You’d never know it to look at it, but the strip of land east of London and north of the Thames, out as far as Southend, is the home of British blues. Here in the Essex Delta, practically every night of the week, you can go to a session stiff with the sound of brooms being dusted and mojos worked. I lived in Ilford for five years and was part of that scene (it’s one of the few things I really miss since I moved to Cromer), and central to that scene was organist, studio owner and all round A1 Nice Guy Ray “Chigwell Fats” Bartrip, who died a couple of days ago after a long fight with cancer.
I got to know Ray after a friend, a Mr. L. M. Of Basildon, introduced me to a weekly blues jam session at a pub in Brentwood, where Ray was the keyboard player in the house band. His instrument of choice was a T-series Hammond organ. The routine at jam sessions is that the house band will play a few numbers, then members of the audience who’ve signed up will be called up to play. Guitarists are two-a-penny, so they’d usually only get a couple of numbers each. Old-skool blues and rock keyboard players … well, you can count them on the fingers of one thumb, and as I was almost always the only one there, apart from Ray, I’d often get to play most of the night, backing a revolving door of musicians from raw beginners to peerless professionals (my claim to fame- I once backed Brian Robertson, a true guitar hero, who’d been in Thin Lizzy in their ‘Live and Dangerous’ days). I’d be pitched into number after number, sometimes being told only the key it was in, and occasionally not even that. Live and dangerous indeed – I learned more about playing live music at those jam sessions than at any other time in my life.
Because I was often the only other player, I got to know Ray’s Hammond quite well – and I got to know Ray, a seasoned player who’d been treading the boards since the beat-group days of the 1960s. I remember visiting his house, where keyboards were propped up in every corner, and his garage was a workshop with Hammond organs in every state of repair and dismemberment. I remember his gentle words of encouragement, his words of praise, and now that he’s gone, that behind the fearsome riffs was one of the gentlest, kindest, sweetest souls you’d be lucky enough to meet.
I remember how, when he was otherwise committed – and as the years rolled by, often ill – I’d be invited to take his place in the house band, or in its touring version, led by ace guitarist Richard Dobney. Filling Ray’s shoes was a responsibility – and an honour.
But one of my abiding memories was watching him, after a gig, squat-thrusting a Hammond into the back of a Volvo.
It seems a cliche to say it, but cliches are only cliches because they are true- but we won’t see his like again.