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Rockabilly rebel Ray Campi still stirs the fire

Campi highlights his own 78th birthday bash at Viva Cantina.

April 14, 2012|By Jonny Whiteside
  • Rockabilly pioneer Ray Campi and his upright bass at his home in Los Angeles. Campi will perform at Burbank's Viva Cantina to celebrate his 78th birthday.
Rockabilly pioneer Ray Campi and his upright bass at his… (Raul Roa / Staff…)

Witnessing rockabilly originator Ray Campi in performance can be an unforgettable experience. Decked out in colorful, custom-tailored western wardrobe, letting fly with a biting vocal style reminiscent of a rebel war cry while balanced, mid-air, atop his full-size acoustic upright bass, one would never guess that the veteran singer-musician is fast approaching his 78th year.

Campi has always been a bundle of contradictions, one who has released 60 full-length albums, shared stages with the likes of Gene Vincent, Conway Twitty, Bob Luman and Sonny James, played to massive audiences at European festivals but has also worked as bowling alley pin setter, Ferris wheel operator, lingerie salesman and, for 30 years, as a high school teacher in Van Nuys.

The Austin, Texas-raised Campi, who will celebrate his 78th birthday with an April 21 performance at Burbank's Viva Cantina, has indulged in a life-long romance with country and rockabilly. It's taken him on a remarkable first-hand safari through American music. “I saw 'em all,” Campi said. “I saw Hank Snow — he was such a fantastic singer and guitar player. I saw Hank Williams Sr. — in fact I still have the program guide from that night's show.”


His life as a performer began while he was still in high school, when he formed his first band, Ramblin' Ray & the Ramblers. While the Ramblers were a local success, with a healthy schedule of dance jobs and two regular radio shows, it wasn't until local juke boxes began featuring records by the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis that Campi's musical interests morphed into a full-blown avocation.

In 1956, he jumped headlong into the rockabilly revolution, recording prized classic “Caterpillar,” a record that did well locally but never gained a national audience. A series of additional 45 releases followed (“It Ain't Me,” “My Screamin' Screamin' Mimi”), on labels such as the San Antonio indie TNT to the prestigious Dot imprint, but as Campi recently said, “The music business was always cruel, especially to a bunch of kids.”

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