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PhD - Leeds Beckett University 2020

Dr Ray Russell – the session musician behind acts such as Tina Turner and David Bowie, and TV and film music composer and performer for A Touch of Frost and eight James Bond films – has swapped the music studio for a lecture theatre, as he receives his PhD from Leeds Beckett University.

Ray has famously collaborated with artists from Paul McCartney to Van Morrison, Art Garfunkel and Andy Williams. As part of the John Barry Seven, he played on the themes and scores for eight James Bond films between 1965 and 1983; and he composed and performed the music for 10 series of ITV’s A Touch of Frost.

He has now turned his hand to academia – receiving his PhD from the Leeds School of Arts at Leeds Beckett University, and publishing his thesis as a book which will soon be available in the University library. 

Ray’s career began in 1963 at the age of 16, when he joined the John Barry Seven. He then joined RnB band, Georgie Fame, touring America and playing alongside the Four Tops. From there, he started his career as a session musician.

Ray Russell Phd Graduation

Ray explained: “My first session was Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin and me on three guitars. Straight after that, John went to New York to join Miles Davis; and Jimmy said he was going to form a band – that would become the Yardbirds, and then of course he created Led Zeppelin.

“Working as a session musician, you build a reputation through word of mouth. When I started it was the age of the solo singer - no one had their own studios and people used to turn up with bits of paper! Some were great - like Bright Eyes for Art Garfunkel. But, it is your job to make the track sound great; and I was very lucky to live in that time.”

Ray’s big break into TV themes came when he met composer George Fenton – famous for his collaborations with Ken Loach, Richard Attenborough and Terry Gilliam. George had been offered a new TV series called Bergerac.

Ray said: “With TV themes you have to really bang the nail on the head with exactly what that programme is about. George wrote the signature tune and then I did the whole programmes’ underscore.

Music has the ability to underpin certain things emotionally and it becomes very valuable - it’s a great way to tell stories by giving a film its third dimension. However, usually you are the last in the food chain - you’re the last thing to go on, which means you get the least time.

Ray first joined Leeds Beckett University 10 years ago when he became a Visiting Professor in Music. Dr Steve Parker - Principal Lecturer in Music Technology and Production and former engineer with the Rolling Stones – was Ray’s engineer in the studio during the early days of their careers, and invited Ray to share his expertise with students.

Ray said: “I loved my time teaching at Leeds Beckett. I found some amazing students - they were so advanced and really great songsmiths.”

It was then that Ray first had the idea of doing a PhD.

He said: “Dr Bob Davis – who was one of my PhD supervisors along with Steve – suggested that I use what I was teaching as the basis for a PhD study.

“What I argue in the PhD is that – although the technology has changed over the last 30 years – the musician still uses everything at their fingertips to create and have a creative outcome to what they do.

“I used an album I was on from 15 years ago, and a new album, to show that however you record or play things, technology doesn’t have to be your master. I argue that studios are unique spaces which have a transformative effect on those who use them creatively - and that the session musician is an expert practitioner who brings their knowledge, experience and energy to enhance the expressivity and professionalism of an album.

“I also discuss the importance of having a ‘sonic signature’ – making your own distinctive sound and style that means that people instantly know they are listening to you, and not someone that just sounds like someone else.”

Ray’s PhD – and book – are called The Fluid Architecture. He explained: “It comes from a saying by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He says architecture is frozen music, music is fluid architecture. It’s a lovely phrase and what my PhD is all about – creative adaption.”

Speaking about his experience of switching from composing music to composing academic research, Ray said: “What I enjoyed most was interviewing the musicians that I played with, and hearing the amazing things they all had to say. One thing I found is that their enthusiasm and passion is exactly the same as when they started - which is great because it’s not easy to be a session musician.

“I found that session musicians had a much lower profile in the production of music than producers and artists but I had the opportunity to address this and, at least for a while, shed some light on those musicians who are so often left standing in the shadows of celebrities.”

Reflecting on the highlights of his career, Ray said: “Playing with Gil Evans and some of the older jazz guys like Art Blakey and Mark Isham was a great time for me – we were really at the onset of a big musical change.

“One of the projects I am most proud of is a film that I did the music for, called One Note at a Time, which was about the floods in New Orleans 15 years ago. It was a great film - we showed it at the Oxford Festival of the Arts and I received the Festival award for Best Score.”

In addition to Ray’s back catalogue of session recordings and film underscores, he has also composed more than 10,000 library music production tracks – and has just completed a new album of funky acoustic music tracks for the Japanese film and TV market, called Blues and Roots.

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