The Lonnie Ray Biography:  "A Blues Conspiracy"

by Frank Sereno

You might not know Kansas City’s legendary bluesman guitarist/vocalist Lonnie Ray Fugett but that’s by design.  A conspiracy keeps you in the dark.  See, our little Cowtown holds musical secrets and selfishly hides its best local talent for only those in the know.  This story breaks a long held code of silence no one has mentioned before.  For the past 25 years, the Lonnie Ray Band has helped shape the Kansas City blues scene into what it is today.

Allow me to stretch the narrative using both a personal blues awakening and Lonnie Ray’s musical career.  I’ve been following Lonnie Ray and his bassist/vocalist wife, Debbie, for nearly 20 years.  As the Lonnie Ray Blues Band, I’ve listened to them play countless gigs, sets, and songs.  Despite what might seem a monotonous experience is, conversely, a rewarding journey filled with a musical breadth and knowledge very few musicians master.

Their playing and musical styles simply refused to become old and tiresome.

I’ve tried for decades to put their style in a neat little box and determine primary influences.  Famous names and bands come to mind:  Eric Clapton, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Taj Mahal, Mark Knopfler, Omar and the Howlers, and the Meters.  But it’s so much more when you pay attention.  Lonnie Ray’s Gibson guitar is a warm, trusted companion as he finger-picks a running solo.  His gravely baritone vocals tell a honest bluemans’ story.  Debbie gracefully and seductively holds down the root with Jazzy, her bass guitar, all the while complimenting with clear, crisp vocal harmonies.

As the years came and went, my interest in the band transformed into trust and friendship.  Lonnie and Debbie are finally sharing their lives so I can help tell their story to you.  If we take a dive into their backgrounds, perhaps it provides a clear line of sight to their musical influences.

Growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, Lonnie and Debbie met in 1964 and fast became childhood sweethearts. He would play and sing Beatles songs to her. She, in turn, would sing Joan Baez and Elvis songs back to him.  In 1967, Lonnie joined the Army and was stationed in Germany. Debbie finished high school in Lawrence and began college at KU.

With his military commitment over in 1970, Lonnie came back home to Lawrence.  He and Debbie have been a couple since his return.

Lonnie began a musical career with his first paying gig in Rulo, Nebraska in the 1970's. It was a brother and sister act playing various R&B songs.  Afterward, he traveled out to California to hone his skills on the road.  Seeing opportunity out west with both music and education, Lonnie and Debbie moved to Stockton, California and attended the University of the Pacific.  Other travels after college included an extensive tour of the southern U.S. and a top tier circuit of the U.S. and Canada.

Yet the road life isn’t so grand, especially when you wake up in a hotel room one day and aren’t sure what city you’re in. Enough was enough.  They had spent many years perfecting their chops yet decided Lawrence was where they wanted to finally settle and live.

Turns out Kansas City was thankful to welcome them back home.

The Jazzhaus, Johnnie’s, and Suki’s in Lawrence reintroduced Lonnie Ray and Debbie to the local music scene.  Those jam sessions took off and soon Kansas City clubs began calling.  The Point on Belleview was their first Kansas City gig in 1986.  Debbie recalls it was such an honor to share a stage Ida McBeth blessed three nights a week.  At the time, so many blues players … at every level … were starved for community and a place to play with others.  Given their humble nature and love for music, it was here the famous Lonnie Ray Blues Band Jam sessions began.

This open forum provided many of Kansas City’s blues musicians the opportunity to learn before they joined their current bands. Local artists like John Paul Drum, Brody Buster, Samantha Fish, and countless others all joined the Lonnie Ray Jam sessions in the early years.

Local clubs called home over the past 25 years include BB’s Lawnside BBQ, Moves, TomFooleries, Blaney’s, Mike Kelly’s Westsider, Jazz Restaurant, The Levee, The Phoenix, and Slow Ride.

Over the years, the Lonnie Ray Blues band has been voted the Best Blues Band in town. Lonnie has received the Best Guitarist award and both Lonnie and Debbie were inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2015.  But what matters most for them is their love for music and the Kansas City region.  As the Lonnie Ray Jam session enters its 25th year of existence, the band continues to amaze.  It isn’t about themselves or their ego.  Their consistent generosity has helped countless seasoned and novice local musicians stretch their wings and fly.

So now you know the history of the Lonnie Ray Blues Band.  Is what I’ve written true?  Perhaps this story inspires you to find their next show.  The truth is now laid out for you to experience yourself.  Mums the word, right?!