More than any other musical genre, the blues has consistently drawn upon the same chord progressions and historical traditions. But the paths artists take to arrive at those cultural crossroads aren't necessarily linear or predictable.
With a 6-foot-5 frame that would make Solomon Burke appear diminutive by comparison, Caron "Sugaray" Rayford has a larger-than-life stage persona and a broad range of experiences to go with it. He went from gospel to a prolonged military hiatus, from R&B frontman to a leading role in a celebrated blues revue, from avocado farmer to vocalist for the 2013 Blues Music Award-winning Mannish Boys.
This year's Blues Under the Bridge headliner spent his formative years in Tyler, a city whose population of 100,000 makes it small by Texas standards. Rayford was the eldest of three brothers raised by a single mother, whose participation in her church choir brought some light into an otherwise impoverished life.
"My mother was probably the greatest singer I ever heard," says Rayford, who was 12 when his mom died from cancer. By then, he was already immersed in music himself. Rayford was 4 when he began singing in the church's gospel choir, and became its drummer at 7. He credits his undeniably engaging and energetic showmanship to the preachers, musicians and congregation he grew up around.
"It's in my DNA," says Rayford. "At 16, I had my own choir, the IYC, which stood for the Interdenominational Youth Choir, and I had 375 choir members. The funny thing is, people are just now, in the last two years, catching on to me in the blues world, but I had gotten really high up in the gospel world, and was coming up pretty good in the R&B world as well."
But for Rayford, the transition from sharing stages with the Clark Sisters and the Jackson Southernaires in Texas, to fronting a soul band in San Diego, was anything but seamless.
"I joined the military, and didn't sing from the time I was 18 until I was in my 30s," he recalls. "It's kind of weird. All the years I spent in the military, no matter where they shipped me around the world, at some point they would always ship me back to Southern California. So it just kind of became home."
Initially, the westward relocation brought Rayford back to his roots. As a kid, he'd been a member of the Future Farmers of America, helping to grow corn and collard greens on his grandmother's land. So it was only natural that he and his wife Pamela should decide to buy an avocado grove in the town of Fallbrook, which was a half-hour drive north of San Diego.
"I would go down to San Diego to play, but I was never the big-city guy," says the musician. "But northern San Diego County reminded me of Texas. You have that country feel, which I really love."
The farming business was good but not perfect. The couple managed to survive weather and wildfires. What they couldn't survive was a free-trade agreement with Chile that led to the importation of cheap avocados farmed by low-wage workers. Locals couldn't compete, so the Rayfords put their farm up for sale in 2009.
The couple had no choice but to relocate, and soon found themselves in one of the biggest of big cities. Los Angeles held opportunities — Pamela is a singer-songwriter as well as her husband's business manager — and the relocation soon boosted their musical careers.
Rayford gigged and toured with local musicians, and began making musical connections that would serve him well when it came time to recruit guest artists for his 2010 debut album, Blind Alley.
"I was very lucky, because I ran a blues jam in L.A., which wound up becoming THE spot," says the singer. "A few of the blues guys would show up, but then the big rock guys started coming in. I'd say, 'You can play whatever you want, as long as whatever you play is the blues.' We'd get [Toto guitarist] Steve Lukather, Slash and the guys from Guns N' Roses, guys from Tower of Power, you name it, they'd all come through on a regular basis."
But from a personal perspective, the city proved less than ideal, with police helicopters flying overhead, their spotlights sweeping the neighborhood nearly every night.
"I'd call my wife from all over the world at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, and inevitably in the background you'd hear the guy in the helicopter on his loudspeaker. It was crazy. I would say L.A. is one of those places where it's good if you're young and feel invincible."
But the musician's rise to prominence happened when he became lead singer of the Mannish Boys, a band described by The Wall Street Journal as "an infectious revival of both '40s jump and '50s to '60s Chess-like styles." Blues Revue Magazine raved that "No band makes the old new again better than the Mannish Boys."
Rayford contributed lead vocals to nine tracks on the band's sixth album, Double Dynamite, which went on to be named Best Traditional Album at the 2013 Blues Music Awards. The album, he says, was recorded in four days.
So with a name like the Mannish Boys, is it safe to assume that they all worship at the altar of Muddy Waters?
"Well, THEY do," says the singer of his bandmates. "But they were a band before I was asked to join. Those guys are all into Muddy Waters and Junior Wells and Junior Parker. But I'm from the OTHER old school. I worship the Son Houses and the Bukka Whites. They make me feel like their songs are coming directly from my life."
Meanwhile, the classic soul and gospel influences on Rayford's Dangerous album, released last September, make it clear that he's hardly strictly blues.
"With my own band, we do that [traditional blues] feel also, but I also like the stuff that came out of Memphis Stax and parts of Texas and Muscle Shoals that people have forgotten about," he says, citing examples that include Tyrone Davis, Albert King and Little Milton. "It's stuff that you can't play with a three-piece. You know, stuff that's more melodic and deeper."
Toward that end, Rayford usually tours with a seven-piece outfit that includes a small horn section and vintage Hammond B-3 organ. In Europe, the band will expand to an 11-piece that includes Amy Winehouse's original horn section, whom he first befriended in London.
"They're called the Cream Horns, and when they weren't working with her, they were doing big band stuff. But it's also kind of modern. I mean, they would do some swing stuff, but it was more jazz fusion. It was pretty intense stuff that drew a younger crowd."
In America, Rayford figures, it would most likely be a different story. "The kids over there [in London] grew up with a larger range of music, and the United States USED to be that way. But since the '70s, the United States has stopped doing that. We've allowed the big record companies, in my opinion, to really segregate music, and most of the kids and young adults today are into one genre, maybe two. They may know everyone in hip-hop or everybody in the underground rock scene, but they don't have the cross-references."
By this point, Rayford is on a roll, and not for the first time.
"I've gone up to people who didn't know who Marvin Gaye was! But then if I'm in Europe, I could walk up to a 17-year-old and ask him if he knows who Roy Ayers was — or Al Kooper, or Bill Champlin, or Honeyboy Edwards. And not only would they know them, they'd be able to SING them."
In the long term, Rayford says, it's something that worries him. "When I'm playing festivals with my band, the thing that bothers me is when people walk up to you and go, 'Man, I didn't even know I LIKED the blues.' And that's cool, but as a bluesman — and as someone who wants this music to be around another three or four hundred years — that's scary, you know? The blues has really got to do something about that, and try to make sure that we include everybody."
If the blues has more work to do, so does Rayford. Just one day after returning from Portland, Oregon, he's packing his bags for Canada, and doesn't expect to be back home until November.
And a big temptation may be looming on the horizon. In 2013, Rayford played the leading role in Ain't Nothin' But the Blues — eight performances a week — during its month-long run at Portland Center Stage.
"I wasn't gonna do it," he says, "but my wife had already signed me up."
Now there's talk of the revue returning to Broadway, where it had a 284-performance run.
Rayford has mixed feelings about the idea of even temporarily moving to New York. "Lord knows, that would be a good feather in my hat," he says. "But it would probably catch on again, and that means it would blow out all my bookings. You work until you hit your stride, and then all of a sudden people will catch on to you. But the thing is not to fall off before you even get there."
At Portland's Waterfront Festival, for instance, close to a million people attended over the course of five days. Rayford was told that 135,000 caught his set.
"It's a blessing and I really appreciate it, that people actually listen. But what's more important to me was to look out there and see this huge mixed group of people — black, white, Latino, Samoan, everything. It was also great to see so many 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds."
When he's warned that a Blues Under the Bridge crowd can be mostly 50-year-old white folks, his laugh is as boisterous as you'd expect from a big Texas bluesman. "Oh, there ain't nothin' wrong with that, either," he says. "Because if it wasn't for them, there wouldn't BE no blues left in America."