RAY CHARLES / “Ray Charles Standards Mixtape”
Ray Charles—for some reason I was thinking about brother Ray a couple of weeks ago, and before I knew it I had resolved it was time to do another feature on Ray Charles. Maybe it was because I used to serenade Thelma Thomas, my first serious girlfriend, with that Genius of Ray Charles album. The one where he sang “Am I Blue” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” And later on, much, much, later the Japanese issue that was not available in the states for a long, long time… anyway, the version of “Am I Blue” on that recording featuring the trumpet solo of Johnny Coles.
Ray Charles’ way of handling what the musicians pithily refer to as “standards,” I said to myself: that’s what you should do. Ray Charles singing standards—and you know the first time I found myself in Vermont I had to look hard at the moon and look around and try to see if I saw something so special about moonlight in Vermont. I didn’t.
You know reality has a way of dealing with dreams. I know that so I wasn’t surprised by the lack of magic moonbeams in that northern clime, but nonetheless, I still believed in Ray Charles, believed in the hug yourself (or hug someone) close. That’s the way Ray sang those standards.
So, here is the mixtape and it’s divided into three parts. Ray singing with strings and choral arrangements, and then a quartet of selections from the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album, and finally, a handful of tracks recorded live (some of them not available commercially).
What Ray Charles figured out how to do was make sappy songs sound real, and he did it with a combination of blues, jazz and gospel inflections which invariably were his ingredients in a recipe for soul. Who else could have made a soul song out of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning"? Really what it was is that regardless of the setting Ray had a way of making himself at home, doing whatever he felt like doing.
Just listen how he arranges “Willow, Weep For Me” with a big bad build up on the front end before ending with an interlude of just voice and piano. And by the way, that waltz feeling was not really a waltz, it’s the gospel three feel, a derivative of what Jellyroll called the “Latin tinge,” which of course was West African rhythm flavors.
Or better yet check what happens to “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.” Ray Charles actually makes the ditty sound like a serious song. And going back to my romantic youth, Ray Charles recorded that Genius album with members of the Basie Band. Once Charles could afford it, he carried a big band, a killer band that could rival any of the other bands on the circuit. The difference between Ray's band and all others is that they both toured and recorded continuously thanks to the popularity of Ray Charles. Ray's big band stayed active far, far longer in the 20th century than any other except possibly the Ellington and the Basie orchestras.
In the final analysis it didn’t really matter which songs he sang, Ray gave each of them a strong interpretation. And the songs which had some substance, of course, were elevated that much higher as Ray reached down deep to make serious statements out of show songs and pop tunes.
Now, the Betty Carter album is one of the singular jewels in the multi-faceted crown atop the Right Reverend’s head. This unlikely duo came out of left field and took us all by surprise. He did not do another male/female duo album. I don’t know why there was no reprise with Carter, but I do know, no other female singer was able to hang the way Betty swung.
And she was deceptive as an expert con artist. At first listen, she sounds like an ingénue: young, innocent, with a fragile, girlish voice, but don’t believe it. This was Ms. Betty Carter, aka Betty Bebop—the lady who could stretch a song out twenty minutes or more with just scatting, no lyrics, just sounds. She was a veteran, a pro who knew at least two thousand songs and two hundred ways to sing them.
If you know anything about Betty Carter you will understand what I’m trying to say. Or, better yet, let me drop this on you. Judging Betty Carter solely by what she does in duet with Ray Charles would be like trying to judge how Coltrane sounded by only listening to his work on the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman album.
In both cases, what Coltrane did is astounding for it’s simplicity, subtlety and sensitivity. In a similar fashion, what Carter did was figure out how to complement Ray and by dint of her understatements, Carter ends up bringing out the Nat King Cole in Ray Charles. Listen to “For All We Know,” listen to the short piano solo, and listen to the way Charles phrases. And yet, make no mistake, it’s Betty weaving in, around and floating above that gives Ray license to stay on the soft side.
Damn, the combination of Ray Charles and Betty Carter is exquisite. One other thing, Betty sings for the most part in a range just short of falsetto and she has the imagination to find notes to hit (as well as the chops to reach up high) in a clear, vibrato-less soprano that is absolutely perfect.
Now the live stuff. Well, do I really have to describe it? I will make mention of how Ray gives the band members room to shine, sometimes even calling out the soloist by name and giving them far, far more than a couple of bars as an interlude. And the cats respond in a tried and true manner.
Just to illustrate how deep and important the band is, I’ve included two live versions of “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” You pick the one you like, I don’t have a favorite. From my perspective, I might be right-handed but that don’t mean I don’t love my left.
I think what it was, is that Ray Charles was a jazz player at heart with an abiding commitment to improvisation, including with the lyrics. Nothing is ever straight when he sings it, or to quote my man, the president-poet from Senegal, Leopold Senghor: the negro abhors a straight line.
To sing like Ray Charles you had to bend it without breaking it, had to put yourself all intimately inside the song. Ray’s familiar trademark were the little squeals, mini-screams, shouts and sotto-voice whispers often delivered as off-hand asides and interjections.
But if you’ve got ears, you don’t need my words to appreciate Ray Charles. I just wanted to share a little taste of a little something that crossed my mind a couple of weeks ago. You know what it’s like? It’s like picking up a book of poetry you used to read to a certain someone and there somewhere, maybe on the inside front cover, or at the bottom of the page with the poem that person really loved, there was a quickly jotted seven digit number. And that’s all you needed to start smiling and reminiscing. Seven little numbers. Listening to Ray Charles is like what it used to feel like dialing those digits and hearing an unmistakable voice say: hey, baby, I’m glad you called…
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Ray Charles Standards Mixtape Playlist
01 “People” – Ray Charles Invites You To Listen
02 “Without A Song, Parts 1 & 2” - Standards
05 “Over the Rainbow” – Over the Rainbow
06 “Willow, Weep For Me” – Standards
Ray Sings, Basie Swings
07 “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”
08 “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
14 “Come Rain Or Come Shine” – The Gold Collection
15 “Am I Blue” – Ray Charles: Live in Japan
16 “Just For A Thrill” – Live in Basel, Switzerland
17 “It Had To Be You” – At The Olympia
18 “Georgia On My Mind” – Golden Legends: Ray Charles
19 “Come Rain or Come Shine” – Ray Charles: Berlin 1962
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