RAY CHARLES / “Blues Mixtape”
I’ve talked about this musical revolution before in the context of jazz, but when I first brought it up, I had not done all of my homework so I missed a significant development. As I’ve said: in jazz the sixties started in 1959; turns out that’s also true for R&B. I’ve just about halfway convinced myself I need to do a treatise on the revolution of 1959.
Bear with me a second and let me explain how I got to this point. (If you need to refresh yourself about 1959 and jazz, go to my initial write up). My point of departure right now is Mr. Ray Charles—the High Priest, the Right Reverend Ray Charles, a man known for mixing church music with rhythm & blues.
But there is far more to it than that. First of all Ray Charles was heavy into jazz. Second, he had spent over a year living and working in New Orleans. Third, he had big ears; he heard all kinds of music; and to go with his big ears he had a wide open imagination that enabled him to approach any and all musical materials as grist to grind in his soulful mill.
* * *
Ray recorded three albums in 1959—it’s beyond amazing that within only one year he would record three important and influential albums: What’d I Say, The Genius of Ray Charles
, and Ray Charles In Person
(which wasn’t released until 1960 but was recorded in May of 1959).
What’s I Say
gave us one of the major classics of R&B. The title track grew out of improvisations on the road. The band and back up singers initially had no idea what Ray was doing, they simply followed along. After the first time, Ray continued using the song and audiences loved it. At his first break in his touring schedule, Ray rushed to New York to cut the tune, and the rest, as they say, is legend.
The Genius of Ray Charles
presented the jazz big band and ballad side of Ray Charles. One side of the LP featured a big band composed of Basie and Ellington veterans along with the core of Charles’ small band, and the other side featured strings and choral singers.
As the years went on after Charles left Atlantic Records in 1960, Ray’s inimitable ability to uniquely voice popular American music became his major calling card, that and Country & Western music. There was nothing Charles had previously recorded to prepare us for what was on The Genius of Ray Charles
Ray’s genius was how he was able to take other people’s music and not only do it his way but also do the songs in such a way that everybody relates to Ray's version. No one else could so nimbly balance diverse and sometimes competing elements—the blues was always there but the popular elements were also present. For example, the state of Georgia adopted Ray’s reading of “Georgia On My Mind” for the state song, which is remarkable given how racist Georgia was back in the sixties and seventies.
The third album, In Person
was a concert recording that was captured by happenstance. It was not a planned recording session, but rather the work of promoter and radio personality Zenas “Daddy” Sears who stuck a mike in the middle of a stage hoping to get snippets of material he could use to promote upcoming shows. The album is one of the most persuasive ad spot ever recorded.
* * *
On June 5th and 6th I was in D.C. doing a poetry reading at Bus Boys & Poets as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. My daughter Tiaji, the youngest of five, lives in Baltimore and works in D.C. We got a chance to hang out for a minute. She mentioned hearing some early blues by Ray Charles and being blown away because she mostly knew of him in his post-Atlantic years.
Tiaji’s comments gave me the idea to focus on Ray Charles and the blues. When I started researching recording dates I was taken aback when I saw how much of Ray’s critical recordings were done in 1959.
Of course there were a number of earlier records including an extremely important (indeed, you could even say “classic”) album, Ray Charles At Newport
What I have done is gathered up an armload of blues and blues-inflected Ray Charles work for this mixtape. If you’re not familiar with early Ray Charles, a lot of this will be a surprise. If you are familiar then a lot of this will bring back fond memories. In either case, it’s going to be a wonderful listening experience,
Tiaji, this one is for you.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Ray Charles Blues Mixtape
All of these tracks are available on a box set, Pure Genius – The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959)
. I’ve also noted which tracks are on those major albums mentioned above.
01 “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)”
02 “Losing Hand”
03 “Funny (But I Still Love You)”
04 “I Believe To My Soul”
05 “Come Back Baby”
From Ray Charles At Newport
Here is the first major synthesis of jazz, blues and gospel. Notice that Ray Charles is playing jazz saxophone on this recording in addition to singing and playing the piano.
06 “A Fool for You”
07 “Yes Indeed!”
08 “I've Got A Woman”
What’d I Say
is the album that introduced one of Ray Charles signature songs.
09 “What'd I Say, Pts. 1 & 2”
Ray Charles In Person
is a perfect complement to the Newport
had an emphasis on jazz. In Person
keeps the blues focus up front.
10 “(Night Time Is) The Right Time”
11 “Drown In My Own Tears”
The Genius of Ray Charles
is the album that completely changed popular music. When you listen to In Person
or to Newport
, there is no way to imagine Ray Charles would successfully take off in this direction. The blues is still very much evident in his voice but here he has made a transition into popular music, and a mighty impressive two-step transition it is. Step one: big band backing. Step two: standards with strings. This is a brilliant culmination of his Atlantic work and a precursor for what was to become his most popular period.
12 “Let The Good Times Roll”
13 “Two Years of Torture”
14 “When Your Lover Has Gone”
15 “Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin' ”
16 “Come Rain Or Come Shine”
17 “Just For A Thrill”
18 “Am I Blue”
19 “Tell Me You'll Wait For Me”
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