Edward W Batchelder

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Ray of Light:
A Tribute to Ray Charles at the Nashville Pops

cover of I've Got a Woman

If there’s a spirit of genius that’s particular to America, it’s located in the refusal to recognize boundaries. From the earliest exploratory drive westward to the latest expansion of free trade zones, Americans have always been loathe to accept the idea that there are borders that can’t—or shouldn’t—be crossed. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, of border-hoppers, and while we may have invented niche marketing, the best of us have always refused to stay in our assigned seats. As Walt Whitman sang in an early, expansive cry, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The greatest American artists have always been crossover artists.

This impulse has its dark side—ask any Native American—but at its best it produces someone like Ray Charles, who, in his music as in his life, managed to effectively obliterate any category assigned to him. Born poor in a land that privileged the rich, black in a South still in the grip of Jim Crow, and raised blind in a world where sight was assumed, he operated with the confident assurance of a fully sighted man, insisted that his music could cross all color lines, and became wealthy as a result.

Like many geniuses, Charles started his career in imitation, alternating between the gentle, jazzy ballads of Nat King Cole and the bluesier growls of Charles Brown. It was no doubt inevitable that he would end up outside that box, but it’s to credit of Atlantic executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler that they pushed him to discover his own style, much as his mother had pushed him to greater independence as a boy.

For Charles, independence came from turning within himself, and in this case, that meant locating the musical streams that had nourished him as a child: blues and gospel. Poets have been using the language of earthly love to speak of spiritual ecstasy since at least the Song of Solomon, but Charles turned the equation around. By adapting church gospel to sing about physical desire, he suggests that salvation on earth might be possible, at least for a few hours, if we could only find the right lover. (Conversely, the pangs of abandonment and loss—which Charles knew so well from his early life—seem like hell itself.)

It created an uproar. An old saying goes that the blues and gospel are as close as Saturday night and Sunday morning, but that still leaves a few hours between them. Charles, as blind to those few hours as he was to night and day themselves, saw no reason not to mix the two up. “I Got a Woman” reworks a gospel song heard on a late-night tour of Indiana with lyrics by his trumpet player Renald Richards, and it carries the full, joyful charge of Charles’s new romance with his future wife, gospel singer Della Beatrice Howard. As one of the first songs that connected those two opposing poles of African American life, though, it released a shower of sparks that continue to illuminate American music.

Charles went on to create most albums in the same vein, as well as darker ballads, and also showed himself capable of playing jazz—not just by tossing in a few seventh chords, but by holding his own on both piano and alto sax with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and on dates led by his own sax player, David “Fathead” Newman.

cover of Modern Sounds in Country and Western MusicusicIt was by crossing into country and western music, though, that Charles really showed his astonishing range. He’d grown up in Florida listening to the Grand Ole Opry, and one of his first jobs in the late forties was with a guitar-and-fiddle group called The Florida Playboys, but this early gig as a backing pianist couldn’t predict the surprising success of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

It was 1962, and Charles had moved on to ABC Records, where his custom of having full control of his music was written into his contract. That, and his status as a label money-maker, helped convince his skeptical producers to release Modern Sounds. “Who wants country music from Ray Charles?” they thought, but later admitted that on first hearing, “We went out of our minds.”

From the opening blast of horns in “Bye Bye, Love” to the high, closing “meeee” of “Hey, Good Lookin’,” Charles’s take on country and western is unlike anyone else’s. As critics noted at the time, the album lacks a trace of mandolin, banjo, pedal steel, or any of the other instruments traditionally associated with C&W. In their place, Charles substitutes punchy horn sections, sweetened strings, and the honeyed singing of the Raelets, his usual backup singers.

Nonetheless, Charles found in country’s sad laments and joyful celebrations a mirror of his own experiences, and though he did the music his way, he did it with such authentic feeling that no one disputed his right to it. As a biographer notes, he expanded country’s spectrum without distorting its essential shades, and country songs became an essential part of his repertoire from then on. It’s worth noting that Modern Sounds was not only one of the biggest selling black albums up to that time, it was also one of the biggest selling country and western albums.

Rhythm and blues, jazz, country, soul—Ray Charles has become an icon of American music, and like any icon, it’s easy to reduce him to a caricature: the boxy eyeshades, the raspy Southern voice speaking in hipster slang, the face turned upward as if toward some invisible sun. In the same way, his music can be reduced to its own iconic elements—the syncopated piano, the sudden stop-time breaks with lyrics trailing over them, the gospel-tinged call-and-response with his backup singers.

Yet imitation only scratches the surface. As Reba McEntire has said, “You can sing a correct note, but if it doesn’t come from your heart and soul, then the person listening can’t feel it. And that’s the way it was when Ray Charles would sing it. You would feel it, not only hear it.”

In other words, you can’t do justice to Ray Charles’s music without putting yourself into it, the same way he did, night after night for decades of touring and recording. Tonight’s singers represent a wide spectrum—Ellis Hall has worked with Charles himself, Abby Burke is a jazz singer in Nashville, while Bobby Caldwell is the country singer/songwriter behind “What You Won’t Do For Love” and “ Next Time I Fall”—but it’s no wider than the spectrum Charles himself represented. And like Charles, they plan on making the music their own.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from InConcert)

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