RAY CHARLES / “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying”

The music can blindside you, catch you sleeping, and the next thing you know you’re thinking about some stuff you never expected/wanted to think about. I’ve been planning to write about “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” for a good little while. Yesterday, I lined up all four selections and played them back to back. When I woke up this morning, around 4:30AM, a disturbing dream was on my mind. Disturbing. Had me saying: where did that come from? What’s that about? I dreamt of someone I used to love. In the dream, strong feelings surfaced. Strong feelings like a desire to touch, and the even stronger feeling: I definitely don’t want to ever go that way again. Strong, conflicting emotions can be very unsettling. I got up, worked on the computer for a little bit and then when back to sleep. The next time I woke up, I knew what the dream was about. It was about fulfilling my resolve while acknowledging my desire. “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” is the soundtrack and, in this case, was probably also the catalyst for my dream. This is one small example of the great power of music, how it can open you to thoughts and emotions that may have laid dormant for years and then suddenly burst to the surface of your consciousness in a riot of anxiety and/or bewilderment. To fully understand this song, you have to have really loved someone. I mean, really, really loved someone. Hard. Without compromise. Every fiber of your being vibrating. And then they stopped loving you, left you, hurt you, make it clear to you that you and they would never be ‘we.’ And you have to have hurt real bad and dealt with it somehow. It has to have been someone you wanted, not only at that time, but probably (and unfortunately) still have some slivers of desire (if not outright lust) for—a desire/lust that is blunted by the pain of the initial breakup, a breakup so upsetting that you never waver in your resolve: never again—you really mean it. Unless, and until, you have loved and lost like that, you can not fully understand “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” I understand. That’s what my dream is about. I’m grown. I can handle it. Still, it was a spooky few moments, as I opened my eyes after watching my subconscious anti-romance movie. Which brings us to the song itself. It was first popularized by Louis Jordan, and for Jordan it was an anomaly. Louis was the high priest of jive, most of his music was mid-to-up-tempo, nearly all of it was hilarious. Ballads were not his shtick. And though he could do blues, very, very well, what he preferred, perfected and was the progenitor of, was Rhythm & Blues. Louis Jordan took Thirties-era Big Band swing through the war years of the Forties and came up with a five-member combo he called the Tympani Five. They combined the sophistication of jazz with the joy and pain of blues, all firmly planted atop an irresistible dance beat. Rock and roll, soul, R&B and just about every other form of post-Korean-conflict popular dance music owe a huge debt to Louis Jordan. louis jordan.jpg Jordan does not do “Don’t Let The Sun” as a steamy ballad or even as an intimate warning. Opening with his blues-drenched alto saxophone prelude (Jordan was a first-rate instrumentalist), Louis’ vocal treatment then combines the raucousness of Big Joe Turner with the smoothness of Nat ‘King’ Cole, including guitar obbligatos in the second verse much like a Cole arrangement. For the most part, this is a small combo doing a Big Band arrangement of the song. In many, many ways it is simultaneously indicative of Jordan’s strengths and at the same time unlike the majority of his material. The song is written by Joe Greene, who started out in the Thirties and made his mark on the West Coast. Greene’s songs covered the gamut from Country and Western to West Coast progressive jazz of the Fifties and Sixties (Greene worked with Stan Kenton and Kenton’s noted vocalist, June Christy). In this regard, it was undoubtedly Jordan’s jazz interests that led Louis to pick up on Greene’s song. ray charles 03.jpg By now, it’s 1959. Ray Charles is coming off of two great live albums (Live At Newport and In Person) as well as a bunch of hit singles in the Black market. He’s combining jazz, gospel and the new R&B, and in the process coming up with something new. His next album for Atlantic records predictably includes a lot of jazz elements (arrangements by Quincy Jones, members of the Basie band, plus Paul Gonsalves, a star soloist from the Ellington orchestra), but the second side of the LP is something entirely different. It’s Ray singing mostly standards backed by a string orchestra arranged by Ralph Burns and augmented by jazz soloists and choral voices. Although jazz and supper club artists such as Dakota Staton, Dinah Washington, Gloria Lynne, Nat King Cole and most notably Billie Holiday (with her classic Lady In Satin album) had done the standards with strings, Ray was the first of the hardcore R&B artists to successfully tackle this format. Over forty years later, The Genius of Ray Charles remains a moving experience and it’s because Ray not only pulls the diverse elements together and offers original interpretations of a wide range of material, but more importantly, the session works because regardless of what style of music is the source material, Ray Charles transforms the song into a Ray Charles experience, primarily through the distinctiveness of his vocal work but also because of his succinct, albeit essential, piano solos and just-right-piano accompaniment. This indeed was the work of a musical genius, a genius who established new standards for American song. Ray’s vocals suffuse “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” with an awesome sadness. While you are certain that Ray has no intention of taking this woman back, you can feel that she left a gapping hole in his psyche, a hole that it may take years to fill. howard johnson 01.jpg The third version is by tuba-player and band leader Howard Johnson, featuring the vocals of Taj Mahal, for whom Johnson formerly worked. Johnson is an expert of the tuba and produces a mellow sound that most people don’t associate with the tuba. Taj Mahal 02.jpg This version starts off following the Ray Charles version reverently but then morphs into a much more jazz-like arrangement than Ray employed. Then, before you know it, Taj is scatting, the tempo has picked up and the horn arrangements push to the forefront. The opening measures not withstanding, this version is in a classic Louis Jordan, jump jazz vein. tok tok tok 11.jpg Tok Tok Tok, a German duo comprised of Tokunbo Akinro and Morten Klein, round out our investigation of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” Their version is even slower than Ray Charles’ approach. Tokunbo is a stunning, quiet storm of a singer. Half the time, although she’s barely above a whisper, you nevertheless feel her with the force of a shout. Her range is Billie Holiday-limited and she is clearly not in a gospel or even a country/city blues tradition. She is bringing something else, but it is something that sits comfortably within the Black aesthetic. While her sound is familiar it is also different, and how else could it be? English is not her first, nor her second language. Her mother is German, her father Nigerian. She is a soul singer of effective grace and total sincerity. tok tok tok 08.jpg Tokunbo grew up in Nigeria and moved to Germany when she was ten (although she had visited many times). She also spent one year in the USA as an exchange student. “In my childhood I very often listened to Motown soul music that very much determined my music taste. In my youth I started playing the guitar and accompanied myself, later I discovered jazz. During studies Billie Holiday was my shining example, just like her I wanted to provide such an intense feeling with my music.” tok tok tok 12.jpg Morten is no slouch as a saxophonist. Although Weldon Felder of the Crusaders was his initial inspiration, Morten’s style makes clear that he has digested Ben Webster’s approach to the tenor. (Incidentally, Webster spent the latter years of his career in Scandinavia). I like the way Morten negotiates the changes, how his leisurely Lester Young-like pace perfectly complements Tokunbo’s lullaby-like sound. It is noteworthy how Morten pays particular attention to tone and timbre. He has a sinewy softness that is simultaneously both soft and strong. Their eleven-minute interpretation could easily have been a bore, especially in their drumless quartet format of voice, horn, bass and fender Rhodes but instead it is enchanting. They call their style “acoustic soul” and it really is. —Kalamu ya Salaam Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful         I listened to these songs in the same order that Kalamu wrote about them (Jordan / Charles / Mahal / Tok Tok Tok) and I found each prettier than the last. And that’s saying something, given that I fondly recall the Louis Jordan version from my childhood—me and my brother and sisters used to wail that one, loud and completely off key, all the time. (Well, maybe not my brother. He’s a grump.) Anyway, as I said, I like all of these, but by the time Ms. Akinro gets to ad-libbing—“The answer is, no! You can just go. … But, since you want to stay…”—what can I say? Man, what a version. tok tok tok 13.jpg The thing I like most about Tok Tok Tok is their confidence, musically. In sales class, we learned that it’s very, very difficult for humans—the vocal, social animals that we are—to cope with silence. We were trained to equate silence with power, to use silence as a weapon to communicate our displeasure with whatever was said last. (The customer doesn’t order enough Madonna CDs? You don’t complain or cajole or plead. No, you say nothing. Inevitably, they adjust upward.) Tok Tok Tok uses the power of silence in a different way: to let whatever was just said/sung/played sink, slowly and completely in. It isn’t just the vocals; Klein plays the sax with the same delectable deliberateness with which Tokunbo sings. They both leave spaces between their notes, believing that we have the depth to fill them in ourselves. They have the musical maturity and emotional fearlessness to let the quiet speak for itself sometimes. They say it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Well, sometimes, it’s not even that: it’s how you don’t say it. —Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 5th, 2006 at 12:56 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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