“Ray Charles is the only genius in our business.” – Frank Sinatra.
“Soul is when you take a song and make it part of you – a part that’s so true, so real, people think it must have happened to you… It’s like electricity- we don’t really know what it is, do we? But it’s a force that can light a room. Soul is like electricity, like a spirit, a drive, a power.” – Ray Charles.
Many people speak about Ray’s Atlantic years as his best. In fact, the inspiration for this series was the Atlantic box set I bought some years ago. Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun wrote a blues he called “Mess Around” and it became Ray’s first Atlantic hit. It’s pretty much nothing more than a three-chord traditional blues but for 1953, it’s pretty rock and roll. I can’t believe Little Richard didn’t listen to this:
Ray’s engineer during this time was the amazing Tom Dowd, recently of the Manhattan Project. In the world of producing and engineering music, Dowd’s name rivals Ray’s and he worked with a “veritable who’s who”of recordings that encompassed blues, jazz, pop, rock, and soul records.” That would include everyone from Ray to Coltrane to Aretha Franklin to Derek and the Dominos to the Allman Brothers band. If you get a chance, check out the documentary Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.
Let us also note that 1954 is not only the year that Ray made some great recordings but also the year that Elvis Presley walked into a recording studio in Memphis and recorded a song for his mother. So while Ray was recording blues for a largely black audience, a bunch of young white guys were picking up on it and making it more palatable for a white audience. Paths were crossing and the stars were aligning.*
And while, yes, Ray had some success in his early Atlantic years, there wasn’t yet that huge breakout hit that Ertegun and Wexler knew he had in him. Not only were they great lovers of black music, but they were also savvy businessmen who wanted to see some return on their investment. Meanwhile, Ray and his crew kept crisscrossing the country, playing, scoring, getting laid, gambling and just living that musician lifestyle.
However, in 1954 you can really hear Ray start to pull together jazz, blues, and gospel. “The song “I Got a Woman” builds on “It Must Be Jesus” by the Southern Tones, which Ray Charles was listening to on the radio while on the road with his band in the summer of 1954. He and a member of his band, trumpeter Renald Richard, penned a song that was built along a gospel-frenetic pace with secular lyrics and a jazz-inspired rhythm and blues (R&B) background.”
As his memoir says, the “blues and gospel idioms lived as close together and as far apart as Saturday night and Sunday morning. Blues singers didn’t sing gospel and gospel singers didn’t sing blues.” Ray didn’t play by the rules.
“Woman” was Ray’s first #1 hit on the R&B (named by Jerry Wexler) charts. Ray also got married in 1955 to Della Howard. The long-suffering Ms. Howard bore him several children, put up with his philandering and heroin addiction for over 20 years.
At different times both Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler tried to tell Ray what to play or how to play it. Worked for a while. Then Ray put his foot down and said, “If I’m gonna do a session I’m gonna do it my damn way or I ain’t gonna do it at all.” And that was pretty much the end of that. Who could argue with a guy – soon to be called “genius” – who not only knew what he wanted but could write it, sing it and tell you when an instrument in the band was even slightly out of tune?
One of my favorite tunes from this era is the fantastic “Hard Times.” The singer in one of my bands knew this tune cold and introduced me to it. We used to play it and I love it to this day. Check out these lyrics:
My mother told me before she passed away,
Said, “Son, when I’m gone, don’t forget to pray
‘Cause there’ll be hard times, Lord those hard times –
Who knows better than I?”
Well I soon found out just what she meant
When I had to pawn my clothes just to pay the rent;
Talkin’ ‘about hard times, hard times
Who knows better than I?
Ray continued to record and tour relentlessly. I love his casual description of some of the shit that sometimes went down at these gigs. “Some cat steps on another dude’s foot … Some woman comes in and sees another woman dry-fucking her man.” Yeah, we’re not quite yet at Carnegie Hall. But then again Ray did headline the Apollo on a bill that included (shoot me now) Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane.
In 1958, Ray and the band were playing a gig and needed to fill in some time. (He had by now added the Raelets**, a revolving cast of female singers who sang with him. Interestingly, at one point that troupe included one Merry Clayton, the woman famous for singing on “Gimme Shelter.” They started vamping on a number with Ray moaning and the Raelets groaning in response which sounded to everybody pretty much like .. they were working hard!
Wikipedia: “After his run of R&B hits, “What’d I Say” finally broke Charles into mainstream pop music and itself sparked a new subgenre of R&B titled soul, finally putting together all the elements that Charles had been creating since he recorded “I Got a Woman” in 1954. The gospel and rhumba influences combined with the sexual innuendo in the song made it not only widely popular but very controversial to both white and black audiences.
“What’d I Say” earned Ray Charles his first gold record and has been one of the most influential songs in R&B and rock and roll history. For the rest of his career, Charles closed every concert with the song. It was added to the National Recording Registry in 2002 and ranked at number 10 in Rolling Stone‘s ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.'”
Ray’s contract with Atlantic expired in 1959. Wexler and Ertegun were sure he’d re-sign with them. But he didn’t. He went with ABC-Paramount. Ray was one shrewd businessman. Not only did get a big yearly guarantee ($50,000/year, $438,527 in today’s dollars) but alos higher royalties and eventual ownership of his master tapes which nobody got.
And so what did ABC get in return? None other than his interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind.” This song is so associated with Ray that I bet nobody knows (or perhaps cares) that Ray was a Floridian. In 1979, the State of Georgia designated Ray Charles’s version the official state song. You’ll doubtless notice Ray has now added strings to his repertoire.
Ray won a couple of Grammys for “Georgia” as he did for the follow-up tune, the fun “Hit the Road Jack.”
That song came out in 1961 when Ray was 31. And the poor kid from Greenville, Florida with barely a pot to piss in had reached the pinnacle of fame and fortune. But he still had to have that fix of smack when he came into town and like all junkies, that hard road had to end one way or the other.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Ray had grown up with country and with listening to the Grand Old Opry. So for him it was no stretch to release a country album. But for a black man to sing country music? Unheard of. (I bet the late Charley Price was listening.)
Like he did with pretty much every genre he touched, Ray took no prisoners with the 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. This great album kicked Ray’s fame and fortune up a couple of notches. “Charles’s version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” topped the Pop chart for five weeks, stayed at No. 1 on the R&B chart for ten weeks, and gave him his only number-one record in the UK.”
Ray got himself a plane and a pilot. No more old cars, buses, and vans. He was on top of the world. What could possibly go wrong?
This: In 1964 Ray and the band flew into Boston. Ray forget his stash on the plane, came back to get it and was stopped by the cops. They knew marijuana for sure. But they wouldn’t know if it was heroin they found until they tested it. One thing was for sure – Ray was in some deep shit. When word hit the press gigs got canceled all over the place. This was the Feds and Ray was staring down a lotta possible years in jail.
Ray’s prophetic 1962 hit “Busted” seems an appropriate way to end this post. It’s more about being flat broke than busted for dope. But still.
Not on Spotify
Next (and final) post – I wrap up our story in one fell swoop.
*For Ray’s not-so-positive thoughts on Elvis, check out this brief interview.
**The standing joke is that if you were a Raelet you had to “let Ray.” But the author of his memoir said yes, quite a few but not all.
Sources: Ray Charles Memoir by Michael Lydon, Wikipedia