The British prog rock legend was 73
Legendary British musician and producer Raymond Shulman passed away on March 30th after a lengthy illness.
Shulman was 73 years old and is survived by his wife, Barbara Tanner, and his older brothers, Derek and Phil Shulman, with whom he founded the 1970s-era prog-rock band Gentle Giant. Shulman’s death was confirmed by the band on their social media accounts.
Raymond Shulman was born in Portsmouth, in South England, to a musical family. His father was a trumpet player in a jazz band, and young Ray picked up on the instrument at an early age. He went on to learn violin and guitar and was slated to join the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain when his older brother Derek enlisted him into his band, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Signed to EMI’s Parlophone Records imprint, they were pushed by the label away from their preferred R&B-tinged “blue eyed soul” sound towards psychedelic pop, and scored a Top 10 hit on the U.K. singles chart in 1967 with the song “Kites.” They released a studio album, Without Reservations, later that year and would call upon the talents of a then-unknown keyboard wizard named Reginald Dwight (later known as Elton John) for a tour of Scotland.
Disenchanted by the pop-rock musical straitjacket they were being forced into, the brothers Shulman broke up Simon Dupree and the Big Sound in 1969 and went in an entirely different creative direction, bringing in oldest brother Phil (who had been Simon Dupree’s manager) and forming prog-rock pioneers Gentle Giant. In a 1975 interview with Zig Zag magazine’s Paul Weir, Ray Shulman said “we knew we couldn’t continue with the musicians we’d had before. We weren’t interested in the other musicians in the band – they couldn’t contribute anything. We had to teach them what to do…it got stupid having a band like (that). The first thing was to get some musicians of a higher standard.”
To this end, the brothers recruited multi-instrumental talents Gary Green and Kerry Minnear, along with former Simon Dupree drummer Martin Smith, to pursue a more complex and satisfying musical direction. From 1970 through the band’s final tour in 1980, Ray Shulman and keyboardist Minnear wrote or co-wrote much of Gentle Giant’s music, with Shulman contributing guitar, bass, trumpet, percussion and backing vocals to the band’s eleven studio albums, including such landmark works as 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, 1972’s Octopus, and 1975’s Free Hand. With Gentle Giant’s bandmembers feeling that they had lost their way musically, the band mutually agreed to break up after a 1980 tour in support of their final album, Civilian. Sadly, the band never enjoyed a level of commercial success to match their critical acclaim.
VIDEO: Gentle Giant 1980 Civilian Tour clips
After Gentle Giant’s break-up, Shulman began writing music for TV commercials, most notably for Nike Air Jordan and Budweiser, before moving into record production. He produced The Sugarcubes’ Platinum-selling 1988 album Life’s Too Good, as well as albums by The Sundays (1990’s Reading, Writing and Arithmetic), former Echo & the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch (1992’s Mysterio), The Trash Can Sinatras (1993’s I’ve Seen Everything), and A.R. Kane (1988’s 69 album, on which he also plays bass), among others. Shulman founded Orinoco Sound Source with partner Tom Astor to provide audio for video games, providing music and dialogue for high-profile projects like Privateer 2: The Darkening and Azrael’s Tears. Shulman also composed the score for the documentary film African Skies, which he co-produced with his nephew Simon King, an award-winning natural history cameraman for the BBC, and Shulman later produced concert videos for bands like Queen and Genesis.
Over the years, the Shulman brothers have steadfastly refused any sort of Gentle Giant reunion, feeling that they’d said all they had to say. Reappraisal of the band’s catalog of music has earned Shulman a well-deserved reputation as a groundbreaking bass guitarist on par with Chris Squire of Yes. Writing for Bass Player Magazine in 1994, columnist Thomas Wictor states that “Ray Shulman certainly qualifies as one of the most creative and innovative bassists ever. He weaves unbelievably complex and confounding lines that draw on medieval, classical, funk, rock, and jazz influences. His attack often sounds like a cross between picking and slapping, adding intensity and power to his already unforgettable licks.”
In a 2014 interview with Jester Jay Goldman for the Spectrum Culture website, Shulman addressed Gentle Giant’s legacy and the band’s inability to break through to a mass audience similar to contemporaries like Yes and Genesis. “In order to continue, we always wanted to grow the audience,” he said. “We were very aware that our early stuff was quite sophisticated. In a certain way, you almost needed to be a musician to understand it. As you say, a lot of our contemporaries were crossing over to a more mainstream audience. That must have been on our minds at the time, but there was always something holding us back.
“We could never quite fully do it. Even though on surface, we’d write a kind of commercial song, we’d always have to throw in something weird to entertain ourselves. But unfortunately, that also alienated the mass audience. It was never meant to be a mass audience kind of music. It should have just remained part of the underground, really.”
Rest easy, Mr. Shulman.