RIP Ray Campi
The news is out that my friend Ray Campi has passed away. Where to start? When I was a wee lad in Missouri getting into rockabilly music, the only new rockabilly records that came to our local record store were by the Stray Cats or Ray Campi. Ray was an original 1950s Texas rocker (he cut great sides for TNT, D, Dot Records and others) who kept the flame alive during the dark ages of the 1960s and 1970s, aided and abetted by Ronny Weiser and his DIY record label Rollin’ Rock Records. The do-it-yourself aesthetic appealed to me, you’d see things on Stray Cats records like “recorded on the Isle of Montesserat by Dave Edmunds” and that seemed unattainable, but Ray Campi records were proudly advertised as recorded in Ronny Weiser’s living room, with Ray playing all the instruments!
Ray’s records also had a wild and crazy visual aspect to them that really appealed to me—he was always standing on his bass or making some crazy face. He seemed like he was NUTS and I loved that, especially compared to a lot of the old 50s rockabilly guys that seemed like insurance agents when they came back out of retirement. Ray was a rocker, he always seemed like he was “living on the edge” and I dug that. (It should also be noted that Ray was PROLIFIC—he must have released over a hundred albums and fifty singles in his career, as well as tons of side projects and guest appearances.) When my folks brought me to California for the first time in 1984 for a family vacation, I had only one goal: to meet Ray Campi and Ronny Weiser. My dad drove up from Anaheim to the San Fernando Valley so I could meet both of them. After hanging out with Ronny Weiser In his Van Nuys home studio, Ronny called Ray and soon we were on our way to North Hollywood to meet my hero.
Just imagine if you’re a star-struck 15-year old rockabilly kid from the midwest and you pull up in front of a small storefront on Lankershim Boulevard—Ray’s Lingerie Shop! Inside, Ray sold lingerie to local strippers, and had a shrine to his music career on the wall behind the counter, presumably to impress his clientele. I remember my dad getting a little side-eyed at this form of employment, but I was impressed; not only did Ray Campi tour the world and play concerts and make rockabilly records, he had figured out a way to make a living surrounded by semi-dressed women!
(Later, Ray told me a great footnote to the story: all the goods sold in his shop were swiped out of a local manufacturer’s warehouse by a pal of his, enabling Ray to operate with low overhead and bargain prices!)
It was only 7 years after that initial meeting that I moved to California and began playing in the local rockabilly scene in the early 1990s. I finally got to play with Ray, and we had many memorable gigs, including backing him up at a talent show at Ritchie Valens’s old high school in San Fernando, where Ray was then working as a teacher. Ray was always driving old Cadillacs, and I wanted that lifestyle for myself (eventually I achieved that goal!).
That whole Rollin’ Rock crew was still around and active at the time, and most of the gigs were “everybody on board” type affairs, with Ray, Tony Conn, Johnny Legend, Rip Masters, Ronnie Mack and all these guys I had idolized as a teenager now my picking buddies. I must have played with Ray a hundred times over the years.
In the last ten years, Ray wasn’t so active, but I would see him at shows and we would catch up. He was always excited to see me, and I could never get over that feeling of “hey, my rockabilly hero actually knows my name!” The last time I saw Ray in person, I went to his house in Eagle Rock to interview him about Merle Travis for my Merle Travis book. Ray had been an obsessive historian and researcher on country music and Western movies going back to the early 70s when few people cared, and he had a phone interview with Merle Travis from 1973 that he copied for me, as well as lots of memories about the record they had cut together in 1974 for Rollin’ Rock.
Ray still seemed like Ray, with his easy going Texas demeanor and tireless energy for music. He seemed like he was ready to take the stage, even though he had gotten a lot more frail since the last time I saw him. I know we all have to go sometime, but it still came as a huge shock to hear of Ray’s passing today. He really was one of those guys that seemed like he could live forever. Let’s all raise our glasses high, and stomp our feet on the floor for the music and inspiration that Ray Campi gave the rockabilly scene over the years. You will be missed, old friend!! RIP! (I stole some photos from some other folks’ Facebook feeds, apologies but now I forgot where I grabbed them!)