth anniversary with Fish. It took a little time and work, she said, but the two found their groove.
“Go-Go is kind of a chameleon,” she said. “He can do pretty much anything. We’re a blues band, and he knew all the feels and stuff, but I think we kind of grew together on a lot of songs. There were some songs where maybe the feels were different from what he played in other bands. But we found our way to a happy medium.
“He’s so good at so many styles and well-versed in all of it. His dynamic is incredible, which really helps with a trio. He’s really intuitive when it comes to stuff like that.”
Ray said his primary role is to provide a strong foundation, not attract attention.
“The band is Samantha Fish Band,” he said. “It’s not about me in back being silly. I try to give her a smooth groove, not too loud when she’s singing so I don’t overpower her voice. Then on the chorus, maybe raise it up a little. I lay down a groove and sit there. Then, when it’s time to shine, have all that other stuff ready. I do it, then get back to the groove. It’s about being musical, making people move and tap their feet.”
“He’s open to whatever the song calls for,” Fish said. “He plays for the song, which is really important. He’s so talented he can do whatever he wants, but he’ll pull it back and play for the song if it doesn’t call for all his technical talents and skills. But he can go either way. He can play subdued and stick to a groove, but if you let him fly off the rails, he will and he’ll come back and land on it.”
This week, Fish and her band begin a series of short tours that will take them to big places, like Las Vegas, Nashville and New Orleans, and smaller ones, like Guthrie, Okla., and Helena, Ark. Saturday night, they headline a show at Crossroads KC. For this night alone, Fish, who is looking for a full-time bassist, is enlisting Claire Adams, bassist for Katy Guillen and the Girls. Guillen will also play guitar in the band.
Ray said he is dedicated to two things: the band and teaching. And having fun while he’s at it.
“When I’m home, I’m teaching, a lot,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m on the road.”
Whether he knows it or not, he is more than a teacher, counselor and band mate; he remains an inspiration to many of his peers.
“He set the bar so high for me personally that playing with other drummers took some serious getting used to,” Leslie said. “He just shows up, does his job well and usually with little or no flaws, and enjoys it.”
“My only complaint about Go-Go is that I don’t play with him more often,” Harshbarger said.
“He is such a positive, supportive, amazingly talented human being, and I treasure our friendship,” Plaster said. “My favorite Go-Go reply anytime he gets a compliment is ‘I’m just having fun.’”
The Samantha Fish Band performs Saturday night at Crossroads KC, 417 E. 18th St., as part of the Bridge Spirit of KC Fest. Also on the bill: the Rainmakers, the Grisly Hand, the Latenight Callers, She’s a Keeper and the Brody Buster Band. General admission tickets are $11.50; bleacher seats are $21.50, and VIP seats are $41.50 and are available through CrossroadsKC.com. Showtime is 6 p.m. It’s an all-ages show.