march 2011

Ray Charles: In a live setting, in his prime, this is what Brother Ray was all about. (Oil painting of Ray Charles by Jeff DOttavio. This fine art print and other DOtavvio artwork is available for purchase at Fine Art America. Extensive samples of Mr. DOttavio’s artwork can be viewed at his website.)

Brother Ray, On A Roll

An expanded live album from 1964, finally available on CD, captures Ray Charles, his orchestra and the Raelets in peak form

By David McGee

Concord Music Group

When he pulled into Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium on Sunday, September 20, 1964, Ray Charles was on a roll. You could say he had been a roll since emerging on Atlantic in the mid-‘50s with his blend of gospel, R&B and jazz that became the foundation for soul music. But after signing with ABC-Paramount following his mammoth crossover hit, “What’d I Say,” in 1959, Charles had pursued his musical vision with a vengeance, topping the pop chart in 1960 with his instant classic, string-enhanced version of “Georgia On My Mind,” coming back the next year with an incendiary take on Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack” and then catching everyone by surprise with his album-length reconsideration of country music on 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music--an album that gave Ray two more #1 singles in the powerful Don Gibson ballad “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and a blues-tinged reading of Cindy Walker’s wrenching heartbreaker, “You Don’t Know Me.” With “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Willie Nelson was moved to observe, “Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.” Writing in 1998 in the liner booklet for Rhino’s grand four-CD reissue of all of Charles’s country recordings  (The Complete Country & Western Recordings, 1959-1986), Raul Malo stated outright what Willie was hinting at: “Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music is one of the most important records of our time, not only because of its content, but also due to its social and political ramifications. The fact that Ray Charles not only made a country music record, but did it in his own inimitable way, proved that the genre did not solely belong to white people. Country music is now for everyone to enjoy, regardless of race or social standing.” (The more nuanced view of this would be that Ray brought the black population’s love of country music out into the open. Just as Sam Phillips began recording blues because he knew “white people surreptitiously listened to the blues,” as more black artists marched into the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream in the ‘50s we learned that many of them, and their families, had been devoted listeners of Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and of country stations in general. When touring by car with Chuck Berry in the mid-‘50s, Carl Perkins would engage Berry in impromptu duets of Jimmie Rodgers songs, and Berry based his classic “Maybelline” on “Ida Red,” a traditional country song previously recorded by Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff and, most famously, in a hit boogie version by Bob Wills, among many others. “I knew when I first heard Chuck that he’d been affected by country music,” Perkins said. “Chuck knew every Jimmie Rodgers Blue Yodel.”)

Backed by his powerhouse orchestra--with its formidable dozen-strong horn section that included Charles session veterans David “Fathead” Newman, Hank Crawford and Leroy “Hog” Cooper, plus some big band arrangements by Quincy Jones (Ray had usually toured with a smaller unit and had no big band arrangements of his own)--and aided vocally by the sassy retorts of the Raelets, Charles was commanding an irresistible roadshow. As Hank Crawford comments in the liner notes for this live set, “At that time, we were like Ellington’s band. People came to see us as well as they did Ray, because we were all kind of individual artists ourselves. He had a star-studded group.”

By all accounts the “star-studded group” Ray headed drew a star-studded capacity crowd of 6,000 to the Auditorium. If Ray had any qualms about working with the large lineup--the notion of Ray Charles being nervous in any musical situation is an amusing, if not outright ludicrous, thought--he gave no hint of once the band kicked off the festivities with its swinging instrumental, “Swing a Little Taste,” to which Ray contributed a rollicking piano solo just past the halfway mark before retreating to let the horns continue their propulsive work. It turns out, though, that Ray’s manager, Joe Adams, had decided to record the show without informing either Ray or the ABC-Paramount brass, and had even sworn Ray’s trusted producer Sid Feller to secrecy. Adams’ hope was to capture the Charles show in all its spontaneous textures and with the same energy Atlantic had captured on two lives albums also recorded without Ray’s knowledge. Job done; indeed, well done.

The repertoire for the live show was typical for this period of Ray’s career: an overview of everywhere he’d been as an artist in his professional career. For this first CD release of the original LP, Concord has added seven previously unissued performances, and they do make a difference. Without these new cuts, the show is heavily weighted towards uptempo, brass-heavy R&B. The added cuts are not inconsequential: they bring a bit of sensual grinding to the set, notably when Ray and the Raelets get into a slow, heated blues tête-à-tête on “My Baby,” towards the end of the set as a prelude to the guaranteed house wrecker, “What’d I Say”; serve as a showcase for Ray’s gospel-based blues balladry and blues piano atmospherics in his take on Leroy Carr’s “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down),” which begins mournfully as little more than a forlorn Ray vocal with piano and trumpet accompaniment, but busts loose in its final minute to become a raucous cry of the heart. Arguably most important, Ray’s country triumphs (by the time of this show he had released a second successful volume of Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music) are addressed in a beautiful version of “Georgia On My Mind,” which suffers not one whit in the absence of strings, so evocative is Ray’s vocal in service to an empathetic band arrangement; a stunning, searching treatment of “You Don’t Know Me,” in a subdued, piano-centric arrangement designed to allow Ray’s tortured vocal the spotlight in a move that generates the wildest applause on the record; and a humorous, swaying take on Harlan Howard’s “Busted,” complete with Ray’s improvised woe-is-me narrated coda. Also new to the CD: a terrific, gospel-rooted (with Ray on organ) lament in the form of Hoagy Carmichael’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” slow, piercing and poignant in the stark, desolate beauty of Ray’s anguished howls and remorseful ruminations.

The new cuts are inserted where they belong in the flow of the set, of course, which makes what was in its original form a remarkable live album now an exceptional and essential document of the Genius at work in his prime, surveying pretty much the entirety of what he had wrought in his time, formally kicking off the set on organ in reprising his 1961 R&B hit “One Mint Julep” (another of the seven new tracks), then cutting loose with a few bars of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in advance of an improvised, downcast blues chorus that first pauses, then lights out for “I Gotta Woman” territory, taking us back to when he burst onto the scene with Atlantic in 1955. The evocative strains of “Georgia On My Mind” prove an ideal setup for the cool swing of “Margie,” which turns out to be a bit of a buffer between another heart tugging ballad, the aforementioned addition to the CD, “You Don’t Know Me.” On Buddy Johnson’s 1943 R&B hit “Baby, Don’t You Cry,” an upbeat breakup song, the horns get into a bouncy, Latin-inflected rhythmic groove that Sid Feller dubbed “swingova.” Following the set closing pyrotechnics of “What’d I Say,” with Ray back on organ, the audience clapping along as Ray and the Raelets engage in their heated discourse and the beat driving doggedly ahead, Ray returns for what apparently was an unplanned encore to introduce “the Ray Charles Choir,” as he terms it, which is the orchestra and the Raelets doing a shambling, nonsense verse of “Pop Goes the Weasel” (“You all sing this just like we rehearsed it,” Ray orders before it starts) as a signoff to the festivities. And there it is: what was a good album in its vinyl incarnation is now an essential document in the expanded CD release, capturing as it does a comprehensive picture of one of the greatest artists America has ever produced on a very good night for him and his orchestra. In a live setting, in his prime, this is what Brother Ray was all about.

Ray Charles Live in Concert is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024