Monday, May 07, 2018

COLUMN: Ray


My usual role here is to be the snarky guy who makes fun of the crummier parts of life. I suppose it's a fairly easy gig. After all, a whole lot of life is crummy. But even the crummiest parts of life are better than the alternative.

A couple of weeks ago, we lost our friend Ray. If you're from the Quad Cities and you consider yourself a music nerd, you probably knew Ray Malone. If you went to a show at Circa '21 in the past decade or so, you've heard his audio mix and probably didn't realize it. If you were ever in a struggling penniless Midwest punk band, there's a pretty good chance that Ray helped record your music.

He probably could have made a name for himself in the big leagues of sound mixing. After high school, Ray went to school for audio engineering at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona. Afterwards, he moved to Los Angeles and interned at a reknowned recording studio while spending his nights moonlighting as a drum tech, setting up and soundchecking percussion for a growing list of L.A. musicians.

But rather than stay out west and try to make it big, Ray decided to move home to the Quad Cities and concentrate his efforts on helping struggling musicians in the midwest. There were a number of ramshackle studios built on the cheap, from the Kanga in downtown Davenport to the infamous Hilltop locale that musicians would affectionately call "The Lab." For awhile, he operated out of his dad's basement before creating a semi-permanent home at the Sound & Vision Studios in Moline. At the same time, he picked up a steady job running the soundboard for Circa '21's award-winning dinner theatre.

Over the years, dozens of bands from all over the Midwest would throw their gear in a van and make the pilgrimage to Moline to trust Ray's growing reputation as a knowledgeable yet affordable producer.

"It was always exciting to see young musicians come in to record with Ray," explains Jon Burns, Ray's friend and former bandmate. "A professional studio can be pretty intimidating, but Ray had an uncanny ability to immediately make his clients feel at ease. His friendly, charming nature helped relax musicians into feeling comfortable, and that's an important factor in getting a good recording."

"Ray entered into every project like a kid in a candy store," Jon says. "He sometimes seemed more excited about a recording than the musicians themselves."

"I respected Ray on a level that I did not exist on," says area musician and Daytrotter illustrator Johnnie Cluney. "He was a real engineer and musician. He went to school for recording, but forget that. He had a great ear and he was a hell of a player."

And now those same musicians are helping pay back the memory of their friend and mentor. This week sees the online release of "Songs in the Key of Ray," a 23-track compilation on Bandcamp of songs Ray either performed, produced, or recorded over the years. A minimum donation of $10 gets you a download and streaming code for the entire compilation, and all proceeds go to an education fund set up for Ray's daughter Rose.

For me, Ray was just one of those guys we were lucky to have around. You seldom had a bad time if he was in the room. In my experience as a weekend club DJ, sometimes those who consider themselves "real musicians" turn a nose at those of who press play on other people's music for a hobby. I never got that vibe from Ray. Of all the hours I've spent in a DJ booth, few were more fun than when Ray and his friends would saunter in and vogue their way around the dancefloor to any Michael Jackson songs I could scramble to play.

I hadn't seen Ray in a while, but was lucky enough to bump into him on the street a couple months ago. I wasn't even sure if he'd acknowledge me outside of a DJ booth. But when he saw me, his face lit up, and a great bear hug followed as we stood around chatting about music and Rose and his future plans of opening a new and better studio this year. It's tough to think that future generations of new bands won't be able to seek his ear or mentorship. Music and stories, however, last forever -- and we've got those in spades.

So thanks, Ray Malone, for making the Quad Cities a lot more interesting. Rest in peace? Ha. He'd never want it that way. Rest in bedlam's more his style. If there's a heavenly reward waiting for us, Ray's up there now scoping out the scene and teaching the angels how to make an unholy racket. I hope I see my friend again one day.

Until then, I'll settle for listening to him. You can download the charity compilation "Songs in the Key of Ray" at https://quadcitiesmusicarchive.bandcamp.com/album/songs-in-the-key-of-ray.

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