Baton Rouge blues singer-guitarist Lil’ Ray Neal served as sideman to blues and rhythm-and-blues legends for nearly 40 years.
He’s been a supporting player for John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Little Milton Campbell, Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland. In recent years, he worked with B.B. King, the blues great who died in May at 89.
Now that Neal, 55, isn’t backing such classic blues stars as Bland, Campbell and Hooker, he’s making the transition from sideman to frontman.
“All the greats are gone, so now I’ve got to go out there and do it,” he said a few weeks ago with a quiet determination.
With that mission in mind, Neal is recording a new album, “Nothing But the Blues.” The album will showcase him as a singer-songwriter as well as a guitarist. It won’t be Neal’s first album, but will be the first album he’ll have time to promote.
In a sign of Neal’s growing profile in his hometown, the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation announced this week that he will be its first Red Stick Blues Award honoree. The award recognizes outstanding Baton Rouge Blues musicians. The honor will be presented Oct. 22 at the foundation’s 2015 Blues Gala.
Neal’s decades with the blues began when he and his brothers performed largely in the Baton Rouge area with their father, singer-harmonica player Raful Neal. By 1979, the Neal brothers, then still in their teens, were touring as blues-and-boogie star Hooker’s band.
Already awed by Hooker, the young men were even more amazed when their boss man introduced them to his friend, soul star James Brown. The young men from Baton Rouge couldn’t believe their ears when Brown and Hooker launched into a high-spirited, backstage cussing session.
In 1981, the Neal brothers toured with Big Mama Thornton, the R&B star who made the first recording of “Hound Dog.” She promised their daddy in Baton Rouge that she’d give them a whooping if they misbehaved.
Neal met B.B. King at a 1982 Father’s Day concert at the Baton Rouge River Center. He asked King if he could play the blues master’s guitar, Lucille.
“I said, ‘Man, I’d sure love to play Lucille.’ B.B. said, ‘Go ahead, man. Pick it up.’ ” Neal later worked as opening act for King and, more recently, he performed every year at the annual B.B. King Homecoming Festival in Indianola, Mississippi. This year, following King’s death at 89 in May, Neal played for the homecoming and at the funeral for King that followed a week later.
Before King’s illness and retirement, Neal said, “we were getting close. We were doing a lot of stuff together.”
Neal and his brother, Larry, last saw King in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the fall of 2014.
“I was telling the guys, I said, ‘Man, B.B. is getting tired.’ I could tell by the way he played. And the next night he took sick.”
King fell ill after an Oct. 3 show at the House of Blues in Chicago.
“I got the phone call saying they rushed him to the hospital,” Neal said. “And then they shut it down.”
Through the decades, Neal’s blues-traveling adventures included giving Guns N’ Roses’ Slash an impromptu guitar lesson. It happened at the 1996 Monterey Bay Blues Festival.
“They knocked on my door, wanted me to teach Slash how to play the blues,” Neal said. “Now that was an experience, that whole day, yeah.”
Neal worked with Slash for about three hours. The rock star wanted to play everything fast, he said. Afterward, Slash made a guest appearance with Bland.
“So after we called him on stage, he started off good, playing the blues,” Neal recalled. “But about the eighth or ninth note, he started going fast. Before you knew it, he was Slash again.”
Still working with Bland, Neal got one of the greatest compliments of his life from Bobby Womack. The soul star knocked on the dressing room door, asking if he could speak to the guitarist on Bland’s DVD “Live from Beale Street.”
Bobby Womack said, ‘Man, I saw the video. You are an amazing guitar player.’ ”
Upon hearing such praise from Womack, Neal said, “I could have fell to the floor.”
At home in Baton Rouge more often than he used to be, Neal hopes to perform with greater frequency in his home state.
“His international brand is growing,” said Neal’s manager, Anthony Moore of Since 1969 Entertainment. “But he wants to be an artist who holds onto his hometown. Some people leave, but Ray wants to help create a scene right here (in Louisiana).”
And in doing so, Neal, who’s never before been one to blow his own horn, may also be able to step out of the shadow of his much better known big brother, Kenny.
“A lot of stuff that was done here in Baton Rouge, people think it was Kenny,” Neal said. “But Kenny wasn’t here. That was me. I stayed with my dad longer than any of my brothers. Kenny left, then Larry and Noel left. But I was here between Little Milton and all of them. I’d come home, play with my daddy for a month, till I go back on the road. That was me doing all that.”