Ray Campi has been playing his unique brand of American roots music for more than 40 years. Whether he croons country heartbreak, boot-scooting western swing, or slap-back rockabilly, Campi gets to the heart of a song like no one else. Although an internationally known recording artist with a crowd-pleasing stage show, the bass-slappin’ rockabilly has primarily earned his living as a Los Angeles schoolteacher. The fact that he has recorded so pro-lifically, with little reward or recognition, speaks volumes about this legendary figure’s devotion to his art.
Campi, whose father had made good money selling linoleum, temporarily retired in his early thirties and moved the family from New York to Austin, Texas, in 1944. Initially enthralled with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Campi took up the guitar at age eleven and eagerly absorbed the area’s unique cross-section of musical genres—blues, hillbilly, cowboy jazz, Big Band swing, and Tejano. By 1949 he had formed Ramblin’ Ray and the Ramblers, recording songs on a privately owned disc-cutting machine and heating up elemental western swing with a little boogie on midday radio shows for KTAE and KNOW.
Speaking to the author for Blue Suede News, Campi also vividly recalled the Austin music scene of his youth. “As a young kid, I didn’t have a TV. We had some radio we listened to on Saturday and Sunday nights, but mostly people went out dancing every night. There were dancehalls all over Austin and when people got out of work, they went out, drank beer, and danced. Every bar had bands so you heard blues, country, western swing, and honkytonk.”
Among his early influences were Jimmy Heap’s lead singer Perk Williams, Austin’s own Gene Snowden, and national stars like Hank Snow, Hank Thompson, and guitarist Merle Travis. In those relatively innocent times, such figures were very approachable and Campi managed to sit in and play music with many of his heroes. From these savvy veterans he learned the key to working clubs: knowing what the audience wants. “There weren’t shows like they have now where people just go and stand around we played dances.”
By the time rock ‘n’ roll hit during the mid-1950s, Campi had already mastered its root forms. What he and many other artists were waiting for was a catalyst. The movie Blackboard Jungle had already exposed him to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and he regularly tuned in to Dr. Hepcat’s R&B radio show on KVET. Indeed, one year after buying his own home tape recorder, he fashioned his first R&B-inspired songs. “I think the first rock ‘n’ roll songs I wrote were ‘Scrumptious Baby’ and ‘I Didn’t Mean to be Mean,’” remembers Campi.
Yet once he heard Elvis Presley’s early Sun recordings with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, Campi knew that he was meant to play rock ‘n’ roll. Billed as Ray Campi with John & Henry (Johnny Maddox and Henry Hill), he cut his first rock ‘n’ roll single for the tiny TNT label—which also discovered the likes of Bill Anderson and Johnny Olenn. The shuddery, hiccupping “Caterpillar” b/w “Play It Cool” is considered a rockabilly classic today, but in 1956 it sold poorly. Forging on, Campi augmented his original trio with a pianist and his brother Harvey on bongos. He learned rock ‘n’ roll songs by Little Richard and Chuck Berry and began playing high school dances. Proficient in the new rockabilly style, his band backed such local artists as Gus Brown, the Slades, and Joyce Webb on recording sessions.
Renamed Ray Campi and the Finger Snappers, they recorded the bluesy bopper “It Ain’t Me” b/w “Give That Love To Me” for Dot in 1957. The single led to an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which Campi recalls ruefully. “[W]hen I got on Dick Clark’s show I had my guitar—a big, gold Gibson, and they said, ‘Oh no, you can’t play your guitar. The union won’t allow it.’” Campi substituted finger-snapping for the movements he usually did with his guitar. Yet his first foray into big time television proved somewhat disillusioning. “The first thing [American Bandstand] did was say, ‘Here’s a check. Sign that you got paid.’ It was three hundred dollars or something, and I signed it. They told me ahead of time, ‘You’re not going to make any money for this.’ so, it wasn’t like they were crooking me. It was just the idea that you weren’t getting paid
For the Record…
Born on April 20, 1934, in New York, NY. Education: B.A. in Drama, University of Texas, 1957.
Began hosting radio show on KNOW in Austin, TX, 1951; recorded “Caterpiller” b/w “Play It Cool” for TNT Records, 1956; recorded “It Ain’t Me” b/w “Give That Love to Me” for Dot Records, 1957; released “My Screamin’ Screamin’ Mimi” b/w “With You” for Domino Records, 1958; “The Ballad of Donna & Peggy Sue” b/w “The Man I Met” for D Records, 1959; “French Fries” b/w “Hear What I Wanna Hear” for Colpix, 1961; recorded for Ron Weiser’s Rollin’ Rock label, 1973-83; recorded Taylor, Texas 1988 LP for Bear Family, 1988; released With Friends in Texas on Flying Fish label, 1990; began releasing archival material through Dionysus, Eagle, and his own Real Music label; 1996; with Skip Heller’s help recorded Train Rhythm Blue for Sci-Fi Western/Mouthpiece label, 1998; teamed with fellow Rollin’ Rock alumnus Tony Conn for High School Hellcats Reunion, 2002; signed with Swedish label Enviken to release vintage demos and released country CD Tennessee and Texas on Real Music, 2003.
Awards: Voted “King of Rockabilly” by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Appreciation Society of Finland, 1983; Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1998.
because you had to sign the check and hand it back to Dick’s manager. Everybody did.”
Despite the failed Dot single, Campi had high hopes. Moving to New York City, he spent the better part of two years working for Hal Fine at Roosevelt Music pitching songs, and unsuccessfully angling to get back on record. Returning to Texas, his frustrations mounted as one-off singles for Domino, Winsor, and D Records stiffed and a session he did for Norman Petty’s NorVa-Jak label resulted in a three-cent royalty check. With the rural sounds of rockabilly being eclipsed by glossier pop, Campi moved to California in late 1959.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Campi lucked into a deal with Perry Botkin Jr., an original member of the Cheers (“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”) who later earned fame as the composer of “Nadia’s Theme” for the television soap opera The Young and the Restless. Hoping to write and perform the title theme for the movie Our Man in Havana, Botkin and Campi dubbed themselves the McCoy Boys and recorded “Our Man in Havana” b/w “Reprieve of Love,” the latter inspired by events surrounding soon-to-be executed prisoner Caryl Chessman. The movie’s producers turned the song down cold and the Verve single flopped.
Campi’s last shot at a true hit came at Colpix Records in 1961 with the Botkin-produced pop single “French Fries” b/w “Hear What I Want to Hear.” The record was a “Pick Hit” in San Francisco and Houston, and Campi had the satisfaction of hearing Alan Freed—during his brief period as a disc jockey for KGFJ—personally play his record on the air. That said, the record wasn’t a hit, and Campi continued working odd jobs to make ends meet while he wrote and pitched songs that never got recorded. He even recorded under another name, Ray Allen, but success still eluded him. Finally, Campi got his teaching certificate and began working for the Los Angeles School District.
He continued to record demos in his spare time, mostly country in nature, and he released the rare “Civil Disobedience” b/w “He’s a Devil” on the Sonobeat III label in 1968. However, living near Hollywood, Campi indulged his curiosity by manning a portable tape recorder and interviewing the great stars of yesteryear—George Raft, Bud Abbott, The Three Stooges, William Holden, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Tom Ewell, Jackie Coogan, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and many others. Sometimes, Campi’s students would get in on the act and help him line up and conduct the interviews. Eventually his interview collection swelled to include country music greats, rock ‘n’ roll heroes, and silent movie stars. This sonic archive is one of Campi’s greatest personal triumphs, although little of it has reached the public.
Campi didn’t reemerge on vinyl until extreme rockabilly enthusiast Ron Weiser created Rollin’ Rock Records in 1971. Recently divorced and needing a cheap place to live, Campi moved into the Italian immigrant’s Van Nuys home along with Martin Marguiles (a.k.a. Johnny Legend). Together they planned to form a band to back rockabilly giant Gene Vincent, who had fallen on hard times. When Vincent died unexpectedly, they decided to transfer their momentum into reviving the original sounds of rock ‘n’ roll by setting up a studio in their garage.
Campi was immediately impressed with Weiser’s comprehensive knowledge of obscure rockabilly music. “I didn’t know who Glen Glenn or Billy Lee Riley was before that. The only Sun records we heard in Texas were by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis. We never heard of the other guys—Sonny Burgess, Malcolm Yelvington—if it wasn’t on the jukebox or the radio, we didn’t know what it was. So, Ron was sort of like a teacher who had a great record collection.”
The original Rollin’ Rock LPs were poorly distributed handmade affairs, but they captured the authentic sound of true rock ‘n’ roll music, and were cherished by a vast underground of fans worldwide. Through sound-on-sound overdubbing, Campi often played all the instruments—rhythm and lead guitar, slap bass, percussion—on his recordings as well as those of his labelmates. Weiser’s fanatical zeal and Campi’s snappy playing gave Rollin’ Rock an identifiable atitude and sound that attracted other rockabilly castoffs to the label—Mac Curtis and Jackie Lee Cochran. Another notable visitor to Rollin’ Rock’s studios was Mae West, who recorded a version of Campi’s “Caterpillar” that wouldn’t see release until the late 1980s.
With tongue in cheek, Campi often grouses about being identified with the difficult-to-transport stand-up bass. Initially he took up the instrument out of necessity, but it soon became his trademark. Campi is the only rockabilly singer who plays one, and he incites audiences by slapping it, standing on it, jumping off it, and gesturing with the bulky instrument as if it were a guitar. A good example of his playful stage antics can be seen in the 1979 British documentary Blue Suede Shoes or his 1984 appearance with the Leroi Brothers on Austin City Limits.
Going on tour during occasional leaves from teaching, Campi developed a solid fan base in Switzerland, Finland, Germany, and Spain. When Rollin’ Rock went on hiatus during the mid-1980s, Weiser kept Campi’s career alive by leasing his masters to labels all over the world, including Rounder, Rondolet, Carousella, Goofin’, K-Tel, Magnum, Rockhouse, and Part.
The early 2000s found Campi still working as a substitute teacher, having retired from his full-time position, recording new projects in a variety of styles, and making fresh leasing deals on his seemingly inexhaustible archive of self-produced recordings. Having learned to cut fast and cheap during his Rollin’ Rock days, he has produced various-artist compilations for Bear Family, and recorded fresh sides for small pop-culture-oriented labels such as Dionysus and Sci-Fi Western. Despite an occasional windfall such as Matchbox 20 recording his “Rockin’ at the Ritz,” few have put money in the artist’s pocket.
As a result, Campi claims to have never really been in the music business, despite evidence to the contrary. This perspective allows him to be somewhat philosophical. “If you stand in the back of the hall, not being in the business, not dying, and being healthy so you can still go out and meet people, you can see memorable things and people. I have been in the company of Hank Williams, Elvis, Hank Snow, plus all the actors I’ve interviewed, George Raft, Mae West, my idols Roy Rogers, Gene Autry . My whole music career is based on fandom because I’ve always done things that I heard and liked as a kid I’ve done a lot to revive music, but mainly I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen so many people come up and go down. I remember the staff band at the Palomino when it was the biggest club in town. I was in the back of the hall wondering, ’Gee, could I ever get to play the Palomino club? Wouldn’t that be great?’ But what happened to all those guys I looked up to? They’re either dead, gone, washed up, or drugged out. Look where I am. Going full blast. My head is still straight and I can still make records. A lot of other guys just got burnt out by the business and didn’t get a chance to meet or notice people on their way up.”
(As Ray Allen and the Upbeats) Tribute to Six, Blast, 1963.
Rockabilly, Rollin’ Rock, 1973, reissued, Magnum, 1990.
Eager Beaver Boy, Rollin’ Rock, 1976; reissued, Bear Family, 1990.
Rockabilly Lives, Rollin’ Rock, 1976; reissued, Bear Family, 1990.
Rockabilly Rocket, Rollin’ Rock, 1977.
Wildcat Shakeout, Radar, 1978.
Rockabilly Rebellion, Rollin’ Rock, 1979.
Rockin’At The Ritz, Rounder, 1980.
Newest Wave, Rollin’ Rock, 1981.
Rockabilly Man, Rollin’ Rock, 1981.
Hollywood Cats, Rollin’ Rock, 1983; reissued, Part Records, 1994.
Taylor, Texas, 1988, Bear Family, 1988.
Original Rockabilly Album, Magnum Force, 1990.
Ray Campi with Friends in Texas, Flying Fish, 1991.
Gone Gone Gone, Rounder, 1993.
Rockabilly Rocket, Magnum, 1994.
Rockin’ around the House, Rockhouse, 1994.
(With Lawrence Tierney) Larree T and Melodeez Revenge, Real Music, 1996.
Perpetual Stomp 1951-96, Dionysus, 1996.
(With Rosie Flores) A Little Bit Of Heartache, Watermelon, 1997.
Ray Campi 1954-68 Vol. 1, Eagle, 1997.
Ray Campi 1954-68 Vol. 2, Eagle, 1997.
Rockabilly Rebellion: The Best of Ray Campi, Vol. 1, High-Tone, 1997.
Rain Whistle Blue, Sci-Fi Western, 1998.
Dim Cafes, Vol. 1, Real Music, 1999.
Rockabilly Ladies, Dionysus, 2000.
Somebody Took My Teeth on Christmas Morning and Other Holiday Favorites, Real Music, 2000.
At the Thunderbird Rock ‘n’ Roll Venue, Rockstar, 2002.
(With Tony Conn) High School Hellcats Reunion, Real Music/Part Records, 2002.
Tennessee and Texas, Real Music, 2003.
(With the Leroi Brothers and Lonnie Mack) Live in Texas!, Real Music, 2000.
Goodman, David, Modem Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide & Directory, Dowling Press, 1999.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
McNutt, Randy, We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, HHP Books, 1988.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Blue Suede News, Number 59, 2002; Number 62, 2003.
“Ray Campi,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com, (July 1, 2003).
Ray Campi, http://electricearl.com/campi.html (July 1, 2003).
“Ray Campi’s ‘Ramblin’ with Ray,’” Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://rockabillyhall.com/ray.html (July 1, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from the author’s interview with Ray Campi in November of 2001, from which quotations used in this biography were drawn.
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