Sugaray Rayford doesn’t believe in takin’ it easy on himself or the audience. He throws himself into every performance and gives it all he has. That same approach applies to his first solo release, Blind Alley. From energetic romps to gut wrenching moans, from soulful to shouter, jazzy crooner to preacher, the man gives you a physical and an emotional workout. It’s a damn fine debut!
Beginning with a spirited version of Al Kooper’s “Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do For A Woman Like You," Sugaray gets you on your feet for some fine booty shakin’. Then he turns around and breaks your heart with “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground," following that with “Death Letter," a darker, full-bodied plea for mercy. The first three songs may seem a bit jarring at first, but it’s his story to tell and I let the narration take me where it will. After all, that’s how it goes, right? Only the author knows the fullness of his journey in the beginning, we’re just invited along for the ride.
The sexy intro to B.B. King‘s “You Upset Me Baby” is mouthwatering. It’s a sly approach that I appreciate for being different from the heavier versions one normally hears.
Now, “I Let Love Slip Thru My Fingers” (another lovely Kooper tune) just knocks me out. How often do you get to hear a straightforward presentation like that? It’s immediately traditional and fresh, possibly because so few artists are able to let the story tell itself without over-emoting and wringing every bit of pure goodness out of it. Sugar understands presentation and he knows when to get out of the way of himself. Part of the credit for this also goes to producer Chuck Kavooras, in whom Rayford has found a wise ally and musical partner. They play well together and don’t mess around with trying to turn Sugaray into someone he isn’t. He’s the real deal and he’s proving that to the world via this album.
All the tunes on Blind Alley suit Sugar well. Each brings to the fore another facet of his talent, and that talent does run deep. He has a knack for choosing music that gives him room to grow the song to another level. But where he shines brightest is during his self-penned fare. “Blind Alley” (co-written with bassist Ralph Carter), a cautionary tale to be sure, is sharp, full of soul, a little gritty, and by far the best song he’s written to date. “I Sing The Blues," another song from Rayford, along with Chuck Kavooras, is highly personal and simply beautiful in its story and presentation. His blues are our blues, his tale is our tale. As well, “I’ve Got To Move” (public domain, but still highly personal) strikes particularly deep as he draws from the well of gospel he grew up singing during his youth in Texas.
Sugar is joined by friend Jim King on lead guitar (both from Aunt Kizzy’z Boyz) for Arthur Adams‘ “You Can’t Win For Losing” and their ability to lock into a familiar rhythm gives the song an extra bit of kick. All other tracks feature Kavooras (to great effect) on guitar, except “I’ve Got To Move."
Other performers lending their talents to this debut: Phil Parlapiano, Teddy “Zig Zag” Andreadis, Alvino Bennett, Ralph Carter, Jeff Paris, Tim Bogert, Lavell Jones, and many others, all of whom help create lovely and interesting textures across the album.
When you get right down to it, Sugar’s strengths are all showcased beautifully, amongst the carefully chosen songs, the players, and timing of the release of his debut CD. His foundation is as strong as his voice and his delivery is as honest as the day is long. Future albums can only mean good things for everyone involved. As it stands now, his range is limitless and his talent continues to grow.