Friday, June 11, 2004

The Godfather: James Brown was always the godfather of soul, but if rock and roll had a godfather, it was Ray Charles. He took all the lines of influence in rock and brought them together in one original sound: country, soul, R&B, gospel, and blues, along with an effortless knack for song styling that only a few can claim. He was a writer on par with Lieber and Stoller, fused to a performer with few peers.

The first Ray song I heard was "What's I Say?": I was about 12 years old, and I was floored. Oh, I suppose I had heard "Hit the Road, Jack" earlier, but this was this was the moment I opened my ears. Music doesn't come much funkier than that. "Come Back Baby (Let's Talk it Over)" was another one that killed me, along with "Here We Go Again," a song that only one other man could have nailed as well as Ray -- George Jones. I always preferred Ray's voice alone; the backing vocals on much of MSiC&W are way, way too much -- songs like "I Can't Stop Loving You" suffered for the heavy arrangements.

Nevertheless, his sound is indelible. Once you've listened to Ray, you hear him everywhere. To take a couple of obvious examples, listen to Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" -- it's a northeastern "Georgia on My Mind." Listen to the organ groove and Stevie Winwood's vocal work on Spencer Davis's "Gimme Some Lovin'" -- it's the spitting image of the Ray Charles sound. Joe Cocker's covers of McCartney's "She Came in through the Bathroom Window" and the Box Tops' "The Letter" from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen show are clear nods to Ray, as was the very structure of that show at the Fillmore East, a big-band rock and roll revue.

So my hat's off to Ray today, knowing that he was stepping on stage to lead the band in musical Valhalla before his last breath had even fluttered to the sky.

1 comment:

Razor said...

Funny, I never consciously put the connection between Charles and "Gimme Some Loving" but you're absolutely right. Dead on Charles.

I saw Charles live once in about 1990. The show was good if reserved. Then he did as an encore the Jimmy Cliff song "I Can See Clearly Now". Damn, if he didn't tear that song up and put it back together. He did this jam on the "it's gonna be bright, bright, sun-shiney day" part, which knocked me over. I'll never forget that.

And let's not forget Ray's cameo in the "Blues Brothers" when he whips out the gun to stop the kid from shoplifting - even though Ray's blind. He never had a problem laughing at himself.