Levels. So many levels emanate from this man. When Ray Charles recorded “What’d I Say?” white folks were drawn by a power, alien and radiant, into a new reality Blacks merely laughed and hit a groove out on the dance floor. But that groove! Ray Charles took as tools the blues, gospel, country, and jazz and created a language of life that reaches out beyond the styles that influence it. Charles’ music cuts right to the center, or more rightly begins from the center of any song’s experience, and allows us to share it.
Ray Charles will be featured at the Festival this year and for most of us it will be the only chance to see him somewhere without sporting a wad big enough to choke a horse. For the uninitiated an excellent introduction to the world of Ray Charles is “A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles” (ABC-731) It’s a two-record set with nine songs a side (five’s average these days) which starts with the Atlantic sides of the middle 50’s and progresses chronologically to his last hit singles, “If You Were Mine” and “Don’t Change On Me.” All the other collections that have been released were partisan to either Atlantic or his other label ABC and never gave this full perspective on his work.
Side one is raw and rock solid. There is much church in these recordings. Ray Charles sanctifies sex, calling for a witness in tunes like “I Got a Woman” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” The bands, pushed by Charles’ masterful piano, lay down incredible grooves, physically powerful, but never frantic or self-conscious. The best example of the sound is “The Mess Around,” a shouting blues. You listen to it and can think of an outdoor fish fry, people sailing across the dance floor in perfect time, a horn section swaying back and forth, and Ray Charles, pumping those funky down-home piano riffs, turning the whole world on with his heat.
Side two is still heavily r&b, including “The Night Time is the Right Time,” a song with a groove so relentless it starts to sound like voodoo a little more each time I hear it. Also on this side is the beautiful, brooding blues-ballad, “I Believe to My Soul.” The song is a storm-cloud of sadness and pent-up hate, and like every joyful love cry or novelty tune Ray Charles leads you right up to its face. This side also features “What’d I Say” which started lots of people talking about this love ah . . . “soul music.” These first two sides are especially deep if you think about the other wimpy music around at the time. This stuff is as far from fifties rock as Ornette Coleman.
Side three pulls us through to the sixties and the sound of these recordings are much fuller, a big band jazz sound instead of a little soul band. Strings and big choral groups see frequent action, especially on the ballads. “Ruby” and “Georgia on My Mind” on this side are fine examples of this approach at its best. The rich arrangements juxtaposed against Charles’ rough textured voice and blue piano send these songs directly to the heart. At this point Ray Charles began covering country tunes, which lost him some older fans but sold millions of records. The best country adaptation of all “You Are My Sunshine” highlights this side. Given an African beat like a slowed down “What’d I Say?” the cut sizzles, breaking into a swing bridge that is incredible, falling back into the groove for a Raelette solo, then back to Ray and out with revivalist fever. “You Are My Sunshine”. They make that idea so real.
Side four features some more country tunes, the fantastic original “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and the chilling “Understanding”. Ray Charles explains his deal with his woman, always returning to the chorus, “Understanding is the best thing in the world. . .” So smooth. But in the last verse, Ray reveals that if that girl were to be unfaithful he would “buy myself a double-bladed axe handle, square off and believe me, her soul better belong to the good Lord, because her head’s gonna belong to me!”
The album ends like it beings with a blues “Feel So Bad”. But it’s got to be Ray Charles’ blues. “Soul”, he says, “is when you take a song and make it part of you – a part that is so true, so real, people think it must have happened to you. I’m not satisfied unless I can make them feel what I feel.” You should pick up on this man and his music. He not only is a genuine part of your musical heritage but he is talking to you. Listen to his voice, understand his message, feel the soul of Ray Charles.