BY BENSON IDONIJE
SINCE the demise of Ray Charles, jazz and blues singing have not been the same. And the reason is obvious. There has always been disagreement over balance between the creative and the interpretative in jazz instrumental music, which is a matter of improvisation. But by the nature of what the singer does, he is forced to be more an interpreter and less a creator than any other musician. He is singing words; he is interpreting another person’s story in a world where songs are written for singers by master lyricists.
Besides, since most popular song lyrics are on the banal level, it becomes the task of the singer himself to bring a poignant personal involvement to an otherwise banal situation; and not too many are up to it. It is, originally, a problem in interpretation — it is the lyricist’s story, but the singer must make it his own, and by doing so, make it the story of the audience. Ray Charles was one of such few singers.
Actually, many singers dead or alive have been sufficiently talented to refract banal emotions, but for Billy Holiday and Ray Charles, this emotion transformed into an ever present reservoir of pain, which made them come out bigger and more meaningful. In such cases, you get what the song means to the singer, not what it meant to the man who wrote it. As Ray Charles once said, “I sing the songs for what they mean to me.”
Apparently, the songs meant the same thing to a significant number of Ray Charles’ contemporaries. He was simultaneously considered the best of the rock and-roll singers, the best of the Jazz singers — a category in which he won the Down Beat International Critics Poll more than once, and one of the best pop singers, perhaps second only to Frank Sinatra.
The high esteem in which his singing was held tended to obscure his considerable accomplishment as a blues pianist, band leader, saxophonist, composer and arranger.
How Ray Charles achieved this high musical status is one of the most fascinating stories of show business history. The operative word is ‘soul’, a euphemism for the music of the Negro church, which was, by the late fifties, the most pervasive influence in contemporary American popular music.
Besides, being the basic informing influence in rhythm and blues, the music of the sanctified churches also made its presence felt in the country and western field. Since these two strains accounted for the general popular style that the theatre did not, hit tunes strongly tinged with this music was recorded by people as far from the tradition as Eydie Gorme.
At the same time, jazz rediscovered an overt use of Negro church material and an uncompromising blues singer like Lightnin’ Hopkins became a national figure, and the rise to enormous popularity of Ray Charles, became obvious .
Charles reached the peak of his popularity in the 60s when he released such hits as What ‘d I say, Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on my mind, Swanee River Rock and the like, which he gave emotional interpretations. It was also in the 60’s that he enlisted the services of the Raeletts, three beautiful ladies, whose harmony style perfectly matched the music of Ray Charles in terms of accompaniment and group-vocal treatments. It was also at that time that he had David ‘Fathead’ Newman, one of the most forceful tenor men of that period, as a soloist.
However, Ray Charles’ popularity was explained by his long-time friend, arranger Quincy Jones far more succintly. “He gets everything inside of him out”. And it is true that Charles displayed open, unselfconscious emotionalism, probably more so than any major jazz singer. But as many people were rep
elled by that kind of naked emotion as were attracted to it. Some people suddenly became nervous, restless as his raw shouts of pain filled a room, literally embarrassed by a kind of emotional honesty which they themselves were probably never able to summon up.
Such was not the case, however, when Ray Charles worked the Apollo, in Harlem. One of his shows there was likely to take on all the aspects of a combination revival meeting and breakfast dance, with shouts, choral response, and dancing in the aisles. The most astonishing thing about Ray Charles was that, on his own terms, he was able to capture a much wider audience than the Apollo regulars: some felt that the most saddening thing was that he altered those terms as soon as he had captured that audience. Some of his fans however preferred not to be disappointed or put off by his awkward stage antics, and confine their pleasure to his recorded materials.
Actually, it was on recorded works on Atlantic and Columbia labels that some heard him extensively in the 60s, singing and playing the piano at the same time. He recorded rhythm and blues materials and did a lot of jazz singing.
I was particularly intrigued by his jazz piano as well as his effort on the alto saxophone on Plenty Plenty Soul. Here, he played the piano and took a moving alto saxophone solo, an instrument which was attempting to squeak at a point because he overloaded it with the blues feeling, the same emotion that he invested in his singing.
But the great early Charles records were based on blues and gospel forms. The lyrics were concise, full of sharp psychological truth, and, for the most part, conspicuously lacking in the self pity that was the stock-in-trade of most popular songs. Perhaps the most deeply moving were the sad, chant-like gospel-derived songs of unrequited love: A full for you, What Would I do Without You. Its alright, and Drown in my tears.
There were examples of popular materials which were transmitted into infectious gospel: My Bonnie, Yes Indeed, and the small satiric master piece, Swanee River Rock. One also finds such uptempo, rocking, happy gospel derived songs such as Talkin ‘Bout you, Hallelujah I love her so, I got a woman, This little girl of mine, and a few splendid later materials such as I want a little girl.
Since much of Charles’ impact depended on direct communication with his audience, it was a good thing that Atlantic recorded two in-person appearances, Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles in person.
In the presence of an audience, the vocals took on a different cast than in the studio. On the Newport album, I got a woman, has the addition of a mournful, chantlike introduction in startling contrast to the body of the piece and a seemingly endless tag that includes everything from wordless shouting to an entertainer’s gimmick such as I got a woman right here in Newport.
The Newport set also contains Ray Charles’ masterpiece, the in-person performance of A Fool for you. A slow, agonising recital of pain, with uncalculated repetition of the word, “yeah” over an apt, organlike arrangement, it ends with a hair-raising cry of anguish that is the emotional equal of anything that has ever been recorded.
No matter the short-comings that live performance might introduce, Ray Charles was one of jazz’s great singer who could also use the voice for such related musical categories as rhythm and blues, and gospel. In actual fact, his treatment of Georgia on my mind which is a straight-ahead popular song goes to show how well Ray Charles could transform any song into the blues.
The high regard in which his singing was held tended to obscure his capability as a blues pianist, band leader, composer, arranger. But it also introduced a controversial element as to what jazz singing really is. No one has come any close to a definition than a list of names –Bessie Smith, of course and Billy Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. And, despite her own protestations, Mahalia Jackson. There are others who are apparently jazz singers at some times and not at others – Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitz gerald, Nina Simone – and this seems to be more a matter of material and accompaniment than of the singing itself. Then there is Frank sinatra who has been referred to as a ‘semi jazz’ singer obviously because the materials he sang are in the straight popular mould. Actually, this cannot be an excuse because it was possible for Ray Charles to transform those songs Sinatra sang in the conventional style to jazz or blues, as he wished. Which explains why Ray Charles was a singer’s singer.