Thursday, June 10, 2004

R.I.P. THE GENIUS!

Ray Charles died today. An Associated Press story is HERE.

I only got to see Ray in concert once, back in the early '80s at Albuquerque's Civic Auditorium.

What can I say? He was great.

I'll be honoring The Genius on both my radio shows this weekend (Santa Fe Opry on Friday night, Terrell's Sound World on Sunday, both starting at 10 p.m. on KSFR 90.7 FM

Here's an old Terrell's Tune-Up I wrote reviewing a Ray Charles box set.

DISCOVERING RAY CHARLES
Originally published in in The Santa Fe New Mexican Oct. 10,1997.

When introducing her guest singer at a 1971 concert at the Filmore West, Aretha Franklin exclaimed, ``I discovered Ray Charles!''

Those too young to remember the old Flip Wilson TV show probably won't get the joke. She is referring to one of Flip's most popular routines, the one where Columbus is pitching his expedition to Queen Isabella. The exuberant queen exclaims, ``Chris gonna find Ray Charles!''

Indeed, assuming that our music is one of America's greatest treasures, one of the most shining jewels is Ray Charles.

Rhino Records recently released the most comprehensive treasure chest of Brother Ray's music to date, the five-disc collection, Genius & Soul, The 50th Anniversary Collection.Half a century in show business. Prevailing over physical handicap, drug addiction, untold changes of musical styles. And almost every one of these 102 songs (which span the years from 1949 to 1993) sound fresh, vital and downright majestic.

It's true that Ray Charles is blind, but when it comes to music, he is a man of vision. Who else could sing blues, jazz, soul, pop, Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, country and even soda pop jingles? finding any kernel of passion, infusing it with his personality and making it sound like the only song that matters. Who else could record songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Buck Owens, The Beatles, the Gershwins and Quincy Jones and make it all sound like they were written especially for him?

Ray can even turn a fluffy little bubblegum ditty like Melanie's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" into a soulful howl. (It must have been a joyous kick in the head for Ms. Safka when she heard what Ray Charles did to her song. By the end of it, he's improvising, ``I'm insane, insane, mama, I'm goin' crazy, mama!'')

There are so many great tunes here, it doesn't seem right to mention just the few that space will allow. I doubt that I have to convince anyone of the wonder of such hits like "Hit the Road, Jack," "I Got a Woman," "Georgia On My Mind," "Unchain My Heart" and "What I Say." (If I ever become Ayatollah, I'll put Ray Charles on the $10 bill with the inscription, "Tell your Mama, Tell Your Pa, I'm gonna send you back to Arkansas.")

But here's some lesser known Charles tunes that ought to be more famous:

* "It Should Have Been Me": This is an early one, recorded in 1953, a proto-R&B tune written by someone named Memphis Curtis. It sounds a lot like the songs that Lieber and Stoller would later compose. Ray's voice is noticeably higher.

*"You Are My Sunshine": This is the greatest of Ray's country songs. But, with the help of singer Margie Hendrix (the real star of this tune), it doesn't sound ``country'' at all. In fact, it sounds like some kind of voodoo ceremony accompanied by a big band.

*"Ruby": Like many of Ray's tunes, this one features lush strings and a full-blown chorus. Rock purists might cringe, but Charles radiates so much passion here, your average loud, raunchy guitar group pales by comparison.

*"Don't Change On Me": A minor hit from the early '70s, showing Ray's sweeter side. It's just a sincere, simple love song with a chorus that clings to your brain.

*"Understanding": A disquieting thought: Did O.J. Simpson ever hear this 1967 song? Here Ray warns his woman better not cheat because if she does, Her soul better belong to the good Lord, 'cause her head gonna belong to me?

A personal note: When I first started getting seriously into music back in the third grade Ray Charles' "Hide 'Nor Hair," a minor 1962 hit written by Percy Mayfield, was one of my favorite songs. My mom bought me (actually, I put it in her grocery cart when she wasn't looking) Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which was released about the same time, but to my grave disappointment, the song wasn't there.

Nearly a decade later I bought Ray's 25th Anniversary Collection, which until this box set was his best compilation. But "Hide 'Nor Hair" wasn't there either. Indeed, that single was never on an album. Until now. It's the first song on Disc Three. Naturally, it was the first song I played when I got this box.

Not only did I remember most of the lyrics though I hadn't heard it in more than 30 years I also remembered what first drew me to Ray Charles and to music in general. I won't argue that it's his greatest song. (At the moment I'm leaning to "In the Heat of the Night" or "I Believe to My Soul") But it sure means a lot to me.

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