The spirit of Billie Holiday brought Ray Shell full circle with Diana Ross. He first met the legendary Motown vocalist during the 1980s when she took her children to see Starlight Express in London. Decades after originating the lead role of "Rusty the Steam Engine", Shell was now standing with the singer's son Evan Ross on the set of Lee Daniels' film The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021). "I introduced myself to Evan," Shell recalls. "He said [exclaims] 'It's you! We still have pictures of you and the cast downstairs in our basement!' He called Diana Ross — 'I'm with Rusty!'"
That kind of serendipity is the foundation of Shell's career. 50 years ago, he landed his first professional Equity role in The Me Nobody Knows (1971), winning rave reviews from the Philadelphia Daily News for his rendition of "What Happens to Life". After performing with the "Mercury Tribe" in the national touring company of Hair, Shell arrived in New York where he found his own version of Oz and struck a lifelong friendship with "The Wiz" himself, André De Shields. He performed in two Off Broadway productions, The Dirtiest Musical (1975) and Dementos (1980), working with Nell Carter, Marc Shaiman, and a whole community of New York-based actors, singers, and musicians who'd influence cabaret and musical theater for decades to come.
Shell first visited London in 1978, performing the title character in Little Willie Jr.'s Resurrection — "The First Soul Gospel Musical" — before continuing a career trajectory that's long defied convention. He starred in Menahem Golan's The Apple (1980), a campy science fiction musical that turned a funhouse mirror on the music industry, while experiencing the machinations of the business firsthand as a solo artist on EMI Records. After releasing a cover of Kate Bush's "Them Heavy People" (1981), he formed Ray Shell & the Street Angels, sang lead with '80s funk band Art School & the Mighty Motor Gang, and established Total Artist in Production (TAIP) at Pineapple Studios in London where he taught acting, singing, and writing ...
[Click to read more of Ray Shell's interview with Christian John Wikane for PopMatters.]