A force of love and nature: Remembering Ray Villadonga, a linchpin of the Tampa Bay music scene

He died on June 10 at the age of 62.

click to enlarge Ray Villadonga (R) jokes with WMNF station manager Craig Kopp. Villadonga passed away on June 10, 2017. - WMNF/PAMELA ROBINSON
WMNF/Pamela Robinson
Ray Villadonga (R) jokes with WMNF station manager Craig Kopp. Villadonga passed away on June 10, 2017.

There was the love. And there were the hugs.

Anyone who knew Tampa bass player, historian and WMNF radio personality Ray Villadonga always mentions the love he had for music, his city’s history and the family who supported him every step of the way. Literally everybody talks about the hugs, which Ray was quick to dole out to friends and family whether they were at a concert, having a heart-to-heart or randomly running into Villadonga at the grocery store.

“The smile pretty much says it all and the hug said the rest,” Tampa songwriter Ronny Elliott told CL. “He was bigger than life and sweeter than flan. Two people in my life told me that they loved me every time I saw them. One was my mother, [and the other] was Ray.”

On June 10, those hugs were put to rest when the Bay area scene legend finally gave in to the stage-four pancreatic cancer he’d been diagnosed with one year ago.

Even with chemotherapy, Villadonga knew he was on borrowed time. The Tampa Catholic graduate recently made the most of a mini family vacation to Anna Maria Island, where they celebrated his 62nd birthday. He battled cancer with courage, powering through every treatment and even playing gigs with world fusion band WAHH and rock outfit The Lint Rollers as recently as one month ago. Friends said the music kept Villadonga alive, but his eternal positivity through it all enhanced their lives as well. He finally stopped treatment in in April, though; he knew it wasn’t helping anymore.

Read: Tampa Bay reacts to the death of music scene legend Ray Villadonga

In his final days, Villadonga — who many referred to as Rayzilla — was surrounded by friends and family. His loyal nine-year-old chihuahua Jaco Pastorius Viladonga never left his side. He is survived by two grown children, Katrina and Ramon Villadonga, plus his ex-wife Deborah MCCourt, whom Katrina told CL was the love of his life. “They never remarried,” Katarina said, “but she was with him to the end.”

Poet and collaborator Rhonda J. Nelson told CL that Villadonga spent his last week on Earth surrounded by seemingly anyone who wanted to pay their last respects, adding that Villadonga’s family is one of the most supportive and loving she’s ever seen. “A lot of people would have shut it down and made it private. Instead, the day before [he died] was like an open house. People that were close to him were welcome to see him one last time. Just like everything else in Ray’s life, it was very loud and very substantive,” Nelson explained.

Villadonga’s life certainly was loud and substantive. It was also impassioned, outspoken, encyclopedic and caring. There wasn’t a soul he met that could possibly forget Ray or the way he could also listen to you as if you were the only person in the room. His energy was infectious. His intelligence, baffling. His commitment to Tampa, unshakeable. And his friendship, unwavering.

Rayzilla's Dreamboats present 10 Earflix at Skipper's Smokehouse

Even if you’d never met Villadonga, his music could do the talking. He was always making it, and WAHH even recently completed recording tracks with Villadonga — the band is titling the effort Brother Ray, and hopes to have it out in the fall. CL’s former music editor Leilani Polk described 10 Earflix, Villadonga’s masterful 2016 release with his band the Dreamboats, as “a bold and vibrant” record that bounces around Italian polka, afro-pop, Latin jazz and gospel-soaked New Orleans zydeco with ease. Villadonga had a way of doing that, and he had a way of making everyone in his band feel like they were making the most important music of their lives.

“It didn't matter if I was booking a metal act, a rap act, or a rock act, Ray was pretty sure his band would be a good fit to open,” Sean O’Brien, a local promoter who met Villadonga eons ago, told CL. “He'd always say, ‘You know we bring the party baby!’"

“Ray was outspoken because he cared. He was always doing something new and he always wanted CL to know what he was up to,” Polk said, adding that it’s always sad when the scene loses someone like Villadonga. “He was active and always at other people’s shows. He was simply a hardworking musician, never wanted to be super famous and never aspired to be this big, gigantic thing.”

And by not trying to gigantic, by only being himself, Villadonga ended up being larger than life.

And by not trying to gigantic, by only being himself, Villadonga ended up being larger than life.

Not even his love for the music he made in this city, however, could ever outshine his own love of his family and children. Villadonga’s own dad died when he was very young, so Ray made sure to be involved in every aspect of his kids’ lives, whether it was Ramon’s soccer playing or Katrina’s horseback riding. He would do anything for them and his twin nieces.

“To say he was doting would be an understatement. He brought all of that passionate, frenetic energy to his children,” Nelson said. “He was like their star.”

Katrina agrees and says that Ray Villadonga the father wasn’t much different from the musician whose boundless energy led him to share his passion with the world. Despite living in different homes, Katrina and her brother would have dinner with dad almost every Sunday because “family is forever.” She added that her dad was always pushing them to be better people, to love harder and live better lives. “He was so loving even when my brother and I tested his patience. He never stopped showering us in love.”

Ray Villadonga was also going to be a grandfather. Katrina’s son, Gabriel R.J. Francois, is due on October 18. The “R” stands for “Ray,” and the little guy Villadonga was so excited about is going to know a lot about grandpa.

“I’m going to tell him everything and anything. I'm going to make sure he knows just how much his grandpa loved him. I'm going to tell Gabriel all the stories of my childhood and how I'm only the person I am today because of [dad].” Katrina said. “My dad meant everything to his children."

He meant everything to the Tampa music scene, too. And we may never be able to fill in the footprint he left behind.

Click here to read more remembrances of Villadonga. Watch Fred Smith's great video interview with him here.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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