Richard Ray Farrell photo by Ranjit Pender
Richard Ray Farrell is probably a new name to many. But this is a guy who has been deeply involved in blues music for most of his life, from his youth busking on the streets of Paris to his current place, working as a blues musician in Andalucia, near Malaga, on Spain’s famed Costa del Sol.
Now, after around forty years in the business, the Niagara Falls, US-born Farrell looks back at the music that first caught his attention as a youth. Like many it was the mélange of Beatles, Stones, Zappa and Hendrix, sounds that pretty much defined a generation and changed the shape of the popular music world forever. However, Farrell, maybe against the odds, looked beyond the usual popular music airwaves control and found the blues.
‘Back then many friends were playing music. I was one of those not actually playing an instrument at the time, though my mother played piano and my sister sang,’ he recalls. ‘Then my sister’s ex-husband turned me onto blues, mostly Delta Blues.’
Words by Iain Patience/
Although now a highly talented, admired, inspired and inspiring guitarist, Farrell’s first instrument was the harmonica, a love that remains central to his own playing and performances: ‘Harp was my first instrument. That Paul Butterfield stuff just grabbed me, grabbed my attention immediately. I absolutely loved it. From there, of course, it was a step to Sonny Boy and Little Walter, great, great stuff.’
Inevitably, perhaps, Farrell then discovered the man who may well have inspired more blues players than any other, pretty much single handedly, Muddy Waters: ‘Fathers & Sons was the first real blues album I ever bought. It had wonderful harp by Paul Butterfield, and Mike Bloomfield was also on it, a great double album. Then, my mother bought me a guitar and a friend taught me some open tunings.’
Farrell, was hooked. Having mastered three songs, ‘…..basically the same song in open tuning, with a slow, medium and fast version,’ he quips, he started out trying it out. Now in Paris, a sort of buskers’ paradise in the late 60s and early 70s, Farrell took to the streets, learning his craft and having a great, if at times challenging time: ‘I came across this group of guys playing on the streets, playing sort of Dylan stuff, and not very well, not that good. I asked what they were up to and they told me they did it for a living! So, I thought, I can do that too.’ In the event, Farrell took to the streets, playing in the Parisian Metro and anywhere else where there might be a chance to earn a few francs, always a precarious living at the best of times.
On his first day busking, he made around 100 French Francs, a respectable sum back then to keep him going and he returned to the fray each day, often being moved on, not by Gendarmes, but by other buskers, many of them Brits, who had their own specific, hard-won pitches.
Slide work came readily to Farrell, already hooked on open tunings, it was a natural way forward, as he remembers clearly: ‘Delta slide came naturally because of the open tunings, before anything else, really. It was pretty rough at first, I’m sure,’ he laughs. ‘But street playing was good, but it was hard to make a living from it. The main places in Paris like the Champs Elyssee were where the money was but they were off-limits, run by a sort of English Mafia. They would stomp on your guitar or something, if you tried to pinch their places. Eventually, they did become friends, but it was hard at first.’
Farrell moved to Germany, with a German wife, and started playing with a local band with his own name up-front, in the Stuttgard region. After a few years he reckoned he was ‘…good enough on lead guitar,’ to branch out more working as a solo artist and as a frontman, while always enjoying working with a band too. Increasingly confident of his own worth, Farrell recorded his first album, Live in Germany, in around 1992, which fortunately: ‘…. was quite successful. I sold around 6,000 copies, which was a lot of copies for a blues CD in Europe,’ he says.
As the years passed, he became increasingly confident and admired as a player, finding himself opening for Joe Cocker on one occasion at a festival in the late 1980s, and going on to work with Big Boy Henry, RL Burnside – a true inspiration to Farrell – Lazy Lester and many other southern US blues names when visiting and touring Europe.
In Spain, he was to meet a guy, John Morris Nerenberg, a former sideman with Burnside, who had what may have been the first blues band in Spain in around 1978. Morris Nerenberg had played with R.L. Burnside, when his career was taking off. This proved to be a particularly significant development in the evolution of Farrell’s own musical journey leading to meeting and playing with Burnside himself. Through his connection with Burnside, Farrell hooked up with an Italian booking agency which in turn led to him not only finding more work but an introduction to the late, Louisiana Red:
‘Louisiana Red was a real encyclopedia of blues. He knew so much about the music and the players, he’d worked with so many of them. He’d even lived with Muddy. I learned so much from him about playing guitar, his approach, his attack on guitar. It suddenly made it all right and real for me.’
Farrell explored more of the music, hitting on Big Jake Johnson, some BB King and more RL Burnside. As a result, he reckons his ‘…..whole approach changed. Before him,(RL Burnside) I was playing way too many notes.. I was just too up-tight, maybe nervous. But RL had a different vibe. He was no T-Bone Walker but he had a style and a vibe of his own. He was hypnotic at times. I really moved on around that time, getting better and stronger, more focused and confident.’
In the 1990s Farrell found himself working with Jimmy Carl Black, former drummer with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, an adventurous time with a band, Farrell & Black, that resulted in too highly acclaimed albums on the Stormy Monday label. As his confidence grew, Farrell released more recordings. One featured Leon Mayall, the sax-player brother of the legendary UK blues pioneer, John Mayall. From then on, the recordings continued to expand with yet more on his own label, some released on Elecktra for the US market.
Richard Ray Farrell – photo by Janet Patience
As the millenium surfaced, Farrell took the step of returning to the USA for a few years where he teamed up with Blues Beet records and began a particularly fertile time recording a series of albums that garnered praise and plaudits widely across the USA, including top placings in US music charts and radio airplay charts. However, before too long, Farrell was back in Europe, heading for the sunny climes of southern Spain, where he is still based. In recent years he has continued his connection with Blue Beet Music, while also working and recording with Italian harp player, Marco Pandolfi, and latterly with Spanish player, Raimundo Amador, a flamenco-cum-rock guitarist with a huge following in his native land, and who has played with BB King in the past. Farrell sees them all as having something different, bringing a different and fresh feel to the table and highlighting his own musical development and growth.
Hooking up with his now lifetime pal, harp wizard Steve Guyger, Farrell continued to prosper and hone his picking and writing skills. Guyger, from Chicago, worked with many harp modern greats including the likes of Charlie Musselwhite, Little Sammy Davis and Mark Hummel. In many ways the pair seem to compliment each other perfectly, as anyone who has listened to the album, Down Home Old School Country Blues, can testify.
Farrell, however, is one of those pickers who can happily switch between electric, with a mean Strat, and acoustic picking without a thought or hesitancy. Asked if he has a personal preference, he laughs and says: ‘Electric gets people up on their feet. They’ll maybe dance more easily to an electric guitar. With an acoustic set, I prefer a quieter crowd, more a sit-down sort of audience. People who are willing to listen a bit more to the actual music, the lyrics, the different vibe.’
In the past, Farrell has worked in the UK, and he particularly recalls playing in Wales, where he found the music to be alive and thriving.
Nowadays, Farrell is enjoying his musical adventures and life in Spain, playing with his own band, a four-piece outfit, with gigs galore in bars and clubs around the Andalucia area, together with forays into France and Catalonia, in Barcelona, Madrid and beyond. Of course, with benign weather in summer Spain, many bar-type gigs are in effect outdoor gigs, where Farrell can soak up both sun and applause.
However, he also picks up work at major festival, concert and theatre venues, which he tends tp prefer: ‘In truth, I’m getting a bit tired of working bars.’
In April 2018, Farrell played one of the USA’s leading music festivals, Merlefest in North Carolina, named after the son of the late acoustic master, Doc Watson. This is a festival that has a wide range of musical styles and genres present from bluegrass and country to folk and blues, with the blues end being run by leading acoustic bluesman Roy Book Binder. Farrell confirms he loved playing the festival and had an absolute blast there, with an overall crowd of around 75,000 attending over the course of one long weekend.
Out of curiosity, partly because Farrell’s sadly, relatively unknown, and as I know Roy Book Binder, I asked him why he’d booked Farrell. His response was succinct and to the point: ‘Because he’s good. He’s a great bluesman.’
Anyone who has either caught Richard Ray Farrell perform live, or heard his recorded music, will, I’m sure, echo that sentiment.
Website Richard Ray Farrell
Richard Ray Farrell – photo by Janet Patience