In fact, Ayers claims that he's had more "sampled hits" than any other artist. That's hard to verify, but he's certainly up there. He's also done more than anyone on the planet to popularise the sound of the vibraphone, Ayers' instantly recognisable instrument of choice. During a rare interview, Stephen Titmus discussed Ayers' work with Fela Kuti, his continued love of touring and his plans to release new music. He may be 73, but Roy Ayers is keeping the funk well and truly alive.
So I know you must have been asked about this a 1000 times, but is it true Lionel Hampton gave you your first set of mallets as a five year old?
My mother and father took me to see him in the Paramount Theatre in 1945. Lionel was the word around my house in Los Angeles, California. I went to see him and I was sitting on the aisle. During his performance he would walk down the aisle with several members of his band. He'd leave the bass player and the drummer on stage and he would sing a song, [Ayers bursts into song] "hey ba-ba-re-bop." As he came past me, he handed me a pair of vibraphone mallets and I grabbed them! I was five years old, and my mother said he laid some spiritual vibes on me.
Did you want to be a vibes player from that moment?
That came much later. I became a vibes player and it became a wonderful experience for me. I've handed vibes mallets to young men all over the world. Young kids, usually around five or seven. I hand them and say, "Go ahead and play the vibes. If you feel like it."
You're a vibes player first but many people know you for your singing, too.
I wanted to reach wider recognition and of course, my fellow vibist Lionel Hampton and my fellow vibist Milt Jackson, both deceased now, they both played vibes and they both sang—and it worked. As far as I'm concerned I've gotten much more recognition from my singing than my vibes playing. And I'm really a vibist! A lot of people say, "Roy Ayers? The singer?" Yeah, I'm the singer [laughs]. I have great love for the vibes. The vibes are my heart.
A big career highlight must have been the soundtrack to the film Coffy. How did that come about?
The president of PolyGram came to me in 1973 and said, "Roy, can you do a soundtrack?" I said, "Of course." I had never done a soundtrack in my life. So they sent me out to California and showed me the movie and showed me everything I had to do and I did it.
Was it more simple because you had the experience of working with big bands?
That was it. It was a very easy thing for me to do. I enjoyed it. It was wonderful, a great experience. The music from Coffy was also used in another movie, called Jackie Brown, produced and directed by Quentin Tarintino.
Your music has very much been a collaborative process. You've had some fantastic people in your bands. Did you have a favorite? Or did you love them all equally like children?
All equal, but Edwin Birdsong really stands out as one of the best ones. Also, Harry Whitaker, he worked with me on the Coffy soundtrack. He's the composer of "We Live In Brooklyn," one of the great songs in my repertoire. Dee Dee Bridgewater and Carla Vaugn—the singer and co-producer on "You Send Me." And Chicas, the young lady who sang with me "Take All The Time You Need," which was written by Ashford & Simpson. Chicas was one of my favorites, she also sang on "Everybody Loves The Sunshine."
Who impressed you most musically?
My favorite artist, in my lifetime, is Miles Davis. Out of all of the artists, he's the coolest musician of all. I have admired his greatness, his musicianship, his way of picking some of the choice musicians in the world. People like Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter. I have used Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock on several albums over the years.
Another one is Marvin Gaye. When he did What's Going On that was one of the most sensitive albums to creation, to life. Very close to God, and praising God and talking about save the children. What he said was really wonderful. I have great admiration for Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye.
Did What's Going On directly influence you?
I was into it, very much so. I didn't copy it. I always tried to create my own style and my own way of going. I was attracted to his album by what he said about "save the children," "what's going on," "what's happening, brother" and "war is hell." All those things he said about life and God and Jesus were very powerful in my mind.
Some of my favorites were the ones you made with Fela Kuti. How did you first come across him and his music?
I had an attorney that said to me, "Roy, there's a musician in Nigeria I think you should meet." I had heard of Fela but I never thought about doing anything with him. We went over to Nigeria in July of '79. Meeting Fela was wonderful. The first thing he said to me when I came off the plane in the arrival area was, "You are Yoruba." I said, "I am?" He said he could tell, he just touched my face on the side. He said, "I can tell by your nose that you are Yoruba." I learned a lot about my heritage—my father was Yoruba. He was so powerful. His ability to change the groove, he created Afrobeat, that I'm very fond of. Fela was one of my favorite musicians.
Recording with him was fantastic. He had 27 wives. One night, when we were recording that album Music Of Many Colors, we were in the studio listening back to some tracks when about seven or eight of his wives came into the studio. They were all really dressed up. I didn't know until he told me, "You know, they bid for me? Every night I make love to four of my wives, and they come and they bid for me." They were in the studio moving around but never touching him, never saying anything. Just looking at him and kind of like teasing him, telling him in a certain way, "Take me tonight." It was really interesting. He taught all his wives how to sing and how to dance. Fela was a leader in his own right. A true genius!
Another recording session that stands out was the one you did with Rick James. You can hear the whole studio chanting, "Go Roy!" when you play.
On the session, we were in Sausalito, California. I set up to play my vibes, and he had four women stand around me. He and Fela had the same thing about women—they were super freaks. You know what I'm saying? Oh my god! I've never had that. But I think Rick wanted the women to give me inspiration and help me to play. They were good-looking women. That was interesting.
Do you recall how many records you have made?
By my count 92 albums; I haven't really counted. Between 86 and 92. I think I have copies of all of them on vinyl, which I think is wonderful. I meant to ask you, is vinyl doing well in the UK?
Yes, it is. Sales have increased about 30% in the past year.
People love that sound. The crackles!
So are you working on new music?
Yes I have a new album, probably coming out next year. I'm also negotiating with Polygram to try and get my masters back. If I get my masters back that will be just wonderful. I also have the masters to Uno Melodic and AFI, named after my daughter. If things work out fine I'm gonna re-release those things. I'm making a transition in my music and I'm writing some new songs. I'm utilising the Afrobeat as it's a very powerful beat. And I thought about a great idea: Roy Ayers samples Roy Ayers.
That'd be interesting because I'll put something on the songs I've already written. The songs are in my head. I haven't done that yet, but that's the first step after the release of the next album.
When did you first become aware that your music was being sampled?
About '84 - '85, my son came to me and said, "Dad they're playing your music." Then a whole bunch of samples started coming. Then over the years I found out I had more sample hits than anyone.
Maybe you or James Brown?
James has more samples; I have more sample hits. I just didn't get the money! [laughs]
What was your first reaction when you heard your music being used in that way?
Well when Rick James had a big hit with MC Hammer "Can't Touch This," Rick was very upset about it. He didn't want anyone to sample his music. Later on when he got paid he said, "Oh, this is OK!" It's a nice thing. They're nice payments you can get for those things. Nice royalties.
I just wanted to talk about live shows, because you have been doing it for so long. Do you have a gig that stands out as the best?
The best gigs I have done are at Ronnie Scott's and The Jazz Café. That's where I've done exceptionally well. Shows sold out every night. I sold out Ronnie Scott's for three weeks. Three weeks! I've recently done Carnegie Hall and The Rose Bowl in Pasadena and The Hollywood Ball with Queen Latifa. There are 20,000 people at The Hollywood Bowl. It was incredible. But I have the most fun at Ronnie Scott's and The Jazz Café. The people just get into it. It's a close gig. You're in their face, in their drink. It's incredible.
Roy Ayers has had a career filled with amazing music. Here is a selection of his lesser known gems.
Curtis Amy - "Liberia"
One of Ayer's first breaks was playing vibes for jazz trumpeter Curtis Amy. Ayer's musicianship and inimitable sound shone through even at this early stage in his career.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti And Roy Ayers - "2,000 Blacks Got To Be Free"
Fela and Ayers have both made extraordinary music but "2,000 Blacks" is among the best work from either artist. An 18-minute long ode to black unity and emancipation, the track fuses disco, jazz and Afrobeat into an irresistible and seemingly never-ending whole.
Sylvia Striplin - Searchin
The Ayers-produced album Give Me Your Love was not a commercial success for Sylvia Striplin. But it was a dance floor hit, and spawned a few Paradise Garage anthems. In the '90s the hip-hop community discovered the album, with Junior Mafia using the break of "You Can't Turn Me Away" on "Get Money."
Eighties Ladies - "Turned On To You"
Jazz-funk at its most rhythmically inventive and forward-thinking, "Turned On To You" was an underground hit in the UK, and huge with DJs like Greg Wilson. A kind of female super-group led by Roy Ayers, the Eighties Ladies have remained a rare groove favourite ever since.
[Laughs] You remember that? We came up with all kinds of ideas to keep people excited and coming back to another show. London has a great crowd. At the beginning of my career I was in a place called The Hammersmith Odeon. It was wonderful. I remember feeling like I was a Beatle. People were running down the aisles screaming and yelling. We're going back to 1972. I knew nothing about London. At that time I'd play the gig, go to the hotel, play the gig, go to the hotel, catch a plane and go back. I then found out about all the fun you can have in London.
You're playing Dimensions festival, where the crowd will be younger. Do you think playing music keeps you young?
It does keep you young. It keeps you motivated, it keeps you spirited, but what really keeps you going are the people. The people are the thing that keep you motivated, keeps you stimulated and creative. It helps you make more music and more songs and create more grooves. As a matter of fact, it extends your creativity as far as having ideas—like me and the drummer at Ronnie Scott's.
What are you most proud of?
I'm just happy that I keep my music positive. To say things that will motivate people to do better in life. To sing songs that make people think about life. Like "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" and "Searching," because they are my two most motivating songs.
If you could go back in time and see the Roy Ayers of 1966, what would you say to him?
There are things in life you learn not to do later on that can be detrimental or harmful. The most important thing is just to try and take care of yourself and be cool. Don't stay out too late. Sometimes you party and you party and you suffer for a couple of days. This is not just for me it's for everybody. You have to party and have a good time, go to sleep, get up the next day and groove. But don't just party every day. My God! Some people do that every day and run into poor health. I'm just glad I haven't.
Roy Ayers plays RA's mainstage takeover at Dimensions festival in Croatia, which runs from 27th to 31st August.