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Oct. 15, 2021 | Friday
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A life through music for Rayburn Blake
Rayburn Blake jamming at home. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

For decades, Rayburn Blake has had a hand in the creation of music.

More than that, music has been at his core his entire life. Surrounding himself in the process he’s always been a part of it, whether playing in one of many bands or working on the technical side.

His passion was ignited during time spent with his father, Rayburn Cooke. Blake says he was a drummer of some note, playing big band six nights a week. He performed with names like Tony Bennet and Duke Ellington.

“He would bring me down every Saturday for the matinee. I knew if I behaved myself, I could sit down in the orchestra pit. I was exposed to it.”

He received his first guitar when he was five. Blake didn’t spend much time playing until high school, when a friend brought one in and inspired him.

“I was entranced. I got my old guitar, fixed it up and started learning.”

He’s been playing ever since.

The first band he played in right out of high school, the Phantoms, comprised of a group of boys from Montreal playing music inspired by Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly. Shortly after he transitioned into rhythm and blues.

In 1965, a 15-year-old Stevie Wonder came to a sports bar in Montreal.

“With a 14-piece band, they were used to picking up rhythm and blues guitar players in the States, but I was one of two guys who was playing anything near authentic. I got the call and I was thrown on stage. He was playing a lot of standard stuff, he didn’t have a large repertoire at that time.

“Up comes a tune called Without a Song. I confused it with a thing the jazz guys were playing called The Song is You. They’re two different animals almost, and I launched into it with great confidence. Well I hit a real, as we say in the biz, clam.”

He says he was shaken up but waited and caught up when he could. With a 14-piece band he was sure the gaffe went unnoticed.

“After the set the band director asked if I wanted to meet Stevie. Grasping my hand and looking up at me, he said, ‘Oh this must be the guitar player who can’t read the chart.’

“I was thinking, stick a fork in me, I’m done,” he says, adding that it all worked out. “I ended up playing the rest of the week with him.”

He started playing with Trevor Payne and his Soul Brothers after that. Most of the members of that band moved on to become Mashmakhan. That’s when things started to take off.

A kid from Montreal who previously hadn’t been more than 100 miles from home was suddenly playing in Bermuda and Japan. He says it was surreal. With over 65,000 records sold in Japan, their hit single, As the Years Go By, is still on karaoke machines over there, he says.

He says one highlight he looks back on was being a part of Festival Express, a Canadian rock festival train tour. The five-day, cross-country trip was brought to light in a 2003 documentary of the same name.

Great bands of the time jammed together, travelling across Canada. Mashmakhan squeezed in with The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and more, building a friendship of like-minded musicians. Strictly in retrospect, Blake says it was a one-of-a-kind experience.

“I don’t know if I could sum it up, it was a great experience. There was a real camaraderie on that train. We all knew it was something that was going to be unique for each of us. Even if you were a big star, it was something none of us had experienced. Rolling across the prairies, in two cars on the train, jamming away for 24 hours. We’d go to sleep for a few hours and wake up and keep jamming. It’s like one of the guys said in the film, you’d catch a few hours sleep and you’d get up because you were afraid you might miss something.”

While speaking about the technical facets of music production, he lights up. It’s something he’s clearly passionate about. Blake can speak for hours about the process of perfecting a sound sample and the equipment used. His studio, in the basement of the NOTL home he shares with partner Charmian Entine, is an ode to the creation of music.

A dozen instruments lean against the wall while his computer and soundboards take up the better half of the room. Old equipment, which he says still work, stand like relics in the corner.

Blake attributes much of what he’s learned to time spent with Phil Ramone, recording engineer.

“Rayburn, if you walk away from these sessions with anything, let it be this: if you don’t have vocals, you don’t have a tune.” Blake says Ramone passed words of wisdom to him during recording sessions.

“He was absolutely right, whether in the studio or live, if you have a vocal sounding big and gigantic, not to be confused with loud, if you have a vocal sounding good everything else just falls into place.

“They’re so concerned with their kickdrums, the vocals diminish and then nothing ever sounds encompassing and huge. A big lesson I learned there.”

Dedicated to the craft he’s also taken up teaching guitar locally. Students ranging from youth to adults, he says he gets people playing quickly.

Terry Kozachenko, singer/songwriter, was a student of Blake’s. He says at retirement he came to NOTL, not sure what he was looking for. Stumbling across ads for guitar lessons he says he recognized Blake’s name from Mashmakhan. Taking a few guitar lessons from him, Kozachenko says he played some of his original songs for Blake, who says he was able to work with them.

“We had a little chat and we started putting this project together. He’s been amazing. His CV as far as sound engineering and producing was something that I was sort of fortunate to run into. I never expected to find that level, I expected maybe a basement hobbyist. He brought something completely different.”

Putting the finishing touches on his first album, Kozachenko says he would like to keep working with Blake.

“The first album that he’s worked on is sort of ready for imminent release, it’s just waiting on some touch-ups and to be mastered and we’ll take it from there. There’s a second project that we’ll probably go ahead with as well, so we’ll hopefully be working together for the next couple years. He brings a lot, it’s hard to put it into words what he brings to the table.”

Entine says she wasn’t involved with Blake at the height of his music career, but it’s evident he lives for it.

“I know that he loves playing and giving lessons, helping people come along in their guitar expertise,” she says, adding that there’s more to him than the music. “He’s got the most marvelous sense of humour. He’s social issues oriented, he really cares about animals and the environment.”

Living in the middle ground, as a personal philosophy, Blake can’t say whether he prefers the technical aspect or playing music himself; it’s a little bit of both.

“It may seem boring, but the middle way is sometimes best, like the Buddhists say. Right now, we’re living in extremes, compared to what life could be. I was disillusioned by most western religion at a fairly young age. I studied some Eastern religions, but I don’t practice much, except the idea of do unto others.

“They had this thing about the middle way, where the highs aren’t as high, but the lows aren’t nearly as low. Trying to avoid extremes in circumstance.”

It’s no secret that he’s lived quite a life. At 75, he’s not yet ready to call it quits.

He will be performing at The Old Winery Restaurant on Feb. 2 with Paul Martin and the Niagara Rhythm section.