Ray Chew, a member of Local 802 since 1975, performs at the helm of award-winning musical events with the world’s most popular artists, including Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Pharrell Williams, Justin Bieber, Aretha Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Pitbull, Queen Latifah, James Taylor, Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson and Quincy Jones. Chew is music director for ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” where he performs precision renditions of current and classic hits. His resume is literally too vast to list here completely. He served as music director on “American Idol” for three years. He was the “go-to” music director for BET for many years, and he has also served as the music director for the Apollo Theatre. Chew has music directed the top events in the country, including Barack Obama’s inaugural ball, the Democratic National Convention, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Hollywood Bowl, the Miss Universe competition, the Grammys, the Emmys and the NAACP Image Awards. He even music directed a Nobel Peace Prize broadcast in Norway. Recently at Carnegie Hall, he curated “A Night of Inspiration,” where he conducted a 64-piece orchestra joined by a 200-voice choir. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Ray Chew to learn about his amazing musical journey.
Bob Pawlo: I’d like to start by asking you my usual first question, but I have a feeling that your answer is going to surprise me. How did you get your start in music?
Ray Chew: Well, when I was a kid, my first instrument was piano. I got into a Juilliard program for kids and took private lessons every single day. I also studied percussion, cello and violin, and I flirted with the trumpet for a summer. If you leave me in a room with an instrument for about an hour, I’ll figure out how to play something. Later I went to LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. By 16, I was working professionally with the singer Melba Moore.
Bob Pawlo: So at a very early age, you had experience with piano, percussion, strings – and even winds. That must be why you write such great instrumental parts in your arranging work now. You’re familiar with the instruments!
Ray Chew: Yes, exactly. Actually, I have a funny story about the trumpet. My uncle was the jazz organist Merl Saunders. He lived with us for a while in the Bronx. Merl played with Miles Davis for a stint and somehow he got one of Miles’ trumpets. That summer, I blew my lip out trying to blow the thing, and I wound up hating it. So it just sat in the corner in my room. In my second year in high school, my friends and I actually made a bong out of it. Years later, after Miles died, Merl called me. He said, “Listen. Do you still have that trumpet – you know, Miles’ trumpet?” I said, “What! Are you kidding me? That was Miles’ trumpet?”
Bob Pawlo: Oh my God. That story is one for the ages! So you were hanging around music royalty from a young age?
Ray Chew: Yes, I actually sat in with Lionel Hampton when I was 11. After Melba Moore, my next big break was playing with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. From there, everything took off. I met Quincy Jones. I started playing three jingles a day and double sessions at night. There were so many sessions in New York; it was the peak of the disco era. We thought it would never end. I remember playing with Diana Ross one night, then Roberta Flack, then Donny Hathaway, and so many more. I really got going as an arranger. Finally, I was eating sushi one night with Tom “Bones” Malone, who had been recently promoted to music director on “Saturday Night Live,” and he offered me the piano chair. I was there from 1980 to 1983 and was one of the arrangers with Tom and with Leon Pendarvis. This was my first TV gig, and I was like, “Wow, this is great!” Again, we thought it would never end. But things started changing, and I had to learn how to adapt and change with what was happening. Jingles stopped – they all went in-house. But then I got a call to work at the Apollo Theatre as music director, and that included “Amateur Night at the Apollo” and eventually “Showtime at the Apollo.”
Bob Pawlo: So with “Saturday Night Live” and also the Apollo, you really started branching into television.
Ray Chew: Yes. After I did the Apollo, I saw that California was where the TV work was, so I flew out on my own dime. I had lots of recognition, but I was still knocking on doors, trying to get meetings, and finally I had a breakthrough at BET. Pretty soon, I was doing all of their specials. Then I got the “American Idol” call thanks to Ron Fair. I have to say, God’s timing in my life has been impeccable. I thank God every morning for this wonderful journey He’s given me, and it’s just been a total blessing. For example, the same day I stepped away from “American Idol,” I got a call to do “Dancing With the Stars,” so it’s just been absolutely great. All of the producers and people in management have been absolutely wonderful. They empower me to mold and shape the music. They support me, and I’ve had great relationships with all of the dancers and the artists who come on the show. It has been an absolute joy to do.
Bob Pawlo: What’s a typical week like on “Dancing With the Stars”?
Ray Chew: We have to prep the music all during the week, and we have one big rehearsal day on Friday when we have to go over everything. So Friday is a marathon day, and then Monday is the broadcast. On Monday morning, I wake up at 3:30 a.m. I have to be ready at the studio around 5:30 a.m. We start rehearsals with the dancers and the contestants early in the morning. Around 1 p.m., we do a dress rehearsal with all of the cameras. We’re on the air at 5 p.m. It’s live TV. We are flying without a net. It’s like a live, breathing entity.
Bob Pawlo: Your career has so many parts, it’s impossible to cover in one interview. I know you music direct the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. I know you’re recording a 90th anniversary special for NBC. But let’s talk about Barack Obama’s inauguration ball in 2009.
Ray Chew: We had the world’s greatest artists, and there was a tremendous lineup. One of President Obama’s favorite songs is Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” So we had Stevie Wonder there. This was a live broadcast. During a commercial, Stevie said, “Hey, Ray, hey listen, I want to change the ending to the song…” I was like, “What?” We had a split stage, so it wasn’t like the band was all in one place. We had half the band – horns and singers and whatever – on one side of the stage, and then the rhythm section on the other. So Stevie’s talking to me and there’s all this noise, and he says, “Yeah, I want to change the ending to da dat da da dat bop instead of da dat da da da dat bop. So, you musicians, you all get that, right? OK.” So now I’m trying to communicate this to everyone in the next 90 seconds. The next thing I know is we’re live on the air. It wound up working out, but again I was flying without a net.
Bob Pawlo: You’ve music directed for so many situations. What skills and temperament does a really good music director need?
Ray Chew: You have to be Switzerland. You have to serve everyone – the client, the producers, the featured artist, the crew and the musicians. You have to deal with people’s schedules, and it’s always overburdened and tight. You never have as much time as you like. If you need five hours, you get three. With the musicians, you have to display a lot of hands-on leadership skills. Musicians will not show respect to leaders who can’t play the stuff they’re talking about. When I sit down in front of a string player, and I want to hear a run a certain way, I’ll go to the piano and actually play the run. I might go over to the drums and show you what I’m talking about. I know enough about strings and horns to articulate some of the nuances that they need to see on paper. Your musicians have to respect your ability and you have to have the kind of leadership that also lets them know you’ve come up through the same experiences that they have. This is not a democracy, but it’s not a top-down approach either. I let them know that. I’m very fair-minded, and it’s about a shared experience. They must trust that you are going to make this thing sound great.
Bob Pawlo: You’re a music director, orchestrator and composer, but you’ve always been a performer also. One night driving home listening to WBGO, I heard this incredible jazz piano solo, and they said, “On piano, that was Ray Chew.” I said to myself, “This is the same guy?” You’ve done all these different things, and now I found out that you also write film music. Can you tell us about that?
Ray Chew: Yes, I got interested in film because I have a real passion for it. At first, I knocked on some doors, and got turned away a few times. So I said, “Well, I’m just going to start putting my music to film.” I would find outtakes and start composing. I taught myself about the craft. I read. I spoke to people like Quincy Jones. I tried to find out everything there was to know about writing for film. Finally, I started working with some independent filmmakers who gave me my first opportunities to score a film. I did enough of the independent films to really hone the craft. Then I got my first big job at Paramount, and now I’ve been called in to do something really big and wonderful and that everybody’s going to know about. I can’t say the name right now because we haven’t finished the contract.
Bob Pawlo: I know that your wife Vivian Scott Chew is also your business partner. How has she inspired you? How do you work together as a team? What are the best aspects of working with your spouse in this musical adventure?
Ray Chew: Vivian and I cheered and supported each other even before we were married. We started as friends who admired and respected each other’s life and careers. That then evolved into being lovers and eventually a married couple. Each of us brings an independent set of life and industry skills and experiences to the table. Vivian worked as V.P. of A&R at Epic/Sony and other labels. Both of us respect each other’s individuality when it comes to thinking and approaching issues. We both understand and embrace the concept of broadening your scope by merging thoughts and ideas outside of your own. This increases the avenues and reach of our business relationship. But we also have common goals together. Part of what we want to do is nurture the next generation of artists, and we know that artists have to be developed. I was nurtured; I was developed. I was given great advice and counsel. So Vivian and I came up with the idea of trying to emulate the Motown model. Motown took the time to sit and work with not only the artists, but the writers and the producers. So we created RVMK Studio in Hackensack, with our business partners Mark and Kathy Grier. We are going to be not only developing artists and producers and writers, but we’re also going to package and put out the music ourselves in partnerships with large entities. We want the studio to feel like a home. Producers and artists are all going to come and work with us here, and we’re going to be developing sound and nurturing it. It’s going to be a hub.
Bob Pawlo: That’s inspiring! What would you like to say in closing to your fellow Local 802 members, especially about the future of music?
Ray Chew: We have to embrace change. We have to look forward to it. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. There’s a lot of things about the current state of the music industry that we don’t like, but we have to look forward to how we can be part of the change. Musicians share a lot in common – our struggles, what it takes to be excellent at our craft – and then also the struggle of trying to make a wonderful living at this. Having said that, we need to be happy to embrace the future and embrace each other as we handle the changes that are in front of us right now.