A bandleader, versatile keyboardist, judicial negotiator, and devoted family man all describe Ray Chew equally. As the Music Director for NBC’s TV show The Singing Bee, Chew balances these duties with his numerous other projects that include being the Music Director for NBC’s TV series Showtime At the Apollo and managing Chew Entertainment Production alongside with his wife Vivian.
"My wife and partner Vivian Scott Chew are veterans of the business with the understanding that for us, it's about what kind of mark that we leave on the industry. We both have an entrepreneurial spirit that we need to follow, so our goals are to develop and bring to market new and exciting talent. We have ongoing and annual corporate events that we do. We have a team of managers and workers that help us navigate each of our events."
The Chew’s have a way of mixing music with business and making an event pleasurable for everyone like the fundraiser "Tony Bennett & Friends" which the company produced in May, 2006. Putting together music productions that incite a smile from the audience’s faces and the performers on stage has been Ray Chew’s mission from the beginning. It is how he measures his success. He continues to strive for excellence in his music productions most notably with The Singing Bee where Chew has reprised his role as Music Director and where he has spent many of his summer days taping. He tells, "Executive Producer Phil Gurin called me into service for The Singing Bee after working with me on the Miss Universe and the Miss USA Pageant broadcast shows. It's a very entertaining but challenging show that I enjoy doing."
He emphasizes that his band, which he conducts during the contestants performances for the show, have to be team players. "The musicians are from diverse cultural and musical experiences. The call for this show was to have a band that had the ability to cover all genres of music from any era. This is a tall order, but we have everything covered from Country to Hip-Hop."
He outlines, "The rehearsals are long and laborious and I try to keep them light and fun to whatever degree that is possible. The show's writers and producers and NBC choose the songs. I am sent a list of 50 or so songs that may or may not be in the shows that we are preparing. The process involves a lot of back and forth from the writers and producers as to how a song is designated for game play or show usage. My job is to prepare the songs and my team for whatever they throw at us and at whatever hour. We have had batches of songs change at 11:45pm and have to start all over again even with a 7am call time. "
Although most folks would detest living on 4-hours or less of sleep, Ray Chew accepts it and believes it comes with the territory of being a Music Director aiming for quality in the music productions. It is a skill which he developed at the start of his profession when he was the piano player for the house band of NBC’s Saturday Night Live program in the early ‘80s. "While I was the pianist at Saturday Night Live, I was also the Musical Director for Ashford and Simpson. I believe that most leadership qualities are intrinsic. Then there are acquired skills of organization and learning how to motivate and inspire others. I have prepared my entire life to be where I am today."
Chew attended New York City’s School of the Performing Arts which gives him pride that the ‘80s TV show Fame was based on the school and it has seen many successful graduates pass through its gates. After high school, he attended the city’s prestigious Juillard School which has a Who’s Who alumni roster that can compete with Great Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge universities. It is not surprising that Chew has very strong ties to music productions located in and around the metropolitan area. His relationship with NBC did not stop after he left SNL’s house band. He has been the Music Director for the network’s Showtime At The Apollo for the last 14-years.
He regards, "Showtime enjoys a very loyal audience that has stayed present for many years. I have been doing this show for over 14 seasons and I still enjoy the electricity and the energy of the show. The magic is the building itself. The history and legacy of the Apollo is unlike any other theater or institution in the world. Add in the audience and you always have special experience." He corresponds, "The music for Showtime At The Apollo is chosen by the contestants and have to be cleared by the producers. My job is to organize and arrange the songs according to the time structure and the wishes of the contestants."
Chew’s abilities as a bandleader and an effective negotiator with TV executives and the show’s producers has made him a highly acclaimed Music Director. In fact, when most of the public is used to Donald Trump saying, "You’re fired," Ray Chew belongs to that elite class of professionals who have been hired by the real estate tycoon as the Music Director for Trumps televised beauty pageants.
"During my work with Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen pageants," Chew delivers, "the production team generally doesn't have a lot of interaction with Donald Trump. There are several layers and people that he delegates to. His wishes, mandates and instructions are present throughout. I am sure if he didn't like something, that it would change immediately."
The music chosen for the shows goes through a selection process that ensures the songs are right for the segments. "The process of matching the vibe of a particular segment with all of the music options is the mandate of the mission. There are layers of teams that have to all signoff on the final music choices. Often enough we have to do several presentations before we get the final green light on a music piece."
Chew has also been the MD for numerous grand events such as the BET Awards and concert specials by recording artists such as Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Jaime Foxx, Omarion, and many others. Being the MD for recording artists harks back to Chew’s start with Ashford and Simpson. It is an environment that allows him and the artists to have a great amount of creative input in the show.
He remarks, "The rehearsals for the BET Awards are fun and challenging. There are always unexpected events that occur when dealing with the artists who perform on award shows. My approach is to respectfully transmit the wishes of the producers to the artist in a manner that they would be receptive to. I afford the same courtesy to the newcomers that I give to the legends and veteran artists. I look to make the artists at the rehearsals feel welcomed, comfortable and relaxed as possible." He relates, "The choices of who performs are in the hands of the producers of the show. My job is to organize, prepare, rehearse and perform the artists music."
Chew shows true enjoyment in the responsibility of being a MD and wholeheartedly relishes the burden. He revealed this side of him when he directed the duet with Quincy Jones and Jaime Foxx for the 47th Grammy Awards as he expresses, "Working with Jaime Foxx was really cool because he is so creative and spontaneous. For the 47th Grammy performance with Alicia Keys we had a 60-piece orchestra. While we are rehearsing ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ Jaime came in with a burst of energy and ideas so we stopped, cleared the room and started again. I then called Quincy and sent him the new arrangements. With all of these great artistic minds it was very gratifying pulling the segment together. The result was magical."
Chew feels very honored to be called upon by recording artists like Alicia Keys and Rihanna to be there Music Director. He examines, "Every artist is different in terms of what they need from me. Some need full all around direction and advice and some not as much. But artists at the level of Alicia and Rihanna only want to deal with MD's that they respect to deliver at the highest level. Once you have their confidence and trust, then you are able to give more elements of advice. When I am working with an artist, the primary thought in my mind is how can I make a positive contribution to their performances and career."
Chew’s motive for being a Music Director goes right back to his days with Ashford and Simpson. The music may have changed over time but the man putting all the seams together to make one memorable show for the audience and the performers remains the same.
A very special event which he was the MD for was the 2005 VH-1 Save The Music Concert where he conducted a 12-string piece made up of young, talented musicians to backup performances by Alicia Keys and a duet with Mariah Carey and John Legend. "The Save The Music Children's Orchestra was a combination of the best kids from two music schools - Harlem School of The Arts and The Kipp Academy." He reflects, "I always enjoy arranging for orchestras and conducting them. In working on the performance, I interfaced with the music instructors from both institutions and gave them my arrangements. They did the preliminary work with the students and got them ready to rehearse with me. Once I was satisfied that they were ready, I then brought them all together with Alicia Keys, John Legend and Mariah Cary. The kids were very excited and did a great job."
His passion to conduct orchestras inspired him to write a book entitled the 12 Step Guide To Orchestral Maneuvers which offers practical tips for musicians as well as advice for conductors. Ray Chew is very unique in that he shows the same level of respect to musicians who are just starting out as he does to musicians who have been his musical influences. He was provided with such an opportunity to work with many artists at different levels when he was the MD for NCCRA’s Gala presents Hollywood Meets Motown, a Ken Erlich production held in March, 2006. The event encompassed a plethora of artists from all walks of music and ages. He elates, "I enjoy the variety of jobs that come my way. One day I am working with world- class artists like Sting, Elvis Costello, then legends like Smokey Robinson and Patti LaBelle. Then the following day I'd play with Rihanna and Omarion and then with amateur contestants."
Aside from his profession as a Music Director for various shows, special events, and concerts, Ray Chew has also been Co-Chair of the Education Committee for the New York chapter of NARAS. He describes, "As Co-Chair of NARAS' Education Committee, my duties were to work with my other committee members to come up with creative initiatives towards the enlightenment of the music community at large. We organized events, panels and workshops, etc. I personally feel a great sense of responsibility to contribute to the future and growth of the music industry."
With so many projects filling up his agenda book, one must wonder if he has more days in the year than the average person to fit it all in, but he admits, "Managing my schedule is always challenging. When you are looking to accomplish a lot there never seems to be enough time and everyone always seems to want the same dates and hours. Careful negotiation and crafty placing of confirmed events helps me get through. The sacrifices that I make are usually on how much personal time I may have and trying to keep a balance on that and work. Music is my inner love, my craft, my livelihood and also my hobby so it's all a labor of love and I always keep present in my mind what a blessing it is to be able to continue to grow and prosper and have longevity in this field."
And in fact, he makes time to impress his children with his musical skills as he tattles on them, "What gets the most attention and comments amongst my daughters and their friends seem to be the show of the moment. But when I performed at my daughter's school, she told me how happy that made her."
Though Chew confesses to being a child prodigy at the age of 5 having played the piano with the skill of a musician well beyond his years, it has been his desire to satisfy everyone that really makes him shine. He advocates, "Dream big!! And have a realistic definition of what success means to you. You must maintain your core dreams while continually setting new goals. Determination, perseverance and a thick skin are some of the qualities that you must possess in order to be able to handle what the business has in store. That and a great set of acquired skills and well-developed talent makes you eligible for an opportunity at success. I am spiritually grounded. Jesus Christ as my savior and my strong belief in the grace and mercy of GOD has carried me though all of the trials of my life."
Ray Chew carries his past with him but never stays living in it. Rather than stopping his journey with Ashford and Simpson, he continues to make new experiences, foster new talent, and become involved in music projects even bigger than the last one. The path he has chosen to walk is not an easy one but it is one that suits him perfectly and allows his reputation as a well-respected Music Director and Concert Producer to grow even larger.