PORTSMOUTH — Some people do a double-take when they find out what Ray Davis does.
“When I approach somebody from the state and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ I explain I’m a substance abuse prevention specialist and I also say I’m a musician. They say, ‘Oh really?’” Mr. Davis said.
It’s the same when fellow musicians ask him about his day job. “‘What, you are?’ they say,” he said.
Mr. Davis, who turns 68 on Dec. 2, refers to himself as “an old hippie.” Sporting glasses and long hair down to his shoulders, he looks like one. (He was once derisively called “Ben Franklin” by a student during a disastrous but brief substitute teaching gig many years ago.)
He said he understands his two main vocations may appear contradictory in nature to some. In addition, he’s also a recovering alcoholic — sober for 31 years — who plays late-night bars where the drinks flow freely. He insists, however, that he’s successfully avoided the temptations that often come with playing in a rock and roll band.
“I’m not there to drink, I’m there to play,” said Mr. Davis, who plays bass and sings with The New 40, a band he formed two years ago. (Previously, he was a member of the popular Beatles tribute band, Abbey Rhode, for 12 years.)
Yes, he’s run up against former band members over the years who have “different lifestyles,” as he put it. Sometimes there have been arguments, but he’s always heeded advice he received from another musician — his first AA sponsor — when he was first getting sober: Get to the gig and set up, stay away from the bar, play music and head home.
“Anybody who knows me knows I don’t do any drugs,” Mr. Davis said. “I would be such a ridiculous hypocrite, doing what I do for a living. I haven’t had a drink or a drug in 31 years and I’m very happy about that.”
Mr. Davis is the coordinator for the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, a job he’s held for seven years after previously being a member of the group through his work with CODAC and Caritas House. He’s also the assistant director for the Newport County Prevention Coalition, which is regionalized by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. He officially works 20 hours a week for each coalition, with no benefits, although he said his time far exceeds 40 hours.
‘Started with The Beatles’
Music, he said, is what he lives for.
“People say to me, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ It’s not a hobby to me,” Mr. Davis said. “I don’t have any illusions of grandeur, but it’s the thing I love to do more than anything else. There’s nothing like playing in a band. I need that; it’s something that’s coming out of here and it makes me feel like that’s where I belong.”
As with many music-lovers who grew up in the ’60s, it all started with The Beatles. “I was around when they started. It was a phenomenon that I don’t think I’ll ever see in my lifetime again because they were such a huge influence on everybody,” he said.
Mr. Davis grew up in a town right next to Kent State University in Ohio, where most of his family still live.
“There was this explosion of music back then,” he said. “In junior high school, there were 11 bands that got started and my buddies were in a band, but I was in a choir. They knew I could sing and they said, ‘Look, we’re going to put a band together. Paul McCartney plays bass; learn how to play bass and sing.’ I said, ‘OK.’”
Their first gig was at a pool that hosted summer dances. It did not go well.
“I was so nervous, I faked that the mic didn’t work. ‘What are we gonna do? Just play Ventures tunes,’” said Mr. Davis, referring to the ’60s surf band that stuck to instrumentals.
He soon got over his shyness, however. “When I got into high school we got into some bands and because we lived so close to the university, the fraternities would hire us because we were cheap, even though we weren’t really that good. But to us it was the big time. I could earn more money playing in a band at a college than any part-time job, and I loved it,” he said.
His pathway to music didn’t sit too well with his father, an Ohio state highway patrolman.
“He gave me a set of golf clubs,” Mr. Davis said. “I had been a caddy, and I hated golf. I sold the golf clubs to the kids up the street from me and ordered my first bass electric guitar. My father hit the roof. My mother said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s a fad; he’ll get over it.’ And I didn’t — 50 years later and I haven’t gotten over it yet.”
Joe Walsh and Devo
Mr. Davis said the Kent area was a hotbed of musical creativity back then.
“Joe Walsh (later of The James Gang and The Eagles) was a student at Kent State,” he said. “He had a reputation before the James Gang. The guys from Devo were in the art department at Kent and my roommate recorded them before they got their record contract. He would come home and play the tapes and I’d yell at him, ‘Turn that off!’”
Mr. Davis didn’t go to Kent State but rather to the state university, Bowling Green. He said there was far less musical competition there compared to Kent, so he was never hungry for a gig. “We played a lot of fraternity parties — anywhere any time.”
He earned a degree in secondary education and was planning on becoming a history teacher. “But I student-taught and I realized there’s no way I could make it in a public school because it’s just too damn conservative. I’m not some screaming radical, but I’m pretty liberal,” said Mr. Davis, who graduated in 1972.
He kept on playing music, joining a band called Synergy that played all over Michigan, Ohio and Indiana from 1973 to 1976. “Those guys were really good musicians and I learned a lot from them,” he said.
His alcohol problem, which had built up gradually over the years — “I’m playing at fraternity parties and it’s anything you want” — came to a head with Synergy.
“I was more concerned back then with the lifestyle than what it really took to be a musician. Things were pretty crazy back then,” said Mr. Davis, adding he dabbled in some other drugs, too. “There are no halos on me; I did inhale and I did some other things, although I never got into heroin. It got out of hand and I got kicked out for that, and rightfully so because I wouldn’t want to play with anyone who did that.”
But he didn’t seek treatment for his drinking at the time, rationalizing that he could deal with it in a professional manner. “Instead of saying I have an alcohol problem, I said I’ll never drink when I’m playing, and I never did.”
He moved back to Kent and started playing with another band, Istari. “The music was a cross between Yes, Average White Band, Steely Dan with a little bit of Beatles, if that makes any sense,” he said. “It was the least amount of money I ever earned in a band, but it was the best.”
He has a vivid memory of driving through Akron when the local radio station started playing Istari. “And right after that they played (The Beatles’) ‘A Day in the Life.’ I said, ‘It does not get any better than this.’”
Istari eventually disbanded, but he and the drummer joined another band that played “all the Holiday Inns” in Cleveland, he said. “We were playing six nights a week,” said Mr. Davis, who called the gigs very lucrative but no fun. “These guys were great musicians, but it was the most boring damn thing in the world.”
Needing a change of scenery, in the early 1980s Mr. Davis moved to Newport to stay with his brother, who was stationed in the Navy, and his wife. When the couple moved back to Ohio, Mr. Davis stayed, met a guitar player and promptly put a band together.
“There was a lot of music going on in Rhode Island, especially blues. I always wanted to live in New England,” he said.
A few years after moving to Aquidneck Island, he decided to finally quit drinking. His epiphany came after meeting a woman in Newport.
“She had a couple of kids whom I liked. She became ill and was told she had six months to live — melanoma,” Mr. Davis said. “And somehow, it just kind of hit me. This person brought to my attention that my alcohol might be an issue, and that was the first time it registered with me. I wasn’t happy, even though I may have acted like it. I just got sick of me being the way I was and I decided to do something about it. I went to AA — I still do — and I haven’t had a drink since.”
Mr. Davis got into substance abuse prevention while he was working for Child & Family Services as an investigator for child abuse and neglect cases. He saw an ad for a prevention specialist at CODAC and Linda Hurley, now the executive director, wooed him away.
“I liked it. I worked for CODAC for six and a half years and got my certification,” said Mr. Davis, who later met his wife of 20 years, Patrice, and bought a home in Common Fence Point.
He’s proud of the prevention work he does, but emphasizes he has a lot of help on the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition. “It’s not just me. I have volunteers on there — Marianne Raymo especially — who donate so much of their time,” said Mr. Davis, adding that there’s much more to prevention work “than red and purple ribbons.”
But true to his word, he’s never stopped playing music. Locally, Mr. Davis is well known for his time in Abbey Rhode before it disbanded a couple of years ago. He blames the breakup on the band’s laziness and the fact that a couple of members were going through health issues. (Mr. Davis was one of them — he had open-heart surgery two years ago.)
The New 40
His latest project is The New 40, which plays local venues such as The Beachcomber and Greenvale Vineyards as well as clubs in Newport and elsewhere. The other band members are Alex Radiches, drums; Rick Danielo, keyboards; and Michael Purcell, guitar.
“Even though it says The New 40, three of us are in our 60s,” Mr. Davis quipped.
The band, which plays a mix of original songs, blues, R&B, rock and roll, soul and even a touch of jazz, is something he’s been after for a long time, Mr. Davis said.
Through his own experiences playing in bands and his work as a prevention specialist, Mr. Davis believes he can help other young musicians avoid the temptations all around them and keep them focused on what’s important: the music.
“f there’s some kid who’s a really good musician and I can do something to help them not make the mistakes that I made, they’ll be better off,” he said.