A Conversation with Ray Chew

No awards show or major television broadcast is complete without musical accompaniment. Whether pre-recorded tracks or a live band, music is often the soundtrack that makes a good show great. That great show goes to the stratosphere with a solid house band and music director.

For well over a decade, Ray Chew has been the musical director and mastermind behind some of the most exciting award shows and presentations in the market, ranging from the famed Showtime at the Apollo to, most recently, BET's Celebration of Gospel.

Ray ChewGOSPELflava.com recently spoke with the famed music director and jazz musician regarding his career and his current events.

"I recently produced a musical game show on NBC called 'The Singing Bee'," states Chew. "I do the BET Awards, BET Celebration of Gospel, and the series BET Sunday Best. There's also a new show coming called the BET Honors Awards show, which will honor some of the greatest icons of the industry, beginning in January. I've also scored a few films for Paramount, which all keeps me pretty busy."

Amid all of his incredible accolades and credits, Chew has a special place for BET's Celebration of Gospel.

"This is my most important show," admits Chew. "This is a calling from God for me. I'm a member of Community Baptist Church in Englewood, New Jersey, under Dr. Lester Taylor. All of my musical notes are guided by God. For me to work with the world's greatest gospel artists is incredible to me."

"The biggest one for me is working with Pastor Shirley Caesar. That's enough for me right there. My mom would've said, 'That's all you've got to do is work with Shirley Caesar and that's it.'"

"To top it off, I'm working with Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin, BeBe Winans, Marvin Sapp, J. Moss, and the whole cast is wonderful. My greatest task is making sure that the artists feel very comfortable and know that I won't mishandle their music. I always feel very honored that they feel comfortable enough to entrust their music to me. They have entrusted their musical moments to me. I can tell you for a fact that if any of these artists were uncomfortable, I would not be here. These are the world's greatest artists. My biggest task is to take care of them and I put the greatest effort into this. Every waking hour, I'm thinking about how we can improve something and make things better for them."

As a music director for such a wide range of talents, many would be challenged to provide an authentic musical backdrop for the various presentations. However, Chew successfully transitions with few challenges.

"I take time to study each of these artists," says Chew. "In doing gospel music, I was never locked into one area to begin with. The churches that I attended in the Bronx and in Harlem, were traditional. In order to do anything that was not in the hymnal, we had to venture outside (the church). So, I had to stay diverse musically to ensure that I was able to accommodate a lot of areas. I've always been able to look at gospel music from different angles. For me to go from Shirley Caesar to J. Moss isn't a stretch for me. I'm ready for that."

With BET's Celebration of Gospel in its 8th year of production, Chew has discovered the formula that makes the annual event such a hit.

BeBe Winans on Celebration of Gospel"The success of the show starts with its lineup of artists," reveals the music director. "The fact that the world's greatest gospel artists assemble under this roof is incredible. We do get a fresh anointing. I don't do this show just as a television show. I do this as a real church event. We get everyone together and we have church in here. I strive to make it more than just a television moment. The gospel artists that participate can feel that we're not just looking to do a TV show."

No stranger to breaking new ground, Chew was called upon to be the music director for the inaugural season of BET's Sunday Best. Chew enjoyed his time working with the aspiring talents on the show.

"That was very interesting," admits Chew. "My history of working with unsigned acts goes back to [Showtime at the] Apollo days. I have a great interest in trying to better what these acts can do or help them learn about what they are stepping into. I take great care in those acts. Sunday Best, from the beginning, really evolved. It started small. Originally, with the band, we were just going to have an organ and let them sing. They started a cappella. Then we added the organ and then drums. In the final stages, we had an 11-piece band with horns, vocals, and a choir. By the time we got to the finale, I was really excited. It was really cool."

After working with so many groups and shows, it could be a challenge to keep the musical mind crisp and sharp. Chew has his own way of staying prepared for the next musical venture.

"For me, I say a prayer of thanks after the completion of a project," reveals Chew. "I thank God for giving me this moment and then I seal the deal. Sometimes, I don't even get to see the shows because I like to move on. I seal the deal and then detach. Then I look at the next project and totally focus on that. I take some family time with my wife and daughters. I have one hobby, which is golf. I try to get a few games of golf in and then it's on to the next project."

With Chew at the helm, there are great expectations for the 2008 edition of the Celebration of Gospel (to first air Sunday, Jan 27th, 2008).

"It's going to feel like a fresh show," says Chew. "It's a new set and we've really brought church moments into this element. The whole time, you should feel like you're sitting in church. The organ's going to rise. We'll have talk music and shout music. It's going to be more church oriented and less of a TV show."

J. Moss on Celebration of GospelOver the years, Celebration of Gospel has brought both gospel and secular talents together to share in the platform of gospel music. This year's presentation builds on that concept, which Chew finds to be an easy transition.

"John Legend is a church boy. Patti LaBelle is a church girl. Them doing the show is not a big stretch," reminds Chew. "It brings their audience in. I think that every time we have an opportunity to introduce gospel music and the message of Jesus Christ to more people, that's what we ought to do. I think this gives us the opportunity to do that."

Chew's success continues in both the secular and gospel arenas and BET's Celebration of Gospel is another moment of success for the renowned music director.

Be sure to check your local listings for the airing of BET's Celebration of Gospel.

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interview by Gerard Bonner

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