august 2009

Brother Ray: Fully in control, humanity on bold display
Photocredit:poster by Vladimir Gorsky, available for sale at, along with other Gorsky art prints

Oh, The Humanity!

By David McGee

Ray Charles
Concord Records

Practically everything that can be said about the talent of the great Ray Charles has already been printed." So wrote Rich Ward in his liner notes to the original 1962 issue of Brother Ray's Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music. If this was true in '62, what's a fella to do in 2009, after a multitude of Charles reissues, a celebrated biopic and the mountain of critical appraisals of the man and his music following his death in 2004?

Well, for starters, applaud Concord Records for issuing both of Ray's forays into his style of country and western music on one CD. It's a shame that Rhino's fine four-CD box set from 1998 (Ray Charles: The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986) is out of print, but the historically resonant work Ray did in this vein is contained on the '60s albums, and those recordings are finally contained on a single, sonically rich, remastered disc. Moreover, the estimable Bill Dahl examines the circumstances surrounding the origins of these albums with insight and authority in new liner notes. It's a terrific, must-have package.

Beyond this, once immersed in Charles's performances, a listener might wonder where the "western" comes into play. In fact, it really doesn't, if you consider "country and western" to be a specific offshoot of traditional country music that has a lot more to do with Bob Wills than with Hank Williams. Therein lies something of value to note, or at least to wonder if Ray didn't mean the title of these two albums to be ironic, because the "country" and the "western" in this repertoire virtually disappear into a lilt, a seam of melody and atmosphere in a tapestry woven from '40s and '50 jazz and classic American pop and fitted onto a framework designed largely by Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. Working with the brilliant arranger Marty Paich—whose already lengthy and impressive resume included exemplary work not only a solo jazz artist but as an arranger with artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Anita O'Day to Buddy Rich, with his most important and long-term association being with Mel Torme, who made some of his finest recordings with Paich's Dektette—Charles took advantage of the consummate pop sensibility at hand and basically constructed two albums' worth of some of the finest Nashville Sound-style recordings of the era, employing lush strings and rich vocal choruses rooted in the swing and big band eras but updated to a classic pop model. In this endeavor he found Paich at the absolute peak of his game, taking the Bradley orchestral template and bringing heightened grandeur to it with his immaculate, haunting strings and emotional vocal arrangements. Listen to what Paich does to Vaughn Horton's "Teardrops In My Heart"—the opening, ascending strings and full-throated hums of the choristers set a rich, baroque backdrop for Ray to enter with a subdued, scratchy vocal, full of tearful anguish, its raw melancholy cutting against the grain of the elegant instrumental charts. In this case, a song that was indeed "western" in its original incarnation as sung by Hank Snow (with lyrics that reference a cowboy riding away from his broken heart) and the Sons of the Pioneers (whose version is the one Ray hews to here), is now a tearjerking pop number, complete with a Floyd Cramer-style "slip-note" piano solo (Cramer's signature "Last Date" single had been a solid #2 pop hit only three years earlier and his piano style had become one of the most recognizable sounds in the new "uptown" country music coming out of Nashville's commercial mainstream). On Volume 1, Paich demonstrates the subtlety he could deliver within a sprawling arrangement, with his alternately piercing and mournful strings weaving through Gerald Wilson's slow, shuffling band chart, bolstering the feeling the Jack Halloran Singers brought to their complementary vocal asides.

From his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Ray Charles performs Don Gibson’s ‘I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’ during a 1973 visit to The Dick Cavett Show.

In addition, Charles benefited from another savvy choice he and co-producer Sid Feller made with regard to steering the big band—the aforementioned Gerald Wilson, like Marty Paich a stalwart of the West Coast jazz scene transplanted to New York for these sessions. Wilson makes his presence known right away, as Volume 1 launches with a vibrant, swinging interpretation of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," Charles's eager, kissoff vocal answered by a big, mocking horn section as the Raelets add a saucy verbal bon voyage in the backing chorus, before Ray himself cuts out on a cheery, jittery run on the 88s. Using a similar template, Charles's Latin-tinged rendition of that old Gov. Jimmie Davis warhorse, "You Are My Sunshine," introduces Vol. Two in a brassy, swinging way with a horn section in full flower at the break and Margie Hendrix stepping out of the Raelets with an impetuous vocal retort to Ray that may not be as heated as her turn on "Hit the Road, Jack," but cuts deep anyway—and sounds, in timbre and phrasing, like the Aretha Franklin who would emerge in 1967, four years after this recording. Similarly, Ted Daffan's "No Letter Today" (a song with an interesting history, having been recorded by a host of artists across pop, R&B, bluegrass and country boundaries, including Gene Autry, the Stanley Brothers, Anita Carter, Bill Haley, Smiley Lewis, Les Paul and Ernest Tubb, to name a few) is reimagined as a subdued, '50s R&B ballad, with keening brass and muted trumpets shadowing Ray's cool, pleading vocal channeling the Moonglows' Harvey Fuqua.

Lest we forget, though, it was Ray Charles himself who outlined the arrangements he envisioned for these tunes. Which is not to say Paich and Wilson aren't fully present in the sound, but rather to underscore this artistic endeavor being fully in Ray's control—because when he sings, man, he is in control in truly stunning fashion, so deeply involved in the material he nearly reduces the soundscape to an afterthought. Listen, for instance, to Hank Williams's "You Win Again." It begins with a rush of soaring strings and the full, urgent voices of the Halloran Singers plaintively querying, "What can I do? You win again." A stop-time signature follows immediately—it literally stops—before Ray enters with affecting melancholy and resignation..."the news it out, all over town..." The strings settle into a low, subdued hum, and Ray proceeds to lay out the sorry tale of a man hearing from third parties about his wife "just a-runnin' around." As he tells of how the chains of love, in essence, prevent him from dumping his unfaithful gal, he descends deeper into a churning whirlpool of affections, unable to free his heart to see her clearly even as she plays him for a fool. In two other memorable versions—Hank's original, and Jerry Lee Lewis's, on the B side of his breakout "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" single-the vocalists wasted no time pitying their misfortune; they fully unhinged their spite and searing sense of betrayal, before conceding their undying affection ("you win again"). Of many masterful performances Ray crafted here, this one stands apart for its restraint, its sustained hurt, and its refusal to lash out, to exact its own pound of flesh from a philanderer. We know what Ray could do with a tender lyric, but hearing both volumes of the Modern Sounds sessions essentially as one extended album recorded over the span of a year's time inspires nothing less than awe at the deep, unceasing humanity of the ballad performances. It's on bold display here, arguably in a way it never had been before, as Ray began charting another new course for himself. Listen anew, because you can.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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