Ray and Vivian Chew are one of the most illustrious couples in the entertainment industry. Ray Chew is a musical director, writer, producer, arranger and pianist. He has served as musical director for many award-winning live and major televised musical events–including President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Ball, where he and First Lady Michelle Obama danced to Beyoncé Knowles’ rendition of Etta James’ “At Last,” and has worked with many acclaimed musical artists. Vivian Chew is the Founder of TimeZone International, a U.S.-based international marketing and promotion company focusing on urban artists’ global careers. She has worked with artists such as Jay-Z, Diddy, Toni Braxton and Jill Scott to name a few. Here is the story of this powerhouse couple.
Soultrain.com: Ray, what was your passion when you were growing up? Was it always music?
Ray: Music has been a life long journey for me since I had a waking eye. My father was a musician. He played piano. Since I was old enough to stand or crawl he would put me on his lap and had me in front of the piano and at the age of 5 and 6 my parents started giving me piano lessons.
Soultrain.com: Have you ever had any adversity or bullying as a child on your way up while learning your craft?
Ray: I didn’t really have that particular experience. My mother empowered me and my siblings to be who we were and to be leaders. I would say that the kinds of things I did experience were being different in terms of having a Chinese last name and an Asian/Black look. Some people tried me but I learned to fight early!
Soultrain.com: Vivian, when you were growing up, what was your passion?
Vivian: I knew pretty early that music was my passion and that was going to be the road I was going to take. However, I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t play, I couldn’t hum a key. I was a member of the First Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, and my mom was the secretary of the church. My brother was the organist and she had to find something for me to do. I was given the position of choir director and business manager for the choir, which is how I knew I was always going to be a behind the scenes person–behind artists and musicians and helping them with their careers. It all got started in the church.
Soultrain.com: Ray, what would you consider your first big break getting into the music industry? Who gave you that first opportunity to get into the business?
Ray: Melba Moore. When I was 16, I auditioned to work and travel with Melba Moore and I got the job. That was my first big break. Before that, I did a few gigs but working with Melba was my first national gig. I got to play these big auditoriums, venues and theaters all over the country and do television.
Soultrain.com: What about you, Vivian? Who gave your first big break or opportunity in the business?
Vivian: A person by the name of Louise West, who is an entertainment attorney. I was interviewing to be a partner in her law firm and I was walking past her desk. She was struggling to answer her phones, so I asked, “Do you need someone to help answer your phones?” I ended up working with her.
Soultrain.com: Ray, you have done so much in the business. You worked with The Four Tops, Dionne Warwick, Smokey Robinson and many others. I know it’s hard to pick a favorite but who are some of the people who stand out in your memory that you had the pleasure of working with?
Ray: I’d say Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. They were more than just people to work with; they treated me as family, they mentored me and personally took me under their wing and taught me many things about the business as well as life lessons. I’d go to their home on the holidays. They were also such iconic, historical singer/songwriters/producers and being able to work with them, they empowered me and entrusted me as their musical director. So the records they were producing–for themselves, Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass and others–Nick and Valerie would bring me in on those recording sessions. They are very special people to me.
Soultrain.com: For you, Vivian, in terms of music, I know you worked with Shabba Ranks and others, but besides talent, do you look for that “it” factor when you are working with artists?
Vivian: I look for people who want to work hard for themselves and their careers. When I was working with Shabba, Patra and others, I really was looking for that “it” factor for someone I could sell as a star. In my capacity at TimeZone International, it takes a lot of work on the artists’ side to educate themselves in the territory they are going into, even to changing their set list to accommodate a foreign audience. They have to really understand [that] it’s hard work and you have to have respect for the country and territory you are going to work in. That’s why I like working with a lot of independent artists, because they really grind.
Soultrain.com: Ray, what is your favorite musical instrument?
Ray: The piano and keyboards are my favorite instruments. Those are the ones I focused on, but I am also an accomplished percussionist as well and I also play drums and studied how to play the cello and the trumpet. When I was in high school I was wondering if I wanted to be a pianist or a drummer, but Nat Adderley, Jr., who worked with Luther Vandross for many years, encouraged me to concentrate on the piano.
Soultrain.com: Both of you have accomplished so many wonderful things. Ray, for you to be the musical director of the Inaugural Ball for President Obama must have been a high honor for you.
Ray: The whole historical fact of what we were a part of was a huge deal. Usually when bands are rehearsing they rehearse around the clock, but [the producers] had us stop and watch as the President was taking the oath of office. Also, President Obama handpicked everybody he wanted to be at the Inaugural Ball, and he chose all of the songs and we had a who’s who in the industry such as the Black Eyed Peas, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Sting, Stevie Wonder and others. I was in charge of seeing that all of the music was in place. It was a great moment.
Soultrain.com: Vivian, I read that the idea for your company TimeZone International came to you from driving on the highway and seeing a billboard that read, “Whenever time is on your hand, we’re here for you.”
Vivian: That was a life changer because I think I’ve always been looked upon as an overall executive and I cultivate artists in their careers, whether it’s domestic or international. But there was a time in my life I wasn’t happy. I was just going to my job everyday and I realized my true passion was travel and music, so I wondered how could I combine the two. I was blessed while working at Sony to be the liaison between the urban music department and the international music department, so I made several contacts overseas and Sony allowed me to learn the international game while I was still with the company. I decided what I truly wanted to do. So my company, going on 14 years, is the only one based in the U.S. to focus on artists’ global careers and their brands. Ray and I also own Chew Entertainment, which is a production company. I wake up every morning not only doing what I like to do, but doing it with my best friend–my husband–and that’s a blessing.
Soultrain.com: At TimeZone, you have worked with people like Jill Scott, Lil Wayne, and BeBe Winans. You also spearheaded the McDonalds’ “I’m Loving It” campaign, correct?
Vivian: I was brought on by the agency that had gotten the overall McDonalds accounts to help brand their new logo, “I’m Loving It.” That was a great experience because I got to sit in McDonalds’ headquarters and sit with all the PR companies and big marketing companies from around the world that were involved in this global campaign. TimeZone was responsible for figuring out how to reach the youth and urban demographics. We had the song “I’m Loving It,” which was recorded by Justin Timberlake, but we had eight different territories and we had to figure out how to translate that into eight different languages and cultures. We worked non-stop. It was an incredible experience.
Soultrain.com: Ray, what is it like to be the musical director for American Idol?
Ray: It’s great. It’s already a legendary show, the number one show and the biggest thing of its kind on TV. To entrust me with being musical director for the show is an honor that I take very seriously. I make sure I provide everything and beyond that is needed for the show. It’s very gratifying to see my name in the credits for a show in the number one time slot.
Soultrain.com: Either one of you can answer this question. How did the two of you meet?
Vivian: Ray and I knew each other when he was a musician on the circuit and I was an executive. So we bumped into each other a lot in a club that is no longer in existence on East 7th and Columbus Avenue in New York, where lots of artist like Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Phyllis Hyman would go to. Ray would perform there a lot and I would always notice him. So Ray set up a meeting to listen to some music when I was at Sony. So it didn’t take long for us to look at each other differently and that’s how we met and we married shortly thereafter. That’s pretty much it, right Ray?
Ray: She also slipped something in my drink!
Vivan: (laughs) As you can see, we have a lot of fun as a couple!
Soultrain.com: I think that’s really important being a married couple in the entertainment industry when there are so many things that can pull couples apart. With all the pressures in the business, how do you two maintain the closeness and fun that you have while working in the entertainment industry?
Ray: I would say with all candor you have to maintain a sense of humor of life in general and as a couple you have to agree not to take everything so serious that’s going to occupy all of your emotions. So if you’re going to let the first rocky road trip you up it is going to be tough and even when it does get tough, you better be able to chuckle about it a little bit. You’ve got to find a way to tread lightly on some things and get through it. So that’s my approach.
Vivian: It’s also about having respect for one another, our strengths and weaknesses. You have to have your partner’s back. We believe in each other. We lift each other up and we have God in the middle of our relationship. God is the third person in this 15-year marriage and as long as we keep Him in there, we will be okay.
Soultrain.com: Ray, recently you were appointed as the executive producer for the 2012 Harlem Jazz Music Festival. That must be another great honor for you?
Ray: It is! I’m very excited about it. It was started by Tito Puente, Harry Belafonte, Chuck Jackson, Nancy Wilson and Frank Sinatra. This is something they had the vision to say we want to have a music festival that is going to be for the community.
Soultrain.com: Vivian, you have a campaign to bring an artist named Jo-Jo back onto the music scene, right? (not to be confused with Jo-Jo from the group Jodeci)
Vivian: Yes. She was my client many years ago when she was 14 years old. She is now 21 years old. She is one of the artists on Blackground Records, which was the late Aaliyah’s label. She has a new song called “Demonstrate” and we have started our national campaign for her. It was exciting to see that she was number one in many parts of the world.
Soultrain.com: Please discuss the foundation you both founded called Power to Inspire, in which you work with young people.
Ray: My mother was a community activist. She worked with gangs and kids in distress. So I always had that instilled in me–for one hand to reach and touch another and that we are part of a community. What we’re looking to do with Power to Inspire is to help inspire and motivate those who have demonstrated an aptitude to make the entertainment industry their profession. We want to take those people and help them with that transition, because it is a difficult one in the sense that just because you go to college doesn’t mean you’re going to get a job. So that’s our focus: To help those in the entertainment field transition into the professional ranks.
Soultrain.com: Is there anything in the entertainment business that you two want to do that you haven’t done as of yet?
Vivian: I don’t know if you would classify this as being in the entertainment business, but since I have been blessed to step foot on six of the seven continents it is my plan to go to Antarctica. That is number one on my bucket list.
Ray: I am blessed to be working in my chosen field and hobby so I want to continue doing what I love to do–making music and doing more music and developing artists like my daughter Bianca Raquel.
Vivian: Our daughter opened for Dwele on August 31st. Her website is www.biancaraquel.com and you can follow her at @bbiancaraquel on Twitter and she is also on Facebook. She is an artist in her own right, she is a producer and songwriter at the young age of 21.
Soultrain.com: Do you two have a word of wisdom you want to share with the readers of soultrain.com?
Vivian: Never give up.
Ray: It’s about achievement. You have to bridge the gap between potential and achievement and you have a dream, start doing it. You’ve got to put it into action.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.