Jo Lea Starling
by Scooter Pirtle
Originally published May 1993.
Click here to access an mp3 file containing an audio program about Ray Starling produced by The Middle Horn Leader.
When a discussion begins about the Kenton mellophonium section, it doesn't take long for the name of Ray Starling to enter the conversation. Starling joined the Kenton Orchestra in 1961 and was part of some of the most remembered recording sessions including Johnny Richards’ heralded Adventures in Time.
Starling produced some great arrangements for Kenton, but his versatility as a jazz mellophonist, trumpeter, pianist and arranger lured him to the many opportunities in New York and away from the Kenton Orchestra.
Jo Lea Starling met Ray on her first professional singing job in 1955. One year later they were married and traveled as a performing duo for two years.
The Starlings somehow found time to have a son and two daughters. The family is remembered quite fondly by many of the attendees of the band camps given by the Kenton Orchestra to young music students during the summer months in 1962.
Following Starling's stint with Kenton, Ray and Jo Lea had a four-person vocal group called, appropriately, The Starlings. Ray provided the musical arrangements for the four part harmony group that featured Jo Lea and worked the Sheraton chain of hotels.
Ray's orchestral arrangements were performed by the 16 piece Bob Cleveland Orchestra in which included Ray as a member and Jo Lea as a vocalist This ensemble performed at Shea Stadium during football games featuring the New York Jets and their big star Joe Namath.
The prolific careers of Ray and Jo Lea took their toll on the family in 1971 when the two divorced. Ray kept himself very busy working on new projects and arranging, focusing his talents on the piano. Stricken with cancer, Ray died in Arizona on May 15, 1982 at the age of forty-nine.
Jo Lea continues with her career. As recently as last summer, she performed at the legendary "Three Musketeers" located in Central Copenhagen, Denmark. Jazz is heavily supported throughout Europe and Jo Lea enjoys the respect that accompanies American jazz performers.
Currently, Jo Lea is putting together a new trio that will be performing in Europe by mid-July. "We'll probably start performing in Asia at some of the bigger hotels and then move on to Switzerland," commented Jo Lea, ''These hotels haven't established their regular entertainment yet. The gentleman that is doing the booking is getting in on the ground floor."
Jo Lea is planning to record an album after returning from the tour.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jo Lea Starling on April 5, 1993.
Scooter Pirtle: Where in England was Ray born?
Jo Lea Starting: He was born in a suburb of London. He came to United States when he was 16 with his mother and his two other brothers. He had studied piano when he was a child. They resided in Brooklyn. I'm originally from New Jersey, but I met Ray after I got out of school.
When he came to the United States he started studying trumpet and become quite a master on the trumpet. That's what he was playing when I met him. Then, of course, he could go back and forth with other instruments, as well. He had the basic piano training. He was practicing some "reading" and was getting that under his belt when I met him. I cannot remember who the person was, but someone was working with Ray on orchestration, composition and theory. As you know, he recorded some of the harder arrangements. He really began to be an excellent reader and then stretched out into the arrangement areas as well as the performance area.
SP: So you guys were married in 1956 and performed together until Ray joined the Kenton Orchestra in 1961?
JS: Well, it wasn't an ongoing thing. Ray was in and out of town with certain bands. He played with Kai Winding, Ray Eberly, Claude Thornhill, and many others. A lot of club dates.
SP: Was there a lot of touring?
JS: His biggest tours were with Kenton and Buddy Rich.
SP: Had Ray played the mellophone before he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra?
JS: Oh yes. He had a mellophone and started playing it before he played mellophonium In the Kenton Orchestra.
SP: How did Ray become a part of the Kenton Orchestra?
JS: I don't really remember, but I'm sure that he knew some of the guys that were In the band and was probably recommended by some of those members or they may have been coming to New York and needed players.
SP: Where did you guys live when Ray was in the Kenton Orchestra?
JS: We had a home In Flushing, New York and that's where I still live.
SP: Ray contributed some great arrangements to the Kenton Orchestra.
JS: One of his original tunes was titled Mellophobia. Another one of the original tunes was Ghengis Kahn. He also did a really nice arrangement of a tune called Little Old Lady. You might be interested to know that his arrangement of Tuxedo Junction was one of the few arrangements where Stan allowed someone, besides himself, to play piano for the orchestra. Ray set the precedent.
Stan, basically, was the tall figure head in front of the band with the white hair flying. I'm sure he recognized Ray's talent with the piano as well as the mellophonium. The piano was an instrument Ray really "leaned on" in later years. At the time he was with Kenton, the mellophonium was his Instrument. He could switch to piano very easily.
SP: What type of formal training did Ray have?
JS: His music training occurred before he came to the U.S. as far as the piano is concerned. He took trumpet lessons after he got to the States. Once he built up his embouchure, he transferred what he had in his head to that.
His mother, Eileen, was a concert violinist. She was quite accomplished and toured Europe as a concert violinist. So Ray was from a music background, even though it wasn’t
SP: What about Joel Kaye? Were Ray and Joel pretty close?
JS: Yes. They bath lived in Flushing, New York. Whenever they were recording in Hollywood at Capital Records, Joel was there and I was there with Ray. We were kind of living in the same place at this hotel in the middle of Hollywood. The guys would record, come home and then we would all get together and eat. That particular period lasted for a couple of months. The hotel had a little kitchenette and a pool, so you could hang out. At that time Hollywood wasn't quite like it is now. The guys were working some gigs at night, but they were basically doing these albums after they had come off the road.
SP: When Ray and Joel left the band they started the New York Soundstage Orchestra #1. How was Ray involved with that?
JS: Ray was the whole thing! I was a singer for that band.
SP: Explain that ensemble.
JS: Ray had featured a few very well known singers including Tony Bennett. He had a couple of concert "type" activities that went on here In Manhattan-black tie and that type of thing. There were also a lot of promotional things. The band was very large and didn't go out on the road. It was a vehicle for Ray to do some very nice arrangements. Unfortunately, nobody knows what's happened to those arrangements. Joel has even been over here to the house asking me about them and I don't know where they are.
At the time It was very elegant, but short-lived. Ray's personality was such that he always had to have a project. If he wasn't writing for somebody, he would start writing for himself. If he had the opportunity in a different way for a different size ensemble, he would do it, even If It meant he had to create a band for his writing. I think that's what he did with the New York Soundstage Orchestra.
SP: What about the Neophonic Orchestra?
JS: The New York Neophonic Orchestra was something that Joel Kaye started. Ray had done all of the arrangements and wanted to do something else. Ray left and the Soundstage #1 became the New York Neophonic Orchestra.
SP: Ray also performed with this group, didn't he?
JS: Oh yes. He briefly played piano with the ensemble.
SP: Ray had a long involvement playing arrangements by Johnny Richards.
JS: Adventures in Time. I was there the day Johnny passed out the arrangements. The band almost fell on the floor because of its complicated time signatures! They got the charts In Michigan when the band was on the road.
SP: What was Ray's reaction to the music?
JS: The Initial reaction was, “What is this? What's going on here?" However, when Johnny conducted it and they got It all going In the rehearsal, It came together. It was unbelievable. It wasn't simple, it was very complicated, very Intricate.
SP: Ray recorded two albums with Johnny Richards' Orchestra. Joel Kaye was also in that orchestra. Ray played solo mellophonium on My Fair Lady--My Way in 1964, and then the album Spanish Spoken Here in December 1966, less than two years before Johnny Richards died. This was probably his last recording with a mellophonium. Do you remember if he played mellophonium after his last album with Richards?
JS: Probably not. He started playing piano quite a bit. There may have been some isolated instances here in the city, but I couldn't say definitely. People knew he was a mellophonium player, but he was a piano player. Unless you’re traveling with a big band, it’s much simpler to be a piano player than a mellophonium player. As far as making money and earning is living, he basically was doing piano and arranging.
SP: Was there a good relationship between Ray and Johnny Richards?
JS: Oh yes, very good. He had a lot of respect for Johnny and he loved that challenge—the difficulty, the time signature and the whole musical concept. Ray loved that. It was a real satisfying thing for him to get into that. I think Johnny plugged into Ray’s musical abilities pretty well.
SP: Sometime during all of this you guys managed to have two daughters and one son. Are they involved in music careers?
JS: Angel, my second daughter, is involved in singing, but not jazz singing. She’s involved in rock, but mellow rock. She’s quite a performer and has done pretty well. Raymond is a guitar player and is currently playing bass with a couple of groups. He also sings. He’s quite involved in music and is even a disc jockey somewhere in Manhattan. Lita Starling-Vita, my married daughter, is a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
SP: Ray spent his last years in Phoenix. Why?
JS: Ray was traveling a little bit here and there. At that point he was out of my life. He had first gone to Nashville, then Texas, then Phoenix. Maybe he was working his way back toward California.
Reference Links from the Ray Starling Podcast
The following albums are referenced in the Ray Starling podcast. Click the album image to access the site where these albums can be purchased.