When Ray left the Navy he was 22 years old and he
asked his father if he could have his guitar. His father said no
but you can have the banjo in the basement. That's how Ray started
to play the banjo. He took lesson but gave it up since his
instructor wanted him to read music. Everyone in Ray's family
played some type of instrument but they all played by ear. Finally he
found a banjo teacher that was a previous vaudeville performer. His name
was Harry Weiss.
Weiss was teaching Ray how to play but
at the same time he was teaching him music theory. This lasted for
about two years until Mr. Weiss passed away. At the time, Ray was
also a member of the Long Island Banjo Society and there were five
members who also took lessons from Mr. Weiss. They all wanted Ray
to take over as their teacher. Ray didn't think he could do it but
one of the students was a school teacher and told him that he would give
him $5 for lessons and at the same time he would show Ray how to teach.
It turns out that teaching was something he could do and he is still
giving lessons today.
After his first year of taking lesson
some of the banjo players started to ask Ray to play at some of their
and that was the beginning of his professional career. After a few years he
began playing regularly and eventually he formed his band. This was during the 'Hay Days " of the four string banjo in
the 1960s. He was working so much that on some days they would work three jobs in one day.
In 1964 a
friend of Ray was offered a job at the Red Onion in New York City on 82nd St. and
His friend wasn't able to take the job but he gave them Ray's name.
A member of the club's band came over to his house for an audition.
They played for two hours and Ray was just amazed at how well this
individual played the banjo. He had never heard anything like this in
all his life. Afterwards the individual said "Your not very good
but you're playing most of the right chords. You're hired and you can
learn the rest later".
The job was with a three piece group
and Ray had to learn the material on the job in a short period of time. The
instruments were an upright piano and two banjo players sitting on top
of the piano. At first he was playing four nights a week and at one time
he was doing six nights a week. During the day Ray was also working as a
Volkswagen mechanic. Finally he quit his job as a mechanic and
worked full time at the Red Onion. One evening, six
months later, Ray's old Volkswagen mechanic boss came into the club and asked if he
wanted his old job back. The answer was yes. The condition Ray made
was that he would work four days as a mechanic and play four nights a
week at the Red Onion. That way he only had to work four days a
week on both jobs.
This lasted from 1960 to 1967. The group
was called "The Red Onion String Section" but they couldn't sing because
the owners didn't have a Cabaret License.
The club was loud and
crowded. It was so
crowded that on St. Patrick's day Ray would have to hold his banjo over