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From Bermuda’s boom years to Covid, Tom Ray keeps playing

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Pianist Tom Ray (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

In 1975, Bermuda tourism was booming.

It was a great year for Tom Ray. He graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston and jumped right into performing.

“Back then musicians could work six nights a week and the hotels really valued their music,” he said.

“I found a full-time gig right away as a pianist with the house band at the old Castle Harbour Hotel.”

The band leader, the late Douglas Frith, was very supportive even though Mr Ray “had to learn a lot of tunes”.

They typically started playing in the dining room at around 7.30pm. Ballroom dancing was in at the time so there were a lot of rumbas, quicksteps and foxtrots.

“Most people listened while they ate,” he said. “But there were still couples who would get up and dance.”

They would then move on to play in the hotel nightclub with other bands such as the Bermuda Stealers or Happening Bda.

After the show, they often continued playing until 1am.

“Sometimes when we knocked off we would go into town to catch a show at The 40 Thieves Club,” Mr Ray said. “We were young and enthusiastic and we did not work during the day.”

He remembers seeing Phil Flowers, an American singer sometimes described as “the Black Elvis”, at the Front Street hotspot.

“They had quality acts,” he said.

Tom Ray (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

By 1979 he was leading the Sonesta Beach Hotel band and thrilled with the news that they were increasing the entertainment budget – he would get two more musicians, a brand new piano and that the nightclub would be renovated.

“That was probably the last time anyone in the hotel industry in Bermuda ever said those words,” Mr Ray joked. “We hear about increasing an entertainment budget now and it is like fantasy.”

The longtime entertainer was honoured as part of International Jazz Day celebrations on April 30, by Danji Productions and the Bermuda Entertainment Union.

“It was an honour to receive such an award and it came from my peers, which made it all the more special,” the 67-year-old said.

The Sonesta Beach Hotel house band in the early 1980s. Pictured from left are band leader Tom Ray, Scott Lykins, Tiny Burgess, Earl Leader, Glen Miller and Lyle Van Wie with Loretta Augustus in front (Photograph supplied)

He finds it difficult to pinpoint where his love of music came from.

“Growing up there was always music in the house, playing on the radio or on the record player,” he said. “My mother, Madeline Ray, played the piano and sang. My father, Edward Ray, fiddled around with the accordion.”

At eight, he started taking piano lessons; in his teens he discovered jazz.

“One day my mother bought home a cassette tape of jazz and popped it into the tape player,” he said. “It was the first time I really heard jazz. It was strangely fascinating. There was Oscar Peterson, on there, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and a few others.”

He signed up for lessons with Dave Pringle, “a brilliant jazz pianist”.

“He gave me lots of useful information on jazz theory, harmony and arranging,” Mr Ray said. “He transcribed a Bill Evans solo flawlessly and also some Frank Zappa melodies.”

He continued to play in hotels until 1983 when Bermuda’s entertainment industry shifted away from home-grown acts.

“I realised that music would not be a viable full-time profession, any more,” Mr Ray said. “The seasons were shrinking. It was just not like it was eight or even five years earlier. I gave it up as a full-time thing, although I still loved music a lot.”

In the mid-1990s he started the Tom Ray Band, performing at weddings and National Dance Foundation events.

"We started out as a quartet and kept adding pieces and built it up," he said.

For a few years he worked in real estate. Today he is an underwriter with CG Insurance but still plays the piano at various events.

Tom Ray was honoured by his peers on International Jazz Day for his contribution to local music (Photograph supplied)

He especially enjoyed playing for the pantomime Aladdin, in 2012.

“That was my favourite because it was a six-piece band, which was bigger than we have ever had before,” he said. “James Burn [tailored the] arrangements for my band. There were two keyboards, reeds, base drums and guitar. Musically, it was really sharp.”

The Gilbert & Sullivan production of Evita was one of his most challenging performances.

“It was the musical score,” Mr Ray explained. “The music was continuous from beginning to end. It was an operetta. And it was the last time at City Hall they had to take out rows of seats to fit the orchestra in.”

By 2016, the Tom Ray Band started to taper off. Mr Ray put together another group with a big-band sound last year.

"We did one wedding," he said. "We have eight musicians and two singers. We will be doing things like Frank Sinatra but also Michael Buble and Stevie Wonder; so it won't be all swing music. There will also be some R & B. I also have a jazz quintet that can do weddings and cocktail parties.“

Listen to Tom Ray play piano at Daylesford Theatre at 7.30pm on June 2. Admission is free and open to the public. Book his new band by calling 293-0460

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Published May 25, 2022 at 7:50 am (Updated May 26, 2022 at 8:06 am)

From Bermuda’s boom years to Covid, Tom Ray keeps playing

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