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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Cover Story

LEN RAINEY: Still Standing After All These Years

by Jim TrageserFebruary 2024

Len Rainey. Photo by Dan Chusid.

Talk to Len Rainey about the three and a half decades he’s been playing music for a living in San Diego with his band the Midnight Players; he sounds somewhat surprised that so many years have gone by so very quickly. But he also expresses gratitude for the here and now, for the fans who continue to support his accessible blend of R&B and blues.

“The band was started in 1986,” he said during a recent conversation. “(Saxophonist) Tony Matoian is still with me.”

“We’ve had a good run—37 years around Southern California—been everywhere from Japan to Costa Rica. I’ve opened for a lot of people, from John Mayall to Chaka Khan to B.B. King. Lazy Lester to Big Jay McNeely and Gerald Albright. We opened for Los Lobos in Rosarito, Mexico. We also opened for Joe Walsh in Oceanside. I used to open for Bobby Blue Bland at the Bacchanal.

“I think I’ve played everywhere in the U.S. except for five states. Been to Japan, Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico; it’s amazing that a bass guitar can take you around the world. The band’s been together 37 years now, and we’ve never had a month off. Even during COVID, we did some livestreams to keep the chops up! Thirty-seven years, going on 38, and I’m still standing!”

Of course, his musical journey started long before he came to San Diego to visit his brother.

Midwestern Roots
“I was born in Oklahoma 67 years ago, but was raised between Milwaukee and Chicago in a little town called Kenosha. I was raised there and played music between Milwaukee and Chicago.”

Rainey said he didn’t come from a particularly musical family. The youngest of three sons, neither of his brothers played music. One brother carved out a career in the military, the other as an artist. Their father played guitar around the house, Rainey remembered, but “nothing professional. I just happened to fall into it.

“I started out playing guitar and drums. I started playing at nine, ten years old. I took lessons for about six weeks. After that, I just started playing with older people. I ended up playing bass right before high school. I played a little stand-up, but you couldn’t carry that damn thing around. I was playing a lot of different rock ’n’ roll.”

While Rainey’s oeuvre in San Diego has been in blues, R&B, and blues rock, he started out playing straight-ahead rock, he said. In fact, the two bassists whose playing caught the ear of a young Len Rainey and led him from guitar to bass were Tiran Porter of the Doobie Brothers and Carol Kaye of the renowned studio collective informally known as the Wrecking Crew. She did all those  riffs—that’s why I play with a pick!”

While a teenager, the rock bands he was in would cover everything from Yes to Rush, as well as jazz fusion. He did cite legendary Motown studio bassist James Jamerson Sr. as another influence on his bass playing.

“I played a lot of different jazz fusion stuff back in the day. I really didn’t start playing a lot of blues until I came out here. I was playing jazz, fusion, rock ‘n’ roll, bluesy stuff, but not really heavy blues until I came out here.”

When asked what he listened to as a kid, Rainey said he never really collected records, “But I was into Stevie Wonder. I liked the lyrics, I’ve always been a word kind of guy.”

Rainey at the Temecula Blues Festival, 2023.

Asked about any favorite concerts he saw as a kid, he said he wasn’t a “concert kind of guy” either. But after a short pause, a memory hit him: “The first one was Marvin Gaye with the Temptations and Nancy Wilson. Archie Bell was in that concert. That was my first really long concert. I think Archie Bell opened, then Nancy Wilson came on, then the Temptations, then Marvin. I learned a lot from Nancy Wilson—just her performance, her attitude on stage.”

But by then, Rainey was already watching a live show through the eyes of a fellow performer, a professional.

“I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old. Even when I think about high school, I think about playing.”

Early Career
“I was 16, 17, hanging out with Little Milton, Z.Z. Hill, being so close to Chicago right across the state line. You could drink at 18 in Wisconsin. Little Milton would come over, ZZ Hill would come to town. He’d get me to play rhythm guitar behind him.

“I played all those Chicago bars and all those Milwaukee bars.” Rainey said his gigs soon extended further abroad, east to Ohio, south through Illinois, and Missouri.

When he was a few years older, he joined a band called Xanadu. “We played jazz classics, folk, and funk.” That took him to yet more parts of the country: the Dakotas, Nebraska, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Florida, the Carolinas, Texas, and Arkansas. We opened for Ricky Nelson in Lima, Ohio, right before he passed.” Another time, they shared a bill in Indiana with the Ohio Players. “Those guys were funky as hell. We also opened up for Fleetwood Mac in Vegas one time.

“Another highlight was backing novelty and old-timey singer Tiny Tim. “I met him in Kentucky. We played a place called the Toy Tiger in Louisville.”

Even with all that traveling and playing, though, Rainey said he held down a day job to make sure the bills got paid, including a long stint at Abbot Labs in North Chicago.

The Move West
In the midst of a typical Chicago winter in 1986, Rainey said he decided to come visit his brother in San Diego. “I was playing back in the Midwest with Xanadu, then my older brother was a military guy who moved out here for his health. When I got here out here in January, it was gorgeous. I was, ‘Okay, I’m moving to California.’ I wasn’t planning on playing music, I was working in the hospitality industry. A month later, I left my name with some music stores, and a guy called me. One thing led to another, and two months later I’m playing. One of my first shows was with T, [the blues deejay] at [jazz station] KSDS.”

A taste of Len Rainey and the Midnight Players.

Rainey said a turning point in his music career was connecting with the late keyboardist Mighty Joe Longa, who introduced him to everyone, from local bluesman Tomcat Courtney to jump blues revivalist and music journalist Buddy Blue. “When my kids were born, Buddy Blue gave them a Batman action figure. They still have it today!”

Within a year, Rainey had formed the Midnight Players and was able to quit his job in hospitality and has made his living strictly off his music ever since.

“Nobody wanted to put their name on the band, so I just started saying Midnight Players. We were always playing around midnight. I ended up singing and playing bass. It was blues rock, rocking blues. I’m more of a rock and blues guy; I’m not a real heavy, heavy blues guy. I like to add fusion and things. Someone compared me to Robert Cray, with a heavier backbeat. That type of blues. Not so much B.B. King or Leadbelly.”

Johnny Vernazza, Len Rainey, Walter Gentry.

If Rainey arrived late to San Diego with regard to his own career, he quickly became deeply enmeshed in his adopted home’s music community and history.

When Ingrid Croce opened the Top Hat Club in the Gaslamp and hired Rainey as house band, Tomcat Courtney and Fro Brigham both held regular gigs at Patrick’s II, right across the alley. Rainey said he’d hang out in the alley between sets, catching up with Brigham or Courtney when they were between sets. Brigham, in particular, would “give me a lesson on local music history back stage, while Tomcat gave me the discipline to play blues. He and Tomcat were my mentors when I first got here.”

He also met and performed with other San Diego music luminaries, including saxophonist Hollis Gentry III and singer Ella Ruth Piggee. “Ella Ruth and I got to be friends before she died. One time, she came in and she did some stuff with Fro.” Rainey also pointed out that he’s sharing a bill with San Diego bluesman Bill Magee this coming June.

While longtime guitarist Victor Marquez is no longer in the band, Rainey said the core of the band has been pretty stable over the years, including fellow founding member, saxophonist Tony Matoian.

“Michael Minor, the drummer, has been with me off and on for 20 years. A.J Peterson, the guitarist, has been with me about a year. Even my substitute guys have been around 20 years.”

Rainey at Gator by the Bay.

Rainey said he’s had few personality clashes in the band over the years, and said he’s only ever had to fire one or two players in more than three decades. The hardest part to adding a new sub to the rotation, he said, is finding players who can quickly pick up on his original songs.

He’s issued one cassette and four CDs over the years, with a mix of covers and original, a pattern he sticks to in his live sets. Rainey said he has more than two dozen of his own songs in the band’s regular rotation.

His songwriting process leans more toward inspiration than perspiration, he said, with melodies or lyrics coming to him pretty quickly. However, he also added that he has quite a few partially written songs still waiting to be completed.

His two sons are now grown and on their own. He said one son dabbled in rap for a bit, but ultimately neither chose music as a career. With an empty nest, Rainey said he’s thinking about recording a new CD and then booking a mini-tour to promote it. He wants to pull together some dates back in Chicago and maybe down in Arkansas, where he has some cousins on his father’s side. His success has also allowed him to be pickier about what gigs he does take, saying he’s cut down to about 100 gigs a year, plus private events.

“I’m at the point I don’t have to play a dive bar unless I want to!”

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