Friday, March 8, 2013

Dreaming in a dream; the Ray Cully story

By Chet Williamson

Ray Cully and his wife Jeanette, courtesy of Gail (Cully) Middleton
 He was born into one of the most famous families that Worcester has ever produced. His older brother Wendell was a trumpet player who worked with among many others, Count Basie. His sister, Zara was an actress, best known for her role in the “Jeffersons.”

Although he is the lesser known sibling, his story is every bit as compelling, and one that should be told. His name was Raymond “Ray” Mansfield Culley, a distinguished jazz drummer, arranger, singer and songwriter. His stage name was Ray Cully.

Downtown Worcester, circa 1920

He is often credited with giving his brother his immaculate sense of timing. As Eugene Chadbourne noted in the All Music Guide, “Perhaps the trumpeter's ease with all tempos was developed early on through his relationship with his brother Ray Culley, a drummer. Both were members of various local bands in Worcester, Massachusetts in the second half of the '20s.”

Brother Wendell's photo from the 1925 Commerce High School Yearbook

Ray was born on October 20, 1907, a little more than 9 months after Wendell. He was the 11th child born to a Nora (Gilliam) Culley, who is said to have given birth to more than 20 children. His father, Ambrose E. Cully, worked as a chauffer for the Higgins family, one of the city’s most wealthy.

The Cully homestead at 74 Mulbery Street, Worcester
 It should be said that all of the Cully children were notable. Nora Jr., and Catherine were jazz singers in New York. And, Hannah was a pianist and yet another sister, Agnes Cully, was Marian Anderson’s personal fashion designer.

Hannah Cully Brown 

The Cullys were a musical family and active at the old African Methodist Episcopal Church on Belmont Street, where the father was the musical director of the local Jubilee Singers.

Although early documentation is hard to track, Ray’s Worcester music work was possibly filling in with bands such as Mamie Moffits and her Five Jazz Hounds, The Nitehawks, and with saxophonist Sydney Grant.

Mamie Moffitt's 5 Jazz-Hounds. Wendell and Ray Cully possibly filled in as substitutes in 1920s

Grant’s niece, Jackie Boyette recalled that Cully was not only a musical colleague, but friend of the family. “Ray Culley and his wife were often in our home with their son, Raymond M. Culley, Jr. I recently found a 5th grade photo of Ray Jr. in my deceased uncle’s memorabilia.”

In the late 1920s, early ‘30s, Cully headed for Boston where both he and his brother Wendell worked with the highly acclaimed pianist, bandleader, arranger, Preston “Sandy” Sandiford.

In an interview in the music magazine, Whiskey, Women and..., Sandiford said, “In that band then was Howard Johnson on first alto…. We also had Wendell Cully, a trumpet player. I can't remember the tuba player's name. The drummer was Ray Cully or "Leggy" Taylor, and Buster Tolliver was on tenor.”

Sandiford also mentioned how the band did a great deal of “general gig work,” around Boston. “We played every club you can think of around here… . I played the swinging belt of clubs on Massachusetts Avenue and the hotels downtown, and made guest appearances at the Latin Quarter.”

In addition to his work with Sandiford, Culley may have also played in the George Tynes Georgia Cotton Pickers. According to one Boston listing, his bands included such musicians, as trumpeter Ray Culley (sic), which could be a misprint, and really be Wendell.

In the 1930s into the ‘40s, Cully played with trumpeter Bobby Booker who led a band based out of New York City. In an interview with David Griffiths for his book, Hot Jazz: From Harlem to Storyville, Booker said, “I worked up in Glen Falls at the Royal Pines with R.Q. Dickenson and Ray Culley, also a local piano player named Tucker Smith and the bass player from the Missourians. I used to stick my horn out the window and blow at the cars passing along the highway.”

Ray Cully, Central Park West, NY, 1940s
Bandleader Bobby Booker

Tadd Dameron

After working in a variety of shows, Booker organized a new group in 1939-40 with Tadd Dameron, saxophonist Stanley Payne, Ray Cully on drums, and “the famous Baby Laurence singing and dancing,” he said. Booker also noted that the group worked an extended engagement at Murrain's, a lounge and cabaret on 132nd Street in New York.
Dancer Baby Laurence
Ray Cully in Central Park in the 1940s
In the late 1940s, Cully reconnected with old friend Roger Quincey “R.C.” Dickerson; whom he had first worked with in the Bobby Booker Band. Dickerson had toured with Wilson Robinson’s Bostonians, played the Cotton Club, and later with Cab Calloway. According to Wikipedia, the trumpeter left the band in 1931 and quit music altogether becoming a cab driver, but “recorded again in 1949 accompanying a singer named Ray Cully.”

Before leaving Calloway, Dickerson recorded on many of the bandleader’s biggest hits, including “Minnie the Moocher,” where he sat in the trumpet section along side Wendell Culley.

Another item of interest is the fact that he lived in Glen Falls, New York where the Bobby Booker Band with Cully, Dameron and Laurence had played.

Cully was married to Jeanette Arnold, whom it met while gigging in Albany. The couple had three children, two girls (Gail and Karen), and a son, Ray Jr.

“My dad was in his late forties before we were born,” said Gail (Cully) Middleton. “I was born in 1956 …. By the mid 1960s, I think my dad’s musical career was finished. Before any of us kids came along, my parents lived in Saranac Lake, NY. I found a business card that my dad used to contact “Ray Cully’s Celebrity Orchestra.” The address on the card is 81 Broadway, Saranac Lake, N.Y.

Ray Cully's Celebrity Orchestra
Sometime in the mid-50s, the family moved to Brooklyn. In 1961, Cully recorded with the legendary Victoria Spivey. The blues queen, whose career had spanned four decades, had left show business for a time in the 1950s, but continued singing in church. In the sixties, she returned the mainstream music scene with a duet recording of her tune, “Queen V. Souvenir” with Cully on drums. The release set in motion her resurgence. From her Brooklyn home the singer launched her own record label, Spivey Records. One of the label’s first releases featured Bob Dylan.    

Blues queen Victoria Spivey
“I remember Victoria,” Gail said. “She visited us more than once, and made enough of an impression on me that I remember her quite vividly. She was a drama queen. All of the videos I saw reminded me of the lady I had met -- very melodramatic, with an exaggerated eye roll. This was Victoria, not just a stage presence. It tickled me to see her in the videos. She is exactly as I remember her. We had quite a few Victoria Spivey recordings, 78’s I think.”

Gail recalls her dad as, “a gentle, funny, loving father. He kept us entertained and engaged,” she said. Dad once took us to see Lionel Hampton perform on the vibraphone at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He said that he had played with Hampton, but did not elaborate about it.
Lionel Hampton on drum
“By the time I was old enough to know he was a musician, he wasn’t working anymore. I remember his drums and cymbals, but they were almost always packed up in their cases. He did not play them at our apartment. He would sometimes bang out rhythms on the kitchen table.

When asked what her father did for a living after quitting music, Gail said, “My dad was a jack of all trades. I remember him doing some re-upholstery work in our apartment. He was a good cook. He did lot’s of odd jobs, one summer or two he was somehow connected with a Brooklyn-based, youth marching band.”

Gail (Cully) Middleton
Though he walked away from the music business – as did his brother Wendell -- Ray Cully remained a creative person. “He had a wonderful imagination,” Gail said. “He could sketch, and would draw pictures of us when we were little. He mentored at least one young singer. She used to come to our apartment and sing. Dad would play piano.

“He wrote songs for us too. We had a small console piano in the house. Dad could play and would play and sing songs for us. There was sheet music and records that my dad had cut, which I suspect were self-produced. I distinctly remember two songs that my dad recorded, “Really, Dear,” and “Baby Don’t You Dream Too Much.”

The New York Public Library has an audio tape as part of the Hatch-Billops collection of interviews with musician talking about their lives and careers. Those interviewed include, James Reese Europe, Alvin Batiste, Eubie Blake, and Ray Cully.

DOB: October 20, 1907 (Worcester)
DOD: March 8, 1977 (Brooklyn, New York)

This is a work in progress. Send all comments to: Thank you. 

Special thanks to Gail (Cully) Middleton, Ray Cully, Jr., and Yvette Porter Moore

Victoria Spivey

Interview New York Public Library

R.C. Dickerson

See: Big Band Jazz by Albert McCarthy mentions Ray


Family history


  1. This is such a wonderful write-up of Raymond Cully!! Your research skills are supreme and the way you incorporate it into a story. Thank you so much for highlighting Raymond, whom I never got the opportunity to meet, but feel I know so well. You do our family honorably.

  2. Chet, thank you for your blog. You've brought to light some unknown history of my father and some heartwarming memories for events remembered. Outstanding! Karen (Cully) Munoz

    1. I agree Karen. Was great reading material this article.

  3. One of the links is not working: The correct link is:

  4. Very interesting article. I dint know that about Ray Cully. Gail Middleton is married to my oldest brother Ronald. Wow, you learn something new everyday!!!