Roy Ayers - Biography
By J Poet
Roy Ayers is a hard bop master of the vibraphone, a jazz player who slowly transformed himself into a best selling R&B and disco artist in the 70s. His early 70s albums with Roy Ayers Ubiquity are considered cornerstones of the early 90s acid jazz movement. He’s played and collaborated with a wide range of musicians, most famously Herbie Mann and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He contributed to Guru’s groundbreaking acid jazz album Jazzmatazz (1993 Chrysalis) and is one of the musicians most sampled by hip-hop artists. For the last 20 years he’s been playing regular long-term gigs at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. His music has been used on three version of the video game Grand Theft Auto, which introduced him to a new generation of listeners.
Ayers was born in Los Angeles in 1940 and started playing piano as a boy. At age five, he went to a Lionel Hampton concert and was transported by the sound of the vibraphone. After the gig, Hampton gave Ayers a pair of mallets, which made a lasting impression. He was an indifferent pianist, but after buying a vibraphone at 17, he delved deeply into jazz and spent long hours practicing. Ayers grew up in South Central, known then as South Park, a hotbed of jazz and R&B clubs and after leaving high school he became a popular player on the West Coast jazz scene playing and recording with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Teddy Edwards, Chico Hamilton, Hampton Hawes and Phineas Newborn. After sitting in with Herbie Mann at an LA club, Mann recruited him for his popular Latin jazz band. He stayed with Mann for four years and is featured on albums like Memphis Underground (1969 Atlantic, 2005 Atlantic) and Stone Flute (1970 Embryo.) Mann helped Ayers get signed to Atlantic as a bandleader and produced his first three albums, Virgo Vibes (1967 Atlantic), a hard pop session with Herbie Hancock on piano, Stoned Soul Picnic (1968 Atlantic) with Ron Cater on bass and Hancock on piano and Daddy's Back (1969 Atlantic.)
Ayers left Mann, signed with Polydor and began his transformation into an R&B/soul/funk/pop bandleader. He's Coming (1971 Polydor) laid the groundwork for his new band, Roy Ayers Ubiquity. The group was on the cutting edge of the jazz/rock/funk fusion of the 70s, and later added disco beats to the mix. The band’s albums include the soulful jazz of Ubiquity (1971 Polydor), the funky soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Coffy (1973 Polydor), Virgo Red (1973 Polydor), Change Up the Groove (1974 Polydor), A Tear to a Smile (1975 Polydor), Mystic Voyage (1975 Polydor), Everybody Loves the Sunshine (1976 Polydor) with a title track that became one of the most sampled tunes of the 90s, Red, Black and Green (1976 Polydor), Vibrations (1976 Polydor) which featured Ayers’ smooth vocals and included the classic title track, Lifeline (1977 Polydor) and Let's Do It (1978 Polydor.) When he made You Send Me (1977 Polydor) he dropped the Ubiquity moniker and appeared as Roy Ayers with vocalist Carla Vaughn adding some Quiet Storm appeal to the outfits jazz/funk sound.
In the 80s, Ayers recorded less frequently, and found inspiration touring Africa. No Stranger to Love (1980 Polydor) mixed his funky R&B side with a bit of disco gloss, but Africa, Center of the World (1981 Polydor) showed the influence of Ayers’ meeting with Fela Anikulapo Kuti in Nigeria. He also collaborated with Kuti on Music of Many Colors (1980 Celluloid); they made a co-headlining tour of the US in 1986. Ayers moved to Columbia in the late 80s for In the Dark (1984 Columbia) a hip hop influenced album that included the club standard “Poo Poo La La,” while You Might Be Surprised (1985 Columbia) is a jazz funk workout featuring a young sax player named Branford Marsalis.
For the last 20 years Ayers has been playing regular long term gigs at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. He has recorded several live albums there including Searchin’ (1991 Ronnie Scott's Jazz House), Good Vibrations (1993 Ronnie Scott's Jazz House), Vibesman Live at Ronnie Scott's (1995 Music Club) and Live at Ronnie Scott's (2001 Castle.) His most recent outing is Mahogany Vibe (2004 Rapster) a funky mash up that includes a few remixes of old tunes and Erykah Badu guesting on reinventions of “Searching” and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” That same year Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas used is hit “Running Away” on its soundtrack. In 2006 “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” appeared on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories introducing his grooves to a new generation of listeners.