Ray Charles

 

Ray Charles photo 1

 

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Contributors: Dave Stephens and Cal Taylor

Ray Charles. Genius or not? And I’m conscious that many would consider it sheer effrontery even to pose the question. He certainly paid his dues: it took eight years from the start of his recording career for him to achieve the feat of having a record cross over from the R&B Chart to the Pop Chart so, when he did break through, he had oodles of experience.

I don’t think anyone would dispute the statement that he was exceptionally talented with a high level of ability on several musical instruments not just piano, plus song writing, arranging, record producing and, of course, singing. He made some seriously great records too, several of which can justifiably be labelled as pioneering.

Which leads me to a second question: did he invent soul music? The correct answer to that has to be no, in that not one single person or group can be said to have invented the genre. One thing he did do though was write and record a particular number which, like a tiny handful of others in the early to mid fifties period, was highly influential in the germination stage of the genre.

That number was I’ve Got A Woman (later, I Got a Woman) released on Atlantic in December 1954. It sounds relatively tame now. The Raelettes weren’t on board yet; they wouldn’t appear for another three years or so. But it was a significant break with Ray’s earlier records most of which were blues or blues-based with the occasional more poppy item. He had definitely found his voice on joining Atlantic but his style remained sophisticated blues often with a big band in tow i.e. nothing too unusual for the time frame. Ray’s delivery on this one was almost folksy compared with what had come before and the band was riffing in reaction to his phrasing i.e. providing a response to Ray’s singing in a similar manner to a gospel choir echoing the lead singer. Add in the fact that Ray was more uninhibited than on those earlier records, throwing in shrieks, rasps, grunts plus dollops of falsetto as the number progressed, and you had his first gospel-inflected single and Atlantic’s first gospel-like single too. This was new ground for both artist and label.

The origins of I’ve Got A Woman lay in a number called It Must Be Jesus sung by the Southern Tones and released on the Houston based Duke label in summer 1954 (source: Wiki). Along with his trumpeter, Renald Richard, Ray wrote new lyrics to the number but melodically he stuck closely to the original even down to the single chord section approx ⅔ in. And yes, the horns did replace the lads in the Tones chanting the title in response to lead vocalist, Bob King.

I’ve Got A Woman provided Ray with his first number 1 in the US R&B Chart. Not only that, the record made a few white people sit up and take note. One Elvis Aaron Presley recorded the number and it appeared on his first RCA album, released in 1956. Elvis always had a liking for the song and it continued in his act even in the Vegas days.

 

THE EARLY YEARS

Ray Charles Robinson was born to poor parents on 23rd September 1930 in Albany, Georgia, but the family subsequently moved to Greenville, Florida. He was fully blind from the age of six which reportedly was due to glaucoma. His schooling was at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St Augustine. He showed an early interest in music and, as a consequence, was given training in classical piano. This included reading music in braille. He started work as a musician in Florida after leaving school but moved on to Seattle and then down to L.A. Initially work involved accompaniment i.e. holding down the piano stool in a band, but in Seattle he put together a trio. In terms of influences, on several occasions Ray has cited Nat “King” Cole as a big musical hero. His early records also suggest that he’d also been paying considerable attention to another piano blues man, Charles Brown. Less frequently mentioned in terms of influences was Louis Jordan who was immensely popular in the forties to the extent that virtually everyone in the R&B field took note of him.

Ray’s first single, I Love You, I Love You (I Will Never Let You Go) / Confession Blues was released in 1949 on the Downbeat label and credited to “The Maxin Trio” (see Footnotes). Charles himself wrote both songs and the flip side, a slow blues, managed to clamber up to the #2 position in the nation’s R&B Chart, an impressive showing for a debut record. The fact that Ray on this sounded not unlike Charles Brown probably didn’t do the record any harm. That gentleman was having success in the R&B Chart, either as vocalist/pianist in Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers or in solo mode, in just this time frame, usually with similar instrumentation i.e. piano, bass and guitar.

Ray had further R&B Chart hits with the very cocktail loungey Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand in ’51 and the more rocky Kissa Me Baby in ’52. Both were recorded and released via the small L.A. based indie, Swingtime Records.

As a personal interjection – and this is Dave speaking – records like Confession Blues and Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand differed considerably from his later fifties recordings, and came as a disappointment to record buyers like myself who bought Ray’s early records, when compiled and released on ‘cheapo’ albums put together for cash-in purposes when the Charles name started to become known. The smooth piano blues styling made popular by Cole and Brown, and largely replicated by Charles, was almost the polar opposite of the exciting blues music we were starting to hear out of places like Chicago circa 1963/64. Or to put it another way, the nuances didn’t hit home at the time!

Another illustration of Ray’s imitative style on these records can be heard on his version of the oldie, Baby Won’t You Please Come Home from 1952 where Ray’s model is clearly the early Nat Cole. Intriguingly though, if you flip the disc you get a big band blues entitled Hey Now written by one “Ray Charles” which sounds like this. Was this Ray getting prepared for his Atlantic spell one wonders. The rawness of his delivery is such a contrast to the A-side that you wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told you it was an early to mid period Atlantic disc.

At some stage in the period 1950 to 1953 – the accounts tend towards coyness about actual dates – Ray toured as pianist and then musical director for the touring Lowell Fulson band. Lowell was a blues man through and through but his blues was more direct and less varnished than the music Ray had been playing, and that could well have thrown another factor into the Ray Charles mix. According to Mike Evans in his biography of Ray – see Footnotes – artists like T-Bone Walker, Joe Turner and Ray’s hero, Charles Brown, appeared on the same bill at times which must have been quite an eye and ear opener.

Ray’s records and touring activity brought him to the attention of New York based Atlantic Records. After something of a scattershot start, by 1950 the label was zeroing in on the R&B market. The signing of Ruth Brown in 1949 was the beginning of a series of hits for the great lady and one would have expected Messrs Herb Abramson (president) and Nesuhi Ertegun (vice-president) to be on the lookout for someone of similar potential.

Ray Charles poster

 

ATLANTIC

TrackSingle
Mess AroundAtlantic 999
I've Got A WomanAtlantic 1050
A Fool For YouAtlantic 1063
This Little Girl Of MineAtlantic 1063
Drown In My Own TearsAtlantic 1085
Hallelujah I Love Her SoAtlantic 1096
Lonely AvenueAtlantic 1108
(Night Time Is) The Right TimeAtlantic 2010
What'd I SayAtlantic 2031
Let The Good Times RollAtlantic 2047

The Atlantic record label was still in its infancy when it acquired the largely unknown, 21-year-old Ray Charles’ contract from Swing Time Records for $2500 in June 1952. Atlantic itself had been going just five years when Ray first stepped into their New York studios on 11th September 1952 to record four tracks which comprised his first two releases on Atlantic. Roll With My Baby/The Midnight Hour was released the following month and The Sun’s Gonna Shine Again/Jumpin’ In The Morning was released in January 1953. They were still in the style of his previous recordings, which might be described as West Coast R&B.

In May 1953, Ray returned to the studio and recorded twenty tracks. This session has been described as a rehearsal tape. Eighteen of the tracks were not issued and just two were released as LP tracks many years later. Just a week afterwards, Ray recorded six more tracks that were all released as singles and three months later he recorded two more tracks. Six of those eight tracks had virtuoso guitarist Mickey Baker present and the two sessions produced two R&B Chart hits, Mess Around and It Should’ve Been Me. Of note about these sessions is that some of those songs were written by exceptional people. Two were by Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder and president of Atlantic, one by Lowell Fulson, Ray’s erstwhile touring companion, one by Jesse Stone under the pseudonym Charles Calhoun (who went on to write Shake Rattle And Roll) and one written by Eddie Jones. Jones a.k.a. Guitar Slim was less than four years older than Ray and just about to have a million seller in his own right. He was the ultimate showman and a man who would influence Ray with the fervent, gospel-laden deliveries of his blues songs.

The writing credit for Mess Around was shown as “Nuggy”, which was a contraction of Nugetre, being Ertegun backwards! It was a stomping dance record which Ertegun said was inspired by Pete Johnson but can be traced back to two 1928 recordings: “Cow Cow” Davenport’s Cow Cow Blues and the Pinetop Smith classic, Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.

The song written by Eddie Jones/Guitar Slim was called Feelin’ Sad and had been released by him in 1952. Ray Charles was an extremely gifted musician, very ambitious and always willing to learn and experiment. An opportunity to do so came at the end of 1953. Ray was just 23 and was working in New Orleans. Guitar Slim was also in New Orleans at the time and wanted Ray to oversee his recording of The Things That I Used To Do. The young, talented Ray not only played piano on the recording but was in sole charge of arranging and producing it. It topped the R&B charts, stayed in the top 10 for 21 weeks and besides being a million seller, was the biggest selling R&B record of 1954. Sadly, Eddie Jones died only five years later, aged 32.

Six weeks after the recording of The Things That I Used To Do, Ray was still working in and around New Orleans when Atlantic executives were there too, recording Joe Turner. Ray, inspired by his recent success, met up with Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and a recording session was set up. Four tracks were recorded with a band of experienced musicians and Ray was given a free hand in respect of the musical arrangements. Of those four, three were to end up as LP tracks and the other one, a song called Don’t You Know, penned by Ray, became his next R&B chart entry in 1954. Don’t You Know has a distinctive New Orleans sound.

Ray’s next record, I’ve Got A Woman, was absolutely pivotal to his career. The story of the record has been covered in the introduction. It was Ray’s first R&B chart-topper and really set him on the road to stardom. It was in a new style and hard to categorise exactly – a sort of gospelly/fledgling soul sound. In terms of introducing gospel elements to mainstream it was a real landmark and a fantastic record in its own right. Still in 1953, the flip side of the follow-up to I’ve Got A Woman, This Little Girl Of Mine was in the same vein, in that it was based on a traditional gospel song, This Little Light Of Mine. It reached the top 10 of the R&B charts. However, the A-side, the emotive A Fool For You, penned by Ray was even more original, combining gospel and slow blues. It too got to No.1 in the R&B charts and is one of Ray’s best.

Another R&B chart double sided hit immediately followed, Blackjack/Greenbacks.

The following year, 1956, saw Ray back on top of the R&B charts again with the really soulful Drown In My Own Tears. This song had been written by music industry legend, Henry Glover, and had originally been recorded by Lula Reed in 1951. With no disrespect to Lula, the Ray Charles name on the label certainly added something.

Next up was Hallelujah I Love Her So which reached No.5 in the R&B charts and was later a pop hit for Peggy Lee in 1959. Later in 1956, Ray recorded another gospel based song Leave My Woman Alone but the A-side and a R&B Top 10 hit was Lonely Avenue:

Lonely Avenue was not only a great record, it’s memorable for a couple of other good reasons – Doc Pomus and the Cookies. It was one of Doc’s earliest hits and the Cookies were a fabulous female vocal backing group. Although a femme chorus including Mary Ann Fisher had performed on the last thirty seconds of Drown In My Own Tears, Lonely Avenue was the first time an established female vocal group had featured prominently on a Ray Charles record and it strongly enhanced that record’s appeal. Those ladies were the Cookies who were later to become the Raelettes, of whom, more later. It’s worth adding that the girls added spice to Leave My Woman Alone too.

By 1957, Ray had had many R&B Chart successes but still had not had a record get into the US national pop chart – but that wrong was about to be put right, when a September release Swanee River Rock climbed to a respectable #34 near the end of the year.

Around 1957/1958, Ray was not enjoying the chart (R&B) success that he had been regularly getting over the previous three years or so, despite some admirable cuts: Get On The Right Track Baby, Talkin’ ‘Bout You, What Kind Of Man Are You and You Be My Baby were good records amongst others that did not trouble the charts. At face value this might have looked as though Ray’s career was in decline but that could not really have been further from the truth. His extraordinary musical ability was becoming known to an ever-widening audience including whites, who mostly would not have been aware of his prodigious talent previously. His exposure to a white audience no doubt had been assisted by Elvis recording I Got A Woman in 1956 and was helped further when the Everlys cut This Little Girl Of Mine in 1958.

At this time Ray was still only around 27 years old. The esteem in which he was held by fellow artists and important people in the music industry was growing and growing. Ray, too, was looking in different musical directions.

Over the years from the end of 1953, he had recorded quite a body of work that was left ‘in the can’ by Atlantic. Those tracks would probably be deemed to be good album material but that market in the 1950s was infinitesimal compared with that from the late-1960s onwards, especially for pop and R&B artists. Often LPs released by artists in those genres would simply contain material already issued as singles, or ones put together around a big selling hit to promote sales, lumped with sub-standard tracks. In the 1950s very few record companies would contemplate issuing new material aimed specifically at the album market.

In July 1957, Ray’s first LP comprised tracks that were all previously issued as singles. His second LP, The Great Ray Charles, was released a month later and contained, by contrast, all new material which was purely instrumental and very much jazz-oriented. The following year, Ray teamed up with jazz great Milt Jackson for an all instrumental album that consisted of material that leaned to the bluesier side of jazz. The five tracks on that album lasted almost forty minutes, almost unheard of in 1958 when not many LPs exceeded thirty minutes playing time. Milt showed his versatility by playing the vibraphone on three of the tracks but switched to piano or guitar for the others. For good measure, Ray played piano on four of the tracks but alto sax on the other.

At the end of 1958, Ray recorded (Night Time Is) The Right Time. Besides reaching #5 in the R&B Chart, it also just crept into the US top 100 pop charts. There is no doubt Ray based his version on a recording from the year before by Nappy Brown (real name Napoleon Brown Goodson Culp), called The Right Time. However, the roots of the song went back decades before. It probably originated in pre-recording days. Roosevelt Sykes recorded a version of Night Time Is The Right Time in 1937. While Ray’s version was very much a lift of the Nappy Brown arrangement, it did benefit from having Margie Hendrix rather than Nappy sing the impassioned and repeated “baby” in the final third.

Chart-wise Ray came back with a bang in the middle of 1959 in the form of What’d I Say. At the time it was his most successful recording to date, by far. Not only did it reach No.1 in the R&B charts, it reached the dizzy heights of No.6 in the US pop charts and became his first million selling record.

Ray’s contract with Atlantic expired in 1959. He was a hot commodity. Many big record labels are said to have offered him big money deals. ABC-Paramount eventually won the battle and he signed for them in November 1959. His last session for Atlantic was on 26th June that year.

Including What’d I Say, Ray had four Atlantic releases in 1959. The other three all had an element of R&B Chart success and included some fine recordings, such as Tell Me How Do You Feel written by Ray and Percy Mayfield, the self-penned I Believe To My Soul and Let The Good Times Roll. The latter record was credited to Ray Charles with the Quincy Jones Orchestra. The song had been written by Sam Theard in 1942 and recorded by Louis Jordan in 1946.

When Ray finished at Atlantic there were still many unreleased recordings on the shelf. Eight singles were issued from the beginning of 1960 through to 1964 and loads of Atlantic LPs were issued, some including his previously unreleased items and others with combinations of already released material.

Ray’s very last recording for Atlantic was his first recording of a Country song, of which there were many to follow at ABC. It had been a No.1 Country hit for Hank Snow in 1950. It was called I’m Movin’ On .
And he was.

 

THE FEMALE BACKING SINGERS/RAELETTES

The Raelettes photo 1

The Raelettes c1959 (l to r): Margie Hendrix, Pat Lyles, Gwen Berry, Darlene McCrea (photo: James J. Kriegsmann)

 

The first female singer to join Ray’s entourage was Mary Ann Fisher in 1955. As part of the orchestra she would sing with him at live performances. She was first in the recording studio with Ray when he recorded Drown In My Own Tears on 30th November 1955 and, on the last thirty seconds of that song, Mary Ann and a couple of session singers added a female chorus.

The flip side of Drown In My Own Tears was Ray’s self-penned Mary Ann which was recorded the same day. It is without doubt that the song was about Ms Fisher and it is also beyond doubt that Ray and Mary Ann had a relationship. At the time Ray was into his second marriage, to Della Beatrice (Bea) Robinson, and he had two children.

Ever experimenting with his music, Ray obviously believed a female vocal backing group was an idea to be used in future. Before recording Lonely Avenue on 16th May 1956, he had been introduced to the Cookies, who had been singing together since 1954, and he chose to use them on that record. In 1956, the three girl group comprised Dorothy Jones and Darlene McCrea together with Margie Hendrix, who had just replaced Beulah Robertson – they had been providing backing vocals for various artists at Atlantic.

Mary Ann was never a Cookie but she did sing with them at recording sessions whilst continuing to be part of Ray’s orchestra when they were on the road. On 28th May 1957, a great song called What Kind Of Man Are You was recorded. It was released as the flip side of Talkin’ ‘Bout You in 1958. Both sides of the disc were credited to Ray Charles but What Kind Of Man Are You had Mary Ann singing the lead vocal part.

By 1958, Ray had turned his extra-marital affections to Margie Hendrix. Margie supplanted Mary Ann Fisher, who left Ray’s employ sometime during that year. The Cookies were becoming a more and more prominent feature of Ray’s music to the point that he decided that they should become more of a permanent fixture, with a change of name. Two names were suggested, the Raelets or the Silver Bells, with the latter quickly rejected by Ms Hendrix.

From the Cookies, Darlene McCrea and Margie Hendrix became Raelets and Dorothy Jones, who was pregnant at the time, declined the offer to join the new group. The Cookies ceased as a group – but a new version was resurrected in 1961 (see Footnote).

Darlene and Margie were joined by, amongst others, Pat Lyles and Gwendolyn Berry, to be one of the first formations of The Raelets, who were sometimes billed as The Raeletts before The Raelettes became the universally accepted name. Margie Hendrix said that the group was never The Raylettes and that any such spelling of the name was a mistake, even though that version appeared on several records.

Many factors were at play regarding the personnel of the Raelettes. Different girls were used at different events, substitutes sometimes had to be found, personnel numbers varied and some changes were enforced by other factors. Ray’s affair with Margie produced a son in 1959 but it curtailed her musical activities for a short while.

Ray’s marriage to Bea lasted until 1977 and it produced two more sons in 1958 and 1960 but he had two more children by different ex-Raelettes in 1961 and 1963. This was one of the factors that played havoc with the permanency of group members. There is an apocryphal story that to become a Raelette they had to ‘let Ray’! Years later, when asked about that subject, he did not totally deny it, saying that he liked to have a close relationship with all the girls but it was not an absolute condition of being a member!

Margie was prominent on Ray’s first ABC-Paramount release in January 1960, My Baby! (I Love Her, Yes I Do). In July 1960, Atlantic released the Raelettes-led Charles’ release Tell The Truth that had been recorded over a year before. It showed the writing credit as Ray Charles but in fact it was a cover of a 1958 release by The “5” Royales written by Lowman Pauling.

The Raelettes became more and more regular in Ray’s performances and probably became known by name to a much wider audience when they featured prominently on his second US No.1 pop hit Hit The Road Jack in 1961.

The Raelettes in one form or another performed throughout the rest of Ray’s life into the 2000s. Over the years there would have been over sixty different members, the most famous of the later ones were possibly Mable John and Clydie King. They had quite a few releases in their own name with five reaching the top 50 in the R&B charts, two of those getting into the bottom half of the Hot 100.

The most recognisable lead singer of the Raelettes and probably the best was Margie Hendrix, who left in 1964. Unfortunately, she developed a drug problem, as did Ray, and sadly she died aged only 38 in 1973. Of Margie, Ray has been quoted as saying, “Aretha, Gladys, Etta James – these girls were all bad but on any given night Margie will scare you to death”.

 

The Raelettes photo 2

The Raelettes 1968 (clockwise from left): Alex Brown, Clydie King, Gwen Berry, Merry Clayton

 

POST-ATLANTIC

TrackSingle
My Baby! (I Love Her, Yes I Do)ABC-Paramount 10081
Sticks And StonesABC-Paramount 10118
Georgia On My MindABC-Paramount 10135
Hit The Road JackABC-Paramount 10244
You Don't Know MeABC-Paramount ABCS 410-1

Certain Ray Charles fans, and I wouldn’t totally exclude myself, are inclined to categorise his recording history as ‘Atlantic’ and ‘The rest’, or to expand a little, ‘Atlantic’ and ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – the heading used on this section is in line with such thoughts. However, the switches involved, from Swingtime to Atlantic and then from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount were nothing like as clear-cut as these headings might suggest.

Much is made of the fact that Charles was given ‘full artistic control’ at ABC if you can totally believe that, but the man himself would probably have argued that he was effectively in the production booth in the later period at Atlantic. Several of his early ABC-Paramount records, up until, say, Hit The Road Jack, released in August 1961, could have been waxed while he was at Atlantic; there isn’t a dramatic difference in sound or approach. It’s also true that Ray’s output whilst at Atlantic was by no means all gospel-soaked R&B or blues; he put out a more than significant amount of jazzy instrumentals, updated oldies and near lounge ballads even if the bulk of such material was on LPs rather than singles.

Ray’s first ABC-Paramount single, My Baby! (I Love Her, Yes I Do), was as gospel-drenched as anything that had come out on Atlantic. Structurally, it was little more than a slow to medium 12 bar blues with Margie Hendrix and Ray taking alternate verses and the Raelettes my baby-ing in the background. The live version from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival slows the whole thing down even further while upping the sensuality and intensity levels. And doesn’t Margie just love singing those lyrics.

For reasons I fail to understand, the record failed to chart at all in the US – the fact that it didn’t in the UK can be put down to the simple fact that it wasn’t released here.

As far as the US public were concerned, ABC-Paramount release #2, Sticks And Stones made up for any perceived lacking in his first single, elbowing its way up to #2 in the R&B Chart and just squeaking into the Pop Top 40. The switch to the mix that had worked with What’d I Say – punchy, upbeat and latin in approach with Raelettes call & response – together with lyrics based on a children’s chant, worked like a treat. “Don’t you know it’s true” as Brother Ray called out in the fade.

People talkin’ tryin’ to break us up
Why won’t they let us be
Bricks and stones may break my bones
But talk don’t bother me

(The reader/listener will note that Ray sings “bricks” rather than “sticks” in what would otherwise have been the only appearance of the title in the song. This number is one of those rarities which doesn’t contain its title.)

The follow-up to Sticks And Stones was a number that has become indelibly associated with the man. Georgia On My Mind was, perhaps, a curious choice; an oldie but not one that was ever strongly associated with one of the big name crooners. It was included in Ray’s debut LP for ABC-Paramount, The Genius Hits The Road, an early concept album wherein every track was associated with a place. But there’s a story which appears in a number of places, that his chauffeur suggested Ray cut “Georgia” because of the way he sang it to himself as they travelled along. The song’s co-author, Hoagy Carmichael, was always vague about whether the title referred to a woman or the state (though the state later claimed it) and in his 1978 autobiography, “Brother Ray”, Ray stated “I’ve never known a lady named Georgia … and I wasn’t dreaming of the state … even though I was born there, it was just a beautiful, romantic melody.”

And any possible doubts that the nation wouldn’t love a beautiful, romantic melody disappeared totally when the record swept to number one in the US Pop Chart. For me, it was Ray’s intonation and identification with the song, plus the presence of occasional blue notes from his piano, which saved the performance from a fate of saccharine doom to which those backing singers and strings might have taken it.

Skipping over a few releases we arrive at Hit The Road Jack, Ray’s last truly great single for ABC-Paramount, and one that betters all but the very best of his Atlantic crackers. The writer was Percy Mayfield who never actually recorded the number formally himself. All we have is an unaccompanied home recording with an unidentified lady playing the Raelettes. Mayfield was another West Coast cool school man with some similarity to Charles Brown but with more edge and considerably greater song writing talent. Ray had already worked with Percy while at Atlantic, as noted earlier. He would go on and record more than fifteen Mayfield songs (source: Wiki). See also the Percy Mayfield Toppermost.

This is the live version of “Hit The Road”:

After several singles that didn’t do a lot, Hit The Road Jack gave Ray his second number one (and some welcome writing royalties for Percy I would imagine). The latter also benefited from the fact that Ray chose another of his numbers for the flip, The Danger Zone, another fine song which arguably deserved to be an A-side.

Unchain My Heart from late ’61 was Ray’s last real single on which his gospel origins were seriously to the fore. And it was good. So good that (a) it nearly made the selections, and (b) it demonstrated the quality of some of the releases in the first couple of years with ABC-Paramount.

Ray’s third number one hit was I Can’t Stop Loving You in 1962. That statement needs a little context. After a year or so with ABC-Paramount, Ray thought he needed to push the ‘full artistic control’ button a little and suggested an album of country music done in the Ray Charles style. With some initial trepidation, ABC-Paramount agreed and the album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music came into being. Wiki states that the model on which it was based was a 1959 Atlantic album The Genius Of Ray Charles on which side one was big and brassy lounge and side two was strings and ballady lounge. On Modern Sounds both approaches are used together with a faint smidgeon of gospel. If you were expecting country soul – as I was at the time – this wasn’t it. I gave the set (as packaged with its follow-up, Volume 2) three stars in an Amazon review which was one of a few very rare exceptions in a positive sea of five star ratings. Among my statements was the following: “One got the impression that Charles felt that he had found his niche at last. All those days scuffling with blues and R&B were over, never to return.”

But who am I to judge? The albums were massively successful as indeed were the singles which were released from them. I Can’t Stop Loving You was the biggest of the lot. Billboard ranked it as #2 for 1962. I’ll stick with the Don Gibson original on which he maintains his dignity and manages not to turn the song into a pub singalong.

But as my three stars indicated, bearing in mind the rating could have been lower, some tracks did have considerable charm and I’ve selected You Don’t Know Me as the final choice of the post-Atlantic period. The song was written by Cindy Walker and recorded by Eddy Arnold in 1956 – Arnold had supplied Ms Walker with the title and broad theme. The strings work well on the Charles version – not something I say often – but it’s that ending of the first verse on an unresolved chord that really makes the record work for me.

Ray continued to record broadly in the Modern Sounds manner for much of the rest of his career, There were occasional reminders of the soul cum gospel days like 1963’s Busted and 1966’s Let’s Go Get Stoned but, as the saying goes, these were the exceptions that proved the rule.

And that’s where I’ll stop. Ray Charles made lots more good records. Maybe they weren’t such fantastic records but they made millions of people happy.

Ray died of complications from acute liver disease on 10th June 2004 at his home in Beverly Hills. B.B. King and Stevie Wonder were among those who sang and played tributes at the funeral.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

In “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll”, the esteemed critic Peter Guralnick opened his essay on Ray Charles with the following statement:

“Ray Charles: the Genius, the High Priest of Soul. Black, blind, an addict for over 20 years; singer, pianist, composer. For black America he brought the feeling of the church into secular music and crystallized an era. For white America he suggested whole new arenas of experience and served as a symbolic encapsulation of that experience: spontaneous, “natural” and irremediably flawed.”

An answer to that question I posed way back at the beginning? Good journalist that he is, Guralnick spends the next few pages justifying his assertion. Somewhere near the end there’s a sentence which starts “For the rest of the Sixties, and up to the present day, he has contented himself with what have come to be virtually MOR albums, broad-based, inoffensive …”. So, perhaps a flawed genius or one who had found an accommodation with himself and his audience.

All the early soul pioneers had their own musical characteristics but Ray Charles had more than any of them: an appreciation and understanding of jazz which allowed him to incorporate both ‘soul jazz’ as practiced by the Adderley brothers and Bobby Timmons, plus a penchant for big swing time arrangements; an ability to conjure a range of sounds from the piano from the propulsion of What’d I Say to slow, shrill and agonised as in A Fool For You; the gamut of vocal gospel techniques both individually and with the Raelettes; wide experience of blues from the cool sounds of L.A. to rougher R&B; and that voice of course, totally distinctive.

For a period of roughly seven years starting in the mid fifties, Ray Charles managed to put those components together in differing combinations to create a series of wonderful records, many in the totally unique Ray Charles soul style and several of which still manage to send a shiver down my spine. That’ll do for me. Someone else can worry about how big a genius he was.

Turn the volume up.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. In answer to the question, “who did what?”, we can inform the reader that Dave put together the introduction, Early Years, Post-Atlantic and Final Thoughts while Cal provided the Atlantic section and the one headed, The Female Backing Singers/Raelettes. The Footnotes were shared between us and the selections were agreed jointly.

2. (D) Although Ray’s I’ve Got A Woman is sometimes claimed to be the first single which mixed R&B and gospel in a secular record, it wasn’t. In my view, that honour goes to the vocal group, Billy Ward and his Dominoes with lead singer (at the time), Clyde McPhatter. The group were formed by vocal coach Billy Ward in 1951. Ward himself didn’t sing on the group’s records; he was their pianist, arranger and manager. Ward recruited members for the Dominoes from his students and while some of those students might have had a gospel background, the records were strictly secular as might be judged by their first major hit, Sixty Minute Man. The Dominoes’ 1952 record Have Mercy Baby, showed clear gospel influences, with call and response vocal interplay between McPhatter and the rest of the boys and plenty of extemporisation and melisma from Clyde himself.

The black vocal group tradition and its intermingling with gospel sources was arguably the main contributor in the early days of soul music. Another major player from that territory was the group, the “5” Royales who started life as a spiritual choir and then changed name and switched to secular music. Their recording career as the Royales commenced in 1952 and although I wouldn’t point to one particular record as being influential, there were elements of gospel in most of their tracks.

3 (C) There is no doubting I’ve Got A Woman owes a great deal to It Must Be Jesus but the words of this song (or variations of it) go back a long way – maybe as far back as the American Civil War in the 1860s. Ray secularised the lyrics but in 1933 Josh White recorded There’s A Man Goin’ Around Taking Names which has similar lyrics to the Southern Tones. Certainly the lyrics were in print in the 1920s.

4. (D) Charles Brown, who was born in Texas but like several musicians had moved to Los Angeles, was a blues singer and pianist of some repute. His cool mode of delivery was suited to the city’s night club scene. He started out as a member of the trio, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, and had several hits in the R&B Chart in the late forties and early fifties both within the trio and as a solo artist. Key records included Drifting Blues and Merry Christmas Baby.

5. (D) The Maxin (or sometimes, Maxim) Trio was an incorrect transcription of the McSon Trio. The ‘Mc’ in the name came from guitarist Gosady McKee – in some places shown as McGee – and the ‘son’ from Robinson as Ray was still calling himself at the time.

6. (D) According to Mike Evans, author of “Ray Charles: The Birth Of Soul”, Confession Blues and it’s A-side weren’t the first tracks that Ray cut. In 1948 in Tampa, Florida, he and musical friends cut a number of semi-improvised blues including I Found My Baby There on a wire recorder – such devices were in existence prior to the more familiar tape recorder. The resulting spools were lost but tracks that could be from this source have subsequently turned up in CD collections. There’s a similar story on Wiki with four tracks named including I Found My Baby There. This could be that track.

7. (D) Lowell Fulson was a blues singer and guitarist who came from Oklahoma but like many musicians of the period, operated largely out of L.A. Confusingly his name sometimes appears as Fullsom or Fulsom which was done for contractual reasons – that’s what Wiki says so I’ll stick with it. His style was broadly akin to that of B.B. King but with less sophistication. The hit that he is largely remembered for is Reconsider Baby which was later recorded by Presley, but Lowell also cut the original Three O’Clock Blues and recorded one of the versions of Every Day I Have The Blues, both songs associated with King.

8. (D) As stated in the main text, Ruth Brown had a series of R&B Chart hits for Atlantic starting in 1949 and falling off in the late fifties. Unfortunately for Ruth, whose origins were in Portsmouth, Virginia, she never achieved the transition from R&B to soul so didn’t receive the level of crossover success that artists like Charles achieved. I suspect that this might have been in part due to something of a blinkered approach by Atlantic. I note also that her singles didn’t start appearing in the UK until 1955 (see similar comment below on Charles).

9. (D) It could just be me but I see a loose relationship between the guitar arpeggio with which Eddie Jones answers his vocal lines in The Things That I Used To Do wherein he lifts the pitch an octave, and Ray’s piano work on certain slow numbers like A Fool For You. Ray is too clever to merely replicate the Jones combination of notes but there is that feel of an octave jump. His piano is also shrill and strident for such numbers, utterly unlike the cool approach on early records.

10. (C) Doc Pomus, real name Jerome Felder, wrote Lonely Avenue. He turned to song writing after giving up on a singing career. He wrote for Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown and Joe Turner at Atlantic. In collaboration with Mort Shuman they wrote songs such as Dion’s A Teenager In Love, the Drifters’ Save The Last Dance For Me and Sweets For My Sweet plus many other big hits. They also wrote over twenty songs for Elvis including Little Sister, (Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame and Suspicion. Doc and Mort were a veritable hit producing duo.

11. (C) Henry Glover – see Footnote 6 about him in the Little Willie John Toppermost #632 – wrote I’ll Drown In My Tears For Lula Reed in 1951. On the record it was credited to piano playing band leader Sonny Thompson. The song reached No.5 in the R&B charts in 1952 and Lula and Sonny married in 1954.

12. (D) I have a memory of Long John Baldry on stage in the Flamingo, in the days of the Hoochie Coochie Men, singing Night Time Is The Right Time with Rod Stewart playing all the Raelettes. Apart from aural impact there was also visual impact caused by shared usage of the same upstanding mike and the disparity in height between the pair.

13. (C) In 1961 the Cookies re-formed with original member Dorothy Jones joined by Earl-Jean McCrea and Margaret Ross. Earl-Jean was Darlene’s younger sister and Margaret was Dorothy’s cousin. Besides providing backing vocals on big hits of 1962 by Neil Sedaka (Breaking Up Is Hard To Do), Little Eva (The Locomotion) and Mel Tormé (Comin’ Home Baby) amongst many others, they recorded a famous record and in 1963 they had a big hit. Their records were released on the Dimension label. The famous record was Chains, which the Beatles covered and included on their first LP. Their big hit record was Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby), which reached #3 in the R&B charts and #7 in the US pop charts. They also recorded under several pseudonyms and their last record was made in 1967.

14. (D) In common with certain other R&B and early soul artists, Ray Charles suffered from the problem that his singles didn’t see release in the UK until well into his career (though the real problem was that us folk in the UK missed out on them). To be precise, the first single to get issued here was the instrumental Rockhouse Parts 1 & 2 (on London) in December 1958. Although London was up and running several years earlier and had contractually agreed to issue Atlantic records, one would guess that records from Ray, which were then selling only to a black audience in the US, were judged to be unlikely to be sellers in the UK. This led to odd anomalies such as two covers of Ray Charles numbers appearing on the Everly Brothers debut album in 1958 but never seeing UK single release from their creator.

15. (D) I stated that Hoagy Carmichael was co-author of Georgia On My Mind. He in fact composed the melody and his then roommate Stuart Gorrell wrote the lyrics. The first version to be released came from Carmichael himself in 1930. Anita O’Day had a hit with the song in 1941 fronting the Gene Krupa Orchestra. However, Charles is so associated with the number that later versions like those from Willie Nelson and (separately) the Band are invariably compared to his version rather than an earlier one.

16. (D) A couple of factors might have swayed ABC into going along with the Charles suggestion of a country album. Not only had Ray already shown some aptitude via his version of I’m Movin’ On but Solomon Burke had had a medium size hit with the country song Just Out Of Reach on Atlantic in late summer 1961.

17. (D) Cindy Walker, originally from Mart, Texas was a song writer and sometimes, singer and dancer. She started out in the writing business in 1940 at the age of 22. It has been estimated that 500 of her songs have been recorded, many of them by country artists including Bob Wills (who recorded 50+ Walker songs), Gene Autry, Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves and many more. She sometimes wrote for more pop inclined performers; Roy Orbison’s Dream Baby was penned by Cindy. Anyone reading this who owns a copy of the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo might also be interested to know that she wrote Blue Canadian Rockies.

18. (D) There had to be a live closer and what could be better than a clip of our hero in typical stage show form on an extended I Got A Woman:

 

Ray Charles (1930–2004)

 

Ray Charles poster 2

Ballad In Blue: the 1964 movie starring Ray Charles

 

Ray Charles poster 3

Ray: the 2004 movie directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The Official Ray Charles Website

The Ray Charles Video Museum
“A research project, documenting live performances by The Genius. This blog is above all a mediagraphy. It’s also a discography (or, more correctly, a trackography), aggregating all tunes that Ray sang and/or played – including the “canon” of 700 tracks listed on the official Ray Charles website, but also identifying the songs that have never been officially released, and e.g. the recordings of other artists, where Ray backed them on piano. Thirdly, this blog has evolved into a multimedia chronology.”

The Ray Charles Foundation

It’s All About Ray: Pictorial Guide to Albums & Songs

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Ray Charles (inaugural year 1986)

Ray Charles Discography

“Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story” by Ray Charles & David Ritz (1978, revised 2004)

“Ray Charles: The Birth Of Soul” by Mike Evans (2005)

The Raelettes – a photographic & video history

The Raelettes – list of members

Ray Charles biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
The “5” Royales, Don Gibson, B.B. King, Percy Mayfield, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker

TopperPost #771

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 7, 2019

    Dave and Cal, thanks for this great and brilliantly comprehensive piece. Also made me intrigued about his later period stuff – there is so much of it that surely there must be another Toppermost in there.
    As an aside, in Richard Sudhalter’s book on Hoagy, he says that ‘he had never set foot in Georgia’ when he wrote that song.
    And, to conclude, here is Ray doing a great version of Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart live.
    I would be more in the ‘5 Star’ school for ‘Modern Sounds’ which opened the door to a lot of great soul-country covers.

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 7, 2019

      Andrew, thanks for those words, as always you’re very kind. Yes, I’d seen that statement attributed to Hoagy but thought I’d said enough on the song, and no, regarding the later music, I think we picked most of the tracks that really defined Ray (though you couldn’t say that he ever made a bad record). With regard to “Modern Sounds”, I did state that the measly 3 stars I gave the album stood out in “a positive sea of five star ratings” so you would be far from alone in feeling as you do. But in reference to the review, Amazon stated “10 people found this helpful” and no one chose to use the Comments facility to haul me over the coals.

  2. Peter Viney
    Mar 8, 2019

    Interesting … Hank Williams and Ray Charles one after the other! I met so much Ray Charles material via Zoot Money (see Toppermost 335) that I’d add It Should’ve Been Me and Smack Dab In The Middle to the list. I’d want Baby It’s Cold Outside (with Betty Carter), Let’s Go Get Stoned and Busted in the final selection too. I think you’re largely right on where to stop, but it does leave nearly 40 years of his life unmentioned, including his own label Tangerine. I loathed his Beatles covers (Eleanor Rigby and Yesterday). But what then? I spent two weeks working in Japan with a fanatic Ray Charles collector, and we hit the vinyl shops in every city, and I realize just how much there is. Crying Time (1966) was his last US Top 20 album, and from that, Let’s Go Get Stoned is said to have inspired Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day Women 12 and 35 (If Ray can get away with it …). But then there are over thirty albums until he got a US #1 with the (great) duets album, “Genius Loves Company” in 2002. Singles did better … That Lucky Old Sun (1966) and In The Heat of The Night (1967) stretch it a bit. On the Raelettes, they did about a dozen singles under their own name. I have their 1970 Tangerine single Bad Water which is amazing.

  3. David Lewis
    Mar 10, 2019

    A characteristically excellent round up by both of you. I’ll state that ‘Modern Sounds’ showed just how close soul and country are – same notes, same harmonies, same lyrical themes – just location and social differences. So, I’m in the ‘five-star’ club. But I see your point.

  4. Peter Viney
    Mar 10, 2019

    Further thoughts. Let’s Go Get Stoned is so essential because Ray returns to a small group sound – piano, organ, guitar, bass, drums + Raelettes. No strings. No horns. You say “Ray Charles continued to record broadly in the “Modern Sounds” manner for the rest of his career.” To a degree. Even when he recorded R&B classics like What Am I Living For? Or Down In The Valley? (both 1971) they had the same Modern Sounds sheen and relaxed approach and the guitar sounded more country. That isn’t all though. There’s a fine funky instrumental “Boody Butt: from 1971 – my copy says Ray Charles, but online ones say Ray Charles Orchestra. Then there are collaborations … he was such a frequent collaborator. Many are country or pop, but soul hadn’t gone – there’s a great Livin’ In The City, On 1971’s “True to Life” he covers Bobby Charles’ The Jealous Kind and Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now … the latter definitely rocks. Then there’s the duet with Chaka Khan ‘I’ll Be Good To you” on Quincy Jones “Back on The Block” album. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4uPkgKAHKo). I intend to explore later Ray further. Trouble is, even on “True to Life” you get his version of songs like Oh, What A Beautiful Morning. Ouch. There must be a good curated later compilation of more soulful stuff!

  5. Peter Viney
    Mar 31, 2019

    Since the article I’ve been looking in the secondhand racks for later Ray Charles (there’s not much about), where I eventually found “Brother Ray” from 1980 a few days ago. It has covers of Compared To What, The Band’s Ophelia, Frankie Miller’s I Can’t Change It, all worthwhile, as is his own Questions. For me the standout is Anyway You Want To. Great Raelettes singing introduces Ray channelling his inner Sly Stone with just a touch of Barry White. It has a very strong hook (definitely courtesy of Hall & Oates, to me!). Have a listen.

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