Minneapolis folk-blues legend Dave Ray, who won quiet renown for his virtuosic guitar work and sly, insinuating vocals, died at his home early Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 59.
As part of the Twin Cities trio Koerner, Ray and Glover, he was an influence on musicians for more than four decades, from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Bonnie Raitt and Beck.
Fittingly, his final public performance was with his partners, harmonica player Tony Glover and singer/guitarist Spider John Koerner, last weekend at a folk conference in Princeton, N.J.
"It felt really right that the last gig he played was with me and John, 41 years later," Glover said Thursday night. He said that Ray's condition had been deteriorating and that he needed help in walking -- but still managed to play well.
Ray was a high-school student when he and Glover met around 1961. "I'd been hearing about this kid who'd been playing this amazing 12-string guitar," Glover said.
"Some people sort of hooked us up," Glover recalled. "I came by the apartment and heard this amazing kind of Leadbelly music coming out. I looked around the room, and saw this apple-cheeked kid in the corner with a guitar. It turned out to be Dave."
They and Koerner rode the wave of the '60s folk explosion, making a series of albums and playing festivals.
"Every time they play, the lights shine," wrote Dylan when they released their last album in 1996. As young Bobby Zimmerman, Dylan had listened to records at Ray's house and traveled in the same circles.
Still, the trio never achieved more than cult status, hindered by lack of support and divergent personal lives.
"It's amazing how much these guys accomplished with so little," Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke said, referring to the 25 albums the members made among them. "The whole indie-rock business owes them a long debt of gratitude."
Ray said last week that "I don't have any regrets, because I know what you have to give up to make it."
Seated in a recliner, feet up, at the Seward neighborhood duplex where he lived for 25 years, Ray spoke proudly of how he took over his father's insurance business in 1981 and ran it until 1996. That, not music, was how he raised two kids and coped with medical bills.
In May, he was found to have stage IV adenocarcinoma. The cancerous masses started in his lungs and had spread to other parts of his body.
Still, he soldiered on. "I'm going to keep playing as long as I can," he said in an interview about an upcoming concert. "It's what I was meant to do."
"Dave told me a couple months ago, 'I'm ready to die; I've always been ready to die,' " said Minneapolis musician Willie Murphy, a contemporary whose career often intertwined with the trio's. (He and Ray were enlisted by Bonnie Raitt to record her 1971 debut at Ray's studio.)
Murphy said Ray's life ended the way he wanted: "He died at home, he played up to the last, he refused chemo. The saddest part is that just in the last few years, he had gotten out of insurance and become a full-time musician. He was at his peak artistically."
Ray is survived by his wife, Mary Jane Mueller, children Barnaby and Nadine Ray, mother Nellie, brothers Tom and Max and sister Karen.
Services are pending, but it's likely that a concert planned by Koerner, Ray and Glover for Dec. 13 at First Avenue in Minneapolis will turn into a memorial.
A way to 'get into the cool parties'
Initially weaned on classical music by his grandmother, a music teacher, Ray came across his first blues records during his early teens. When he met Glover and Koerner, he was attending the old University High School in Dinkytown by day, and playing coffeehouses and house parties at night. Somehow, the trio clicked.
"It was our way to get into the cool parties," Ray said. "But it was also our way of hearing the music we liked. Popular music at the time was terrible. I couldn't take it, man."
Their first step to national recognition came in March 1963, when they traveled to Milwaukee for a 12-hour recording session with a small label, Audiophile Records. The result was "Blues, Rags & Hollers" -- an album that become a favorite of John Lennon and the Rolling Stones. Made for a pittance, it had the clean quality of folk records at the time but not the stiffness. The blues sounded surprisingly unforced and natural.
"They gave hope to white college kids everywhere," Fricke said.
Of the 600 copies originally pressed, one wound up in the hands of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman. He re-released the album and arranged for the trio to record a second one in New York. On their way home, they picked up a gig at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. A gig at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival followed.
"And we were off and running," Ray said wryly. "Or off and crawling, anyway."
After five albums, the trio separated, but reunited periodically over the years, including a pair of Minneapolis concerts in 1996 that became their final disc, "One Foot in the Groove."
Beck, who had Ray and Glover open his first big Twin Cities show, said of the trio: "They seemed to be one of the only people from that folk-revival period who would just completely play their music with abandon. They were just so raucous."
Ray's last Twin Cities performance was Nov. 15, a concert at the Cedar Cultural Center shared with another '60s folk-blues figurehead, Geoff Muldaur. Ray had to be helped to the stage, but once there he picked up a thick book of songs and swapped tunes all night with Muldaur.
During one song, he moved around his guitar neck with such caressing wizardry, a gasp rose from the crowd, and from Muldaur.
When the set ended, Muldaur walked up to the center's manager and joked, "How much do I owe you?"
-- Chris Riemenschneider is at email@example.com.
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