A personal recounting of the musical career of Ray Gillen by Mark Fevre
This was sent in private email from Mark to Joe Siegler.
From Joe: I was going back and forth with Mark Fevre about Ray Gillen and Black Sabbath, as Mark said he was a friend of Ray’s. He started writing this “Story of Ray Gillen” for me to use on the web site, but he never finished it, and dropped out of sight. :( Mark, if you’re out there and read this, please get back to me! :)
From: “Marc Fevre” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date sent: Thu, 7 Mar 1996 16:37:27 -0800
Subject: The Ray Gillen Story (Pt. 1)
Here’s part of the story I promised. I’ve elaborated a bit on a few of the details I mentioned briefly in my original telling, but I imagine that you’ll find it more interesting this way. Anyway, I only have so much time for this kind of thing while I’m here at the office, so I’ll be writing this piece in installments. Hope you don’t mind.
As I’m sure you’ll recall my mentioning, the real story on Ray Gillen goes back a little bit further than his first gig with Black Sabbath.
A native of Cliffside Park, NJ, vocalist Ray Gillen actually started singing during his senior year in high school; not publicly, mind you, but in private, at home, after school.
Up until then Ray had been something more of a high-school jock type, not a particularly focused student or musician, perhaps, but a gifted athlete to be certain. If I remember correctly, he was quite good in track and field – for what it’s worth now – and it was, as I’ve said, somewhere over the course of his senior year that Ray found himself coming home, putting on a Beatles album or something, and singing along.
Anyway, after a couple of years of this, Ray started to like the way he sounded, and while he was too embarrased to sample his voice at that time for his parents, he somehow mustered up the courage to contact vocal trainer Robert Fitzgerald to see if Fitzgerald thought he had a legitimate talent.
As Ray liked to tell the story, Fitzgerald’s response was somewhere along the lines of “Where the hell have you been all of my life?!”, and with Fitzgerald’s encouragement Ray quickly decided to pursue his vocal studies in earnest.
It was at this time, then, that Ray began began performing in public, singing – over the course of the next few years – in a string of local bands, building a name and reputation for himself on the Club circuit that ran between New Jersey and New York.
Perhaps Ray’s most successful stint during those days was as the vocalist in a local band called Harlot. They were quite good, really, performing a small set of original material sandwiched in between credible renditions of numbers by bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and the like; but it wasn’t really until 1985, when he joined former Rainbow drummer Bobby Rondinelli’s outfit, “Rondinelli,” that Ray’s career began to take real shape.
The band, which at the time featured Bobby Rondinelli on drums, his brother Teddy on guitars, and James Lomenzo on bass and keyboards, found an excellent singer in Ray, and with Ray behind the mike it wasn’t long before Rondinelli found themselves billed as one of the top acts on the North-Eastern club circuit, “touring” extensively as a result.
With all of their energy and exposure, it wasn’t too long after this that the band attracted the attention of a record company, (I believe it was Atlantic,) and shortly thereafter Rondinelli began to work on a series of demo recordings in the hopes of interesting the label enough to merit a contract.
Not long after the band finished recording, however, a line-up change was effected, bassist Tommy Henriksen (now Hendrix) stepping in to replace the departing Lomenzo, and the band, with its new bassist on board, prepared for a new series of shows as they awaited the label’s decision.
Things looked good; the demo’s had actually been aired on a radio station out of New York a few weeks earlier, and the audience response had been excellent. Moreover, Henriksen was fitting in beautifully, and as the new line-up tightened its sound, Ray – who had continued to work with Fitzgerald as his vocal coach as all of this was occuring – was singing better and better with each new performance. Success seemed right around the corner.
And then it happened; Ray got the offer he couldn’t refuse, and Rondinelli was finished almost before it ever had ever had a chance to get started.
Ray Gillen was now the lead singer for Black Sabbath, and with his departure, Rondinelli’s fortunes quickly dried up. The label deal fell through, the band dissipated, (Henriksen departing almost immediately to hook up with the band Warlock, where he would be joined a short time later by drummer Bobby Rondinelli,) and that was it. End of story.
But while one story was coming to a close, another was just beginning…
(End of Part One)
From: “Marc Fevre” <email@example.com>
Date sent: Fri, 8 Mar 1996 11:43:10 -0800
Subject: The Ray Gillen Story (Part Two) – Glenn Hughes Forced Out of Sabbath
Ray Gillen joined Black Sabbath in 1986, stepping in in mid-tour to replace the legendary British bassist and vocalist, Glenn Hughes, after Hughes himself had done but a handful of shows as Sabbath’s new frontman.
Glenn had been the most recent addition to an ever-growing list of Sabbath singers, having himself only joined the fold in the latter half of1985, when he lent his remarkable vocal talents to what was then being billed as guitarist Tony Iommi’s first solo album ever; namely, “Seventh Star.”
In truth, the album had originally been slated to include performances from a number of different singers. David Coverdale, Robert Plant, and vocalist Rob Halford had all been asked to participate as well, but on review of Glenn’s preliminary contribtions, Iommi quickly decided to ask his old friend if he’d be willing to sing on the entire album instead of on the one or two songs he had originally been asked to do.
Iommi was aware at that time, of course, of some of Glenn’s recent difficulties – Glenn had been struggling for some time by now with an ever growing and increasingly dangerous addiction to cocaine, an addiction that he’d first begun to develop during his days in the seminal hard-rock band, Deep Purple, and which had plagued him ever since, marring each of his efforts at a sustained come back – and it was Iommi’s hope that by giving Glenn another chance at getting his career in high gear again, he might be able to inspire his friend to take a step closer to some sort of personal and professional recovery.
Hughes, eager to grasp this opportunity to re-establish himself, quickly agreed, pressing on with his work on the “Seventh Star” album even after word had come down from the label that the album would not be released without the Black Sabbath monicker attached to it. A short while later, the album was released, and with largely favorable reviews in place – despite the decidedly un-Black Sabbath like sound Hughes’ presence had injected into it – the band, which by now consisted of Iommi and Hughes, bassist Dave Spitz, drummer Eric Singer, and perennial Sabbath-sideman, keyboardist Geoff Nicholls, began to rehearse for the pending tour of North America and Europe.
It was at this time that it became increasingly clear that a new vocalist might be required.
Never particularly comfortable with hard rock – Hughes’ own musical tastes had always leaned more towards soul and rhythm and blues than the proto-metal stylings that had come to be identified with the band Black Sabbath – Glenn was having tremendous difficulty grappling with performing Sabbath’s material the way he felt Sabbath fans would want to hear it. This factor, when combined with the fact that he was being asked to do something he had never done before – that was, to perform live as a singer without the musical crutch of playing bass as well – contributed to an increasingly growing sense of nervousness regarding his role on the impeding tour. Sadly, Hughes was never able to successfully get beyond his own reservations, and as the tour commenced his performances were indeed quite shaky.
Moreover, the one thing that Glenn had always been able to depend on, his voice, was beginning to fail him as well, this being the result of a fight he had gotten into on the eve of the tour with the band’s tour manager, whom Glenn had caught making a pass at his girlfriend one evening. It seems that, in the course of the altercation, the man had hit Glenn in the face so hard that he had splintered some bone in Glenn’s eye socket, causing internal bleeding in Glenn’s sinuses that then leaked down and caked around his vocal cords, requiring that Glenn visit a physician so that they could be scraped clean, a procedure which did no end of immediate harm to Glenn’s voice.
Clearly, then, Glenn was in no position to tour with the band. His nervousness and vocal difficulties not withstanding, however, Glenn was desperate not to lose this chance to prove himself again, but by the second or third night out it was plain to see that an eleventh hour replacement was going to have to be made, as Glenn’s performances were growing increasingly labored, and there was genuine fear on the part of the band that in the current situation, Glenn’s cocaine abuse might rear its ugly head once more and catch up with him.
The decision was made. Glenn had to be taken off of the tour.
Someone had to be brought in to replace him, though, and they had to be brought in fast.
It was at this point that Ray Gillen entered the picture.
(End of Part Two)
From: “Marc Fevre” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date sent: Tue, 12 Mar 1996 15:07:33 -0800
Subject: The Ray Gillen Story (Part 3)
Ray actually first came to hear about what was going on in the Sabbath camp when Dave Spitz’ girlfriend, herself a student of vocal coach Robert Fitgerald, gave him a call one afternoon. She told Ray that it looked like there was going to be a change made in the vocal department of the band’s line up, and that he should consider auditioning for the spot.
Ray didn’t have to think about it for very long, and after a few quick phone calls, he arranged, through Sabbath bassist Dave Spitz, to hook up with the band the next evening.
In the interim, however, there were a number of things to take care of. Rondinelli were still readying themselves for another spate of shows, and Ray had also to get back to the producers of “CATS”, the Broadway Musical, who had only just a few days before offered him the lead role in the production. Somehow, though, Ray managed to get through the evening and the day that followed, his anticipation and excitement mounting as the evening of his audition drew closer.
Finally, the time came, and after a very brief, somewhat clandestine meeting with the members of the band before that night’s concert – minus, of course, Glenn Hughes – Ray was told that they would talk more after the evening’s performance, which Ray was then invited to stick around for.
The performance was a rough one, and upon watching Glenn – whom Ray admitted to having been a big fan of – Ray could easily see that Glenn was having tremendous difficulty with his voice that night. Indeed, as the show progressed, Glenn’s voice seemed ready to give out entirely.
After the concert, the members of the band – again, minus Glenn Hughes – reconvened on one of the tour busses that had been rented out for the tour. Ray was asked to submit a demo tape for consideration, but as he didn’t have one Ray volunteered to audition live, saying that tapes could lie anyway.
So that was how it happened, Ray sang a capella, and Iommi told him he was in.
Still, in the best tradition of the troubled luck that seemed to be plaguing the band, it was discovered that Ray’s knowledge of the band’s back-catalog was nearly non-existent. In other words, the band had found themselves a singer who was wholly unfamiliar with their material, and in the face of another two shows to go- one the following evening, and another the night after – before the band’s next day off, it was clear that they’d have to go it with Glenn in place for a little while longer.
In the meantime,Ray holed up with some borrowed cassettes of some of the band’s albums, listening to the material over and over as he hung out with the band, (Ray was introduced to Glenn as a friend of Dave Spitz’s,) watching the concerts they gave over the course of the next two evenings in an attempt to learn some of the songs before Sabbath went into rehearsals with its soon-to-be new singer.
There was still the unpleasant task of letting Glenn Hughes go to be dealt with, however, and Iommi waited a bit longer than he should have to do this, as Glenn found out what was going on before anyone from the band let him know.
“It was in Massachusetts,” Glenn remembers, “at a party that was being held for us, and some guy came up to me, not realising who I was, and he said, `So, did you hear that Sabbath has a new singer?’”
Suddenly, everything clicked, Glenn immediately understood who Ray was, and why he’d been hanging around the last couple of days, and he set off right away to confront Iommi about the situation. As the decision was already made however, there was little Glenn could do. The exchange between Hughes and Iommi was unpleasant, and Hughes left.
But in the weeks that followed, Glenn found that he was relieved that it was over. All the stress and pressure could be set aside, and he could take the time to rest himself up, to rest his voice, and then move on to a project more to his liking. His departure from Sabbath seemed more and more a blessing in disguise.
As Glenn set off on his own path, however, the band were busily gearing up for the rest of the tour with Ray in place. Ray informed his former bandmates in Rondinelli that he was leaving the band, and he also called the “CATS” people too, letting them know that he wouldn’t be taking their offer – though he would have earned a considerably higher wage with the production company than he did in Sabbath – of the lead role in the company’s musical.
Arrangements were made for the band to rent out a small theater in New York City, and for the next day they rehearsed non-stop, putting Ray through his paces as they prepared for the following night’s gig.
As the hours ticked by, Ray’s moment of truth came closer and closer. Ray slept hardly at all the night before the show, and the following evening, after having performed a small rehearsal set during sound checks that afternoon, Black Sabbath hit the stage with their new singer in place.
The show went smoothly enough, though Ray sung a number of the songs from cue cards that had been created for him as he worked his way through the as yet unfamiliar back catalog of the band’s music.
As the tour progressed, the performances improved, though the audience confusion failed to abate much in spite of the wave of publicity the band had instigated in an attempt to introduce their new singer to the public. Photo spots and interviews were hastily arranged with most of the industry’s top magazines and press organizations, but some audiences seemed to have a hard time figuring out what was going on, though the reviews of the band’s strengthening performances with their excellent new singer were, by and large pretty good.
At least in America at any rate.
In England, punters everywhere were confused and upset not only by the presence of the young, unknown, AMERICAN INDIAN who was now fronting one of Britain’s most beloved bands, but by the relative strangeness of the new material as well, which was most un-Sabbath like. The tour was not so well received, though Ray did win many fans over, and after an abbreviated series of shows, Iommi decided to take the band into the studio and begin work on Sabbath’s next album, figuring that the best thing he could do would be to put the whole tumultuos “Seventh Star” affair behind him, and return with an album that was closer to the classic Sabbath sound of days gone by.
As with everything else that seemed to involve Sabbath, this too would not prove to be easy.
(End of Part 3)
Unfortunately, I lost contact with Marc, and he never sent me any more parts to this story.. :(
UPDATE: In September 2009, I received an email from a “Medieval AL”, which proports to be the end of the story. While it doesn’t seem to match up in sync with what I have here, I’m including it anyway.
Founded by former Rainbow drummer, Bobby Rondinelli, the band was something of a family affair, featuring as it did Bobby’s brother, Teddy, on guitars and keyboards. Bassist, James Lomenzo rounded out the band’s line up, and with Ray on board the band quickly became a popular draw on the East Coast club circuit, earning major label interest along the way. As a result, a demo album was recorded in late ’85, and though Lomenzo left the band shortly thereafter, they carried on in good form with his replacement, Tommy Henriksen, until March of 1986, when the band came to an abrupt end with Ray’s sudden departure for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the big leagues as former Trapeze/Deep Purple/Hughes-Thrall vocalist Glenn Hughes’ replacement with Heavy Metal legends, Black Sabbath.
Having left both Rondinelli and an opportunity to take the lead in the popular Broadway musical, Cats, behind, Ray served as Hughes’ replacement on Sabbath’s tour in support of the Seventh Star record, before then returning to England with the band to begin work on their next album, The Eternal Idol, in early 1987. Sadly, in the wake of a series of defections by other members, Ray ultimately opted to leave the band himself, joining bassist Tony Franklin of The Firm and legendary drummer, the late Cozy Powell in the initial incarnation of ex Thin Lizzy/Whitesnake guitarist John Sykes’ band, Blue Murder. This also proved to be a short lived stint, however, as both Ray and Cozy left the band in quick succession.
Thusly, it wouldn’t be until the Winter of 1987 that Ray’s vocals would make their vinyl debut, Ray having joined a cadre of all-star singers such as John Wetton (King Crimson/Asia), Glenn Hughes, and Max Bacon (Bronz/GTR) to work on the Phenomena II: Dream Runner record, the second project album from noted British producer, Tom Galley.
The advent of 1988 found Ray returning to America to begin the process of putting together a new band of his own. Ray was quick to contact former Rough Cutt/Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee, and together, along with Ray’s former Sabbath bandmate, drummer Eric Singer, they began auditioning a series of bass players before finally settling on ex Steeler bassist, Greg Chaisson. With the line-up complete, and a deal in hand from Atlantic Records subsidiary, Titanium Records, the band, Badlands, went into the studio to record their self-titled debut, which was released to rave reviews in early 1989.
With their first single, “Dreams in the Dark”, in heavy rotation on MTV, the band were out on the road in support of the Badlands album for much of the next year, pausing only briefly to recruit drummer Jeff Martin as Eric Singer’s replacement before going back into the studio to begin work on their second album, Voodoo Highway in 1990. That album was released in 1991, and the band soon found themselves out on the road again, playing to eager fans in both the United States and Britain. Sadly, owing to a variety of poor business decisions, internal pressures came to a head in 1992, and with Ray’s exit a reality, the band threw in the towel after a short series of gigs with Ray’s replacement, singer John West.
A third album done with Ray prior to his departure, Tribal Moon, was left unreleased and in the vaults.
Ray would appear as a guest performer on a couple of albums from other artists (Atsushi Yokezeki- Raid/George Lynch- Sacred Groove) before forming his next band, Tariff, with guitarist Joe Holmes. The L.A.-based band were quick to break up, however, and upon his return to New York in 1993, Ray promptly teamed up with former Alice In Chain bassist, Mike Starr, guitarist Al Romano, and former Rondinelli bandmate, drummer Bobby Rondinelli, to form the band Sun Red Sun. In an ironic twist of fate, however, only a handful of numbers were recorded with producer Leif Mases, before Rondinelli left to join… Black Sabbath! The next blow to the band came when Ray, owing to general fatigue and increasingly poor health was forced to suspend any further work on the project, killing any real hopes that the band’s debut album would ever be finished.
Rumors that Ray had contracted the AIDS virus had been floating about since 1990, but by the fall of 1993, there was little doubt that Ray was indeed afflicted with the dreaded disease, and on December 3, 1993, Ray ultimately succumbed to AIDS-related complications, dying at his home in New Jersey.
A memorial concert in tribute to Ray was organized by vocalist Glenn Hughes in February of 1994, and a number of rock luminaries including singer Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, former Mariah Carey guitarist, Paul Pescoe, and Glenn’s own band, the recently reformed Trapeze, showed up to perform and pay homage to Ray’s memory. Atlantic Records expressed an interest in releasing a recording of the concert, but at the request of Ray’s family, no such album was ever completed.
Though 1996 would see the release of War Dance, the until then unreleased demo album that Ray had recorded with Rondinelli back in ’85, it was in 1995 that guitarist Al Romano succeeded in his efforts to release the debut album from Sun Red Sun. Other singers had been brought in to finish the record, (indeed, Romano himself sang on a couple of songs), but in honor of Ray’s memory, his vocals were left intact on four songs, making the release a testimony to Ray’s final efforts before his passing.
Today, though Ray’s legacy remains a small one in terms of over all recorded output, there can be no question that the quality of his performance on these few gems alone will be sufficient to keep the power of his memory alive for decades to come.
We will not forget.
- Marc Fevre, Napa, CA (1998)