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The Multitudes of Ray Charles
Rhythm & blues, rock, pop, soul, jazz and country—Charles did them all and also helped launch Impulse Records. Plus: a short tribute to Bill Russell
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Before delving into this edition’s essay, I wanted to share how extremely gratified I have been by the response to my previous essay on Elvis Presley in Nashville. There has been over 1,000 views of it so far (a first for ‘Listening Sessions’!) and it’s been featured on the Elvis Day by Day website and the Elvis Information Network. Thank you Kees and Piers for the support! The piece also helped me get over the 300 subscriber hurdle. Many thanks to you all for finding value in what I am doing. Your encouragement and endorsement is profoundly appreciated.
This time around, the spotlight is on Ray Charles. Few artists crossed as many genres as Charles did. While the below essay focuses on a big-band album he recorded in late 1960 to help launch Impulse! Records (one of the most important jazz labels of the sixties), it’s also a celebration of Charles’ broad reach across the worlds of rhythm & blues, rock, pop, soul, jazz and country.
Coming up a bit later this month will be look at singer and songwriter Del Shannon and in particular, his under-the-radar psychedelic masterwork The Continuing Adventures of Charles Westover.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all.
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The piano player begins with Beethoven. ‘Für Elise’ to be precise. After playing the opening phrase, he repeats it as per the score but soon the single-note line shifts, decidedly not as per the score, and the rhythm leaves the concert hall and enters a Harlem juke joint or a Baptist church. The piano player commences to orate a lament.
Hmmmmmmm mmmmm mmmm
ah hmmmmm mmm mmmmmmm
You know, sometimes, SOMETIME, you know
That IIIIIII get a little worried now
but I don’t care, I don’t care, because it’s
it’s all - l - l - l - l - l - l - l - WHOA - WHOA - right
I say it’s all riggghhhttt, that’s because………..
I Got a Woman…
The band falls in and off goes Ray Charles to sing and play one of his signature songs, ‘I’ve Got a Woman,’ for the next five minutes. Two verses, a tenor saxophone solo, the chorus and then an extended coda, Charles unwilling to let go of singing the praises of his woman. The groove is locomotive tight. Charles is seized by the spirit.
Welcome to the introduction of an episode of Shindig!, circa 1965: Ray Charles headlining along with the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers and the Zombies, among the many, as long as your arm and then some, inspired and indebted to him.
With the passage of time, Ray Charles’ influence may be diminished to a certain extent. It’s been almost 20 years since his chart-topping duets collection, Genius Loves Company, released shortly after his passing and timed to Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning turn in the biopic Ray. Even more salient for a certain generation, it’s been over 35 years since the legendary sequence in The Cosby Show when the Huxtable clan lip-synched to Charles’ recording of ‘Night Time is the Right Time’ (damn Cosby but it's hard to dismiss the show’s legacy of exposing a generation of kids, me included, to Black excellence).
Today, in an era of narrowcasting, Ray Charles, aka the Genius (the moniker his fellow musicians bestowed on him in the fifties), aka Brother Ray (the moniker he preferred to be known by), is a tonic. Rhythm & blues, rock, pop, soul, jazz and country—Charles did them all and persuasively so.
In fact, it’s not a stretch to put forward that the greatest argument that rock and roll was not destined to be a passing fad was the music of Ray Charles. His best recordings on Atlantic form a formidable canon: ‘Mess Around,’ ‘This Little Girl of Mine,’ ‘Drown in My Own Tears,’ ‘Mary Ann,’ ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So,’ the aforementioned ‘I’ve Got a Woman’ and ‘Night Time is the Right Time,’ ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘Let the Good Times Roll,’ just for starters. There were also jazz encounters with vibraphonist Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet and explorations into the world of pop, especially on the second side of The Genius of Ray Charles.
Equally persuasive is the argument that few artists could peacefully co-exist in musical spheres like rock-and-roll and jazz like Charles did at the conclusion of the fifties. Indeed, such was the stature of Ray Charles that when his contract at Atlantic ended in 1959, he was able to command some of the most lucrative terms ever offered a recording artist when he signed with ABC-Paramount, including $50,000 a year, a generous royalty rate and, even more consequentially, the chance for Charles to own his masters, a pioneering example of musical entrepreneurship.
His first album for the label, The Genius Hits the Road—echoing the concept of Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me—was his first to hit the Billboard Top Ten. His interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ was his first chart-topping pop single.
Charles’ sweet spot as a singer was the mid-range. While that may seem to portend a certain monotony to his vocals, it’s what he did in exploring that span of the musical staff and how he used his range above and below it that was one of the secrets of his success.
On ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ he exhorts at one point “I said, a’Georgia,” slips into a falsetto at another point and when he sings, “other arms reach out to me…,” he taps into an elemental longing that goes well beyond the state of Georgia, a lady named Georgia or whatever other personal Georgia the listening may be preoccupied with. Ray Charles went deep. Way deep. And that was just his pop singing.
What of Ray Charles the jazzman? Keeping the timeline fixed on 1960, that’s where an ABC-Paramount producer enters the picture. Creed Taylor was a forward-thinking record man who also understood the power of aesthetics to enable him to present jazz beyond its typically narrow audience of devoted fans. From this insight sprang Impulse! Records, to be the jazz imprint for ABC-Paramount. An album on Impulse! was designed to command the record buyer’s attention. Glossy covers that caught the eye. Titles that grabbed the imagination. A distinctive orange-and-black spine that popped when filed away on one’s record shelf, leaving all the others with their oh-so-blah white spine seeming pitiful in comparison. To bring Impulse! into the world with a bang in early 1961, Taylor would release its first four albums simultaneously. There would be a reunion of the twin trombones of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Winding also fronting a choir of trombones, the brilliant arranger Gil Evans leading his orchestra of New York jazz heavyweights and the fourth? That would be the biggest bang of them all.
Releasing a Ray Charles album, to be called Genius + Soul = Jazz, on Impulse! was Taylor’s calculated bet to immediately propel the label as a force in recorded jazz. Designed as a big-band date that echoes the first side of The Genius of Ray Charles, released on Atlantic in 1959, Genius + Soul = Jazz features Charles on six tracks with the Count Basie Orchestra, with Charles on organ in place of Basie and trumpeters Clark Berry and Phil Guilbeau, and trombonist Urbie Green added, and on the remaining four tracks, Charles fronts a studio big-band. The arrangements are by frequent collaborators Quincy Jones, no introduction required, and Ralph Burns, whose work should be far more well-known, especially his vivid, cinematic arrangements for Tony Bennett (check out Bennett’s Hometown, My Town to get a sense of Burns’ special genius).
The dominant hue of Genius + Soul = Jazz is blue. Not a blue of darkness or despair, but of brightness and bravado. There’s a defiance that comes through on the two numbers in which Charles sings, ‘I’ve Got News for You’ and ‘I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.’ The arrangements on both are extroverted: the former, written by Burns, has a tassel-whirling striptease opening played by the Basie band; the latter, penned by Jones, emphasizes a signature one-note, hammered riff, a gut-bucket symphony of sound.
With Charles’ accompanists taking care of the outer reaches of the musical staff, the middle is open for Charles to lay down the three comic episodes of ‘I’ve Got News for You,’ set-up and punchline both delivered with perfect timing as well as the clever lyrics of ‘I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town’ (here’s a sample: “I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get you a Frigidaire”). It’s almost jarring to hear Charles’ voice rise above the brass and reeds and drums as the album’s spotlight is firmly fixed on Charles’ organ playing—the Genius slipping temporarily into the role of the new Ellington, or more appropriately here, the new Basie.
Basie’s “Second Testament” band, so called as it was formed after Basie disbanded his orchestra at the end of forties in favour of a more economical and short-lived small group, was a model of precision and swing, creating a delirious and infectious dance-hall fantasia built out of sequences of riffs and solos that formed the bedrock of its repertoire. A triumph of the collective anchored by guitarist Freddie Green metronomic chording, so intrinsic to the finger-snap metre of the Basie swing, drummer Sonny Payne’s punctuations and a core group of soloists, including trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Newman, trombonists Benny Powell and Al Grey, and reedmen Frank Foster, Frank Wess and Billy Mitchell, the Basie beat could not be beat.
The album opener, ‘From the Heart,’ illustrates what the Basie sound encapsulated at the beginning of the sixties, a smoldering build to a climax anchored by the vibrant voicings of Jones. It also introduces the other primary soloist on Genius + Soul = Jazz: trumpeter Phil Guilbeau from Charles’ band (ironically, Guilbeau would join Basie’s band for a short stint in the mid sixties). If Guilbeau’s solos don’t probe too deeply, his declaratory tone at least fits with the up-tempo milieu of the album. I do wonder, however, what Clark Terry (check out his theatrical eruptions on the openings of ‘I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town’ and ‘Birth of the Blues’) could have done if he had gotten a few of Guilbeau’s solo spots.
Charles’ own improvisations favour lyricism over pyrotechnics, sermons pitched straight down the middle. Jimmy Smith he may not be—he comes close at some points—but when did Jimmy Smith ever sing a ballad like Charles did on something like ‘Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.’
The greatest irony of Genius + Soul = Jazz is that it’s Charles’ ‘Let’s Go’ that most overtly references Basie but actually features the studio big band and an arrangement by Ralph Burns, who never wrote for Basie.
But let’s not get too caught down the Basie rabbit hole, there’s a Ray Charles album to enjoy. Let’s marvel at the swaggering version of ‘Birth of the Blues’ and how Burns’ arrangement wisely centres around the verse that starts “from a whippoorwill high on a hill” or his ravishing writing to introduce the solos on ‘Mister C.’ Let’s not forget Jones’ re-casting of pianist Bobby Timmons's hard-bop classic ‘Moanin’,’ for the Mad Men era. And, most importantly, let’s not forget ‘One Mint Julep,’ a cover of a rhythm-and-blues hit by the Clovers from 1953, one of the recordings that foreshadowed the rock-and-roll era.
Jones’ arrangement transfers it into the soundtrack for happy hour on Madison Avenue, conga lines in the office, the carefree of now without regard for the regret of later. After the theme statement, Charles’ whispers “just a little bit of soul,” and then a tailor-sharp snare bomb by drummer Roy Haynes, sets up a grooving solo by Charles. As a track on the album, it stands as a winking nod to the “mood music” of the era; as a single, it was a smash, hitting #8 on the Billboard pop chart. The album was too—a top five hit quickly selling 150,000 copies, bringing the immediate success that Creed Taylor hoped for the Impulse! label, who quickly signed another Atlantic artist whose contract had expired: John Coltrane, who immediately became (and remains) the heart and soul of the label.
And Ray Charles? Soon in the offering was an album of luminous duets with the incomparable Betty Carter and then with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, he began to conquer country music (just this year, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame) showing us the fluidity of music and the folly of the rigidity of genre.
At the risk of sounding trite, there is a Ray Charles for everyone. For you. For me too. What a legacy. What a gift. All hail the Genius. All hail Brother Ray.
Postscript: While this is a space dedicated to music, the passing of Bill Russell necessitates comment. A man of fierce and profound integrity and conscience, Russell was a hero, an inspiration and the greatest basketball player that ever was and ever will be. When I got married, I wore special Celtics socks for the day: a photo of Russell on one foot and a photo of Bob Cousy on the other. Anytime I want a little pep in my step, I put them on, hoping that even a tiny bit of the Russell mystique may rub off on me.
In Frank Deford's brilliant 1999 profile of Russell for Sports Illustrated, The Ring Leader, he summed up the case for Russell's place at the top of sports supremacy as thus:
“Look, you can stand at a bar and scream all you want about who was the greatest athlete and which was the greatest sports dynasty, and you can shout out your precious statistics, and maybe you're right, and maybe the red-faced guy down the bar--the one with the foam on his beer and the fancy computer rankings--is right, but nobody really knows. The only thing we know for sure about superiority in sports in the United States of America in the 20th century is that Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics teams he led stand alone as the ultimate winners. Fourteen times in Russell's career it came down to one game, win you must, or lose and go home. Fourteen times the team with Bill Russell on it won.”
Jemele Hill's remembrance of Russell for The Atlantic also makes clear the obvious: Bill Russell's greatness and fearless courage extended far beyond the parquet floor of the Boston Garden.
For it all, a humble thank you to #6.