RAY CHARLES / “Georgia On My Mind”
My first real girlfriend. Thelma Thomas. (Hey, baby, wherever you are.) Thelma and I hooking up coincided with my the budding of my life-long, deep, deep interest in Ray Charles, Carmen McRae, and jazz and blues in general. In 1964, I was too young to know the true deeptitude of either love or black music, but there I was, eager as a puppy at suppertime, diving into depths that were way, way over my head. Way over. And if I was drowning, I didn’t want noboby to save me because in fact I wasn’t willfully going down. And deep in the depths I never felt more alive. I was discovering and exploring aspects of myself and of our culture that I previously never knew existed. On Sundays, I would take the bus—Sunday public transportation in the mid-Sixties was slow to damn near non-existent, but there I was, with three or four LPs under my arms, going to see my girlfriend. We would spend hours doing what puppy-lovers do, except we didn’t go to the movies or watch television, we sat on her living room sofa and two albums in particular were our soundtrack: a live Carmen recording and The Genius of Ray Charles. That damn genius Ray Charles. The first side of the album was swinging. The second side was ballads with strings and pithy, bittersweet horn solos. We’d usually start with Carmen’s albums, and then to the first side of Ray. We’d be talking and laughing and such. (I assume most of you can remember the first blushes on the rose of your love lives.) And then things would get serious for the evening. I would ease over to Thelma’s father’s stereo box, flip the LP over, swing back the stabilizing arm on the record changer so that the record would play over and over while we…. Now it’s October. 2006. Over forty years later and there is a new Ray Charles release that fans and critics are going ga-ga over, giddy as young people enjoying the joys of love for the first time. They are saying this is the best thing since some baker somewhere thought of pre-slicing breadloaves before they were sold. Especially since Ray Charles and Count Basie never recorded together, reviewers are saying this is a marvel of modern technology. The vocals are taken from an old soundboard recording of a Ray Charles concert on which everything was muffled and badly recorded (including Ray’s piano) EXCEPT for Ray’s voice. And then… uh-uh, here comes the commercial. You see, these tapes were part of a cache of tapes from Fantasy Records which had been sold to Concord Records, which itself was now aligned with the Starbucks juggernaut. Now Starbucks…. (And, dear reader, I assume you are listening to the jukebox while reading this, if not, please do so.) So Starbucks had already hit paydirt last year with a set of engineered collaborations between Ray Charles and friends called Genius Loves Company. Hell, it won five—count them, five—Grammys. So a plan is concocted to make lightening strike twice. It seems the tape box had Ray Charles/Count Basie written on it. It seems that Basie and band opened the show and Ray Charles had followed. Ray’s vocal work was so vibrant and Basie’s band was so swinging, and shortly an idea hatched full blown from someone forehead—what if we did what history didn’t? What if we put Ray Charles together with the Count Basie band? Wouldn’t that sell a million? I mean, wouldn’t that be historic! Look at what we did last year. Look at Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole. Look at the goddamn bottom line. Pay no mind to the critics moaning and groaning about grave-robbing pirates with pecuniary pursuit on their minds. (I’m quite sure that some of the decision makers genuinely love Ray Charles’ music. I’m willing to bet that some of them sat on sofas somewhere across America, wrapped up in the arms of some young someone, and Ray Charles was playing in the background. And now they are in a position to resurrect the music of their youth. So it wasn’t just a money move, although it certainly didn’t hurt that gilders greased the wheels that needed to turn in order to greenlight the project. And then again, this may all be my cynicism blabbing.) Well, the good news is that Frankenstein lives, and instead of lurching through the village scaring the be-Jesus out of little girls and their parents, this monster is a dancing motherfucker! The resulting album, Ray Sings, Basie Swings sounds good. Damn good. Except, regardless of what most folk are saying this is not a Ray Charles who has never been heard before. The fact of the matter is that the first side of The Genius of Ray Charles featured members of the Sixties-era Basie Band. And thus, my fellow BoL-ers, I have paired some of the tracks with other recordings. We kick it off with a signature number, “Let The Good Times Roll.” The new version is up first and second is the Sixties recording with Basie’s men manning the horns. Which one do you think swings harder? The new version features a modified shuffle beat and the arrangement is professional, but the original is a thoroughbred of a different mule. Just listen to the dynamics of the band. Compare the rhythm sections. The arrangements are similar, but one sounds practiced, the other sounds like everybody was having a party. One tip off is that the new version is faster than the original. On the original, the brass are sassier, the trombones have a bite, and the mellow depth of the sax section is a bed worthy of a princess with nary a bump in the sonic mattress. You have ears, you can do the comparison for yourself even if you are not familiar with jazz and don’t know a shuffle from a backbeat, or can’t tell a trombone with a plunger from a trumpet with a wah-wah mute. Regardless of which you prefer and why, or regardless of if you like both or neither, what matters is that there was no need for the commercial hype. Whether Memorex or manufactured, this music is sweet, mainly because of the genius of Ray Charles. I favor some of the earlier pieces because of the accompanying music. As far as I’m concerned Ray is Ray, which means heads and shoulders above most everybody else when it comes to vocal interpretations of the full range of the American songbook, i.e. jazz, blues, country, show, pop and novelty. For example, while I like the new arrangement of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” I still prefer the iconoclastic approach of the original which brought millions of new listeners to Country and Western music, listeners who previously would never, ever listen to Country. Even though the Patti Austin led, re-created Raylettes sound leagues better than the choral on the original, I lean slightly toward the original on this one. (Was that the Ray Charles Singers? Yes, there was a white-bread choral group by that name who were totally unrelated to our eminent genius.) I particularly like Ray’s massaging of standards. Listen to him caress “How Long Has This Been Going On.” Ray Charles makes love to the lyrics, and the man can do that thing. Ray does the nasty prettier than most anybody else in the world. Thus, that version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is absolutely a night you will never forget. First, there is that sweet trombone opening. (I’m sorry I can’t identify the musicians, this is from a bootleg European recording.) Then Ray moves in at a glacial pace, taking his time to investigate every crevice in the storyline. And then there is a tremendous tenor solo, so tremendous that it ought to be studied in every college of music that aspires to perform big band jazz. And then there is the subtlety of the accompaniment, the band tighter than Scrooge at Christmas time. The final comparison is the chestnut made into a State Song, “Georgia On My Mind.” Ray Charles owns it. The new version is a magnificent reading, easily worth the price of the album by itself. For comparison purposes, I’ve chosen a live recording that features David “Fathead” Newman on flute. Fortunately, today, thanks in part to the Starbucks Coffee conglomerate, we don’t have to choose one or the other. To completely mix a metaphor, we can have it our way, howsoever our tastes run. I am blessed to have been present at both the creation and the re-creation. For once the sequel lives up to the hype even as the original still mightily towers over imitators and emulators. For once, memory is accurate. Yes, yes. May music and love forever be. Thank you, Thelma. Thanks to all the Thelmas of the world, who hold our hands as we step off into the world of wonder that is adult life. Thank you Ray Charles for a soundtrack worthy of our wanderings…or is it the other way around? Is it that we are trying our best to live lives worthy of the sound of Ray Charles? Perhaps it is both. Perhaps. Life, love and Ray Charles. Perhaps that is all we can every really know, all we need to know: life and love and a sound, strong as Ray Charles. —Kalamu ya Salaam Too young to know For those of us too young to know anything about Ray Charles that they didn't show in the movie, Kalamu's write-up is necessary to even get what the big deal is. In the same way that the mechanized thump of hip-hop will always remain a decidely foreign sound to those born in the Sixties or earlier, the larger-than-life horns of big band music is something we Seventies babies just don't get. I like a lot of Ray Charles' records, but these exist on a plane that I don't ever visit. I can listen to them and recognize that the man is talented, but that's about as far as I can get. Earlier this week, I ran into a cat who happened to be an Old School jazz percussionist. Coincidentally, he brought up Don Ellis—a big band-leader we discussed last week—and Ellis' conceit of playing in 7/4 time. After I told the guy I really didn't understand the concept of playing in seven, he quickly demonstrated by tapping out a Cuban-sounding drum pattern right there on the side of my truck. Every time he hit 'the one,' he did it with extra emphasis and gave me a look. After a few bars, I could easily count along with him. Back in my truck, I could even recreate it...for about fifteen minutes. By that evening, I could barely even remember what it sounded like. I said all that to say, while I was reading Kalamu's write-up and listening to the music at the same time, I got it. I swear I did. But after I finished reading, I got up to stretch my legs and go to the bathroom. I left the music playing and by the time I got back, all I could think was, "What the hell am I listening to?" I hate to admit it, but like the last time Kalamu posted Ray Charles tunes, I just don't get it. —Mtume ya Salaam
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