It was the day my Ray Charles Genius & Soul: 50th Anniversary Collection five-CD box set arrived in the mail from Rhino Records and I was telling this friend of mine about it over the phone. It's great, I told him, tremendous.
He said something about a green chicken.
I figured that wasn't right. "I'm having trouble hearing you," I said, covering my other ear. My five-year-old son had discovered "Booty Butt" on CD number four and he was making his toy dinosaurs fight to the beat, really loud.
My two-week-old son cried raucously in the living room, but my wife couldn't hear him because she was loading the dishwasher. I made my way over various obstacles (diaper bag, monstrous toy castle, the cat) en route to picking up the baby. "What did you say?"
The conversation didn't proceed much further, but the last thing my friend said, the last thing I actually heard him say, was this: "Grab yourself a six-pack, lie down with your head between the speakers, and listen to the whole set straight through."
"Right," I shouted. "I will." I was dancing the baby around the room at breakneck speed to keep his mind off breast-feeding. "Okay, goodbye," I said, but the phone had already fallen from my shoulder and crashed to the hardwood floor, sending little plastic pieces skittering into the heat vent.
"I Can Make It Thru the Days (But Oh Those Lonely Nights)" was tearing the heart out of the speakers by then, and I sang it to the baby, who stared at me bug-eyed and wondering. Outside it was pouring rain. A drab, gray day, perfect for lying down with a six-pack and listening to my new five-CD Ray Charles box set. But my wife told me it was time to take out the garbage and showed me that it was overflowing. My five-year-old urged me to read to him from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs. The baby kept on crying.
It was then I realized that I would not at any point in the foreseeable future lie down on the floor with a six-pack and listen to my five-CD Ray Charles box set straight through.
My earliest musical memories center around three albums my mom used to play on the old RCA console stereo.
The first was by Glen Campbell. I don't recall the name, but it must have been a compilation, because it contained all of Glen's finest moments (I say this with something resembling a straight face). "Gentle on My Mind," "Galveston," Wichita Lineman."
When a song played over the radio, I used to think that meant the performer was actually singing at the radio station, and I remember crying in the car one time during "Galveston" because my mother refused to take me to the radio station to meet Glen Campbell.
The second was Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison. I loved "Folsom Prison Blues." I loved the whole idea of Folsom Prison, as expressed by Johnny Cash. I wanted to end up there some day.
The third was Ray Charles's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. "I Can't Stop Loving You" has echoed in my head for almost 30 years. I remember listening to it seated on a parquet floor; sunlight streamed through the windows as I studied the red album cover with the black bold print and the black man with the ivory white teeth and square black glasses. That was in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1969.
In Starkville, Mississippi, in 1969, there was no such thing as multiculturalism. My mother didn't own a Ray Charles album because she thought she needed to be politically correct or to expand her musical horizons. She owned a Ray Charles album because she loved Ray Charles.
I loved him too. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music made a deep impression on my six-year-old brain. "I Can't Stop Loving You," "It Makes No Difference Now," "Careless Love" -- these were my favorites. I loved the songs for their easy tunefulness, and for the man's voice, recognizable even to a six-year-old as the greatest voice on God's green Earth.
Of course, I didn't recognize it then for the groundbreaking album it was. I didn't realize that Ray Charles had achieved the impossible, the unthinkable: a fusion of country and soul. In the hands of Ray Charles, oil and water did mix, it turns out, producing something like silk.
That's what makes him such a singular figure in the music of our time: his ability to draw on unexpected influences, like country, and meld them with blues, jazz, gospel, and then make these new sounds entirely his own.
By doing so, he crossed more borders than the Pope. Who else sold jazz and blues (1961's Genius + Soul = Jazz) to mainstream white audiences in the era before civil rights? Who else was able to sell country music to black audiences the very next year with the release of Modern Sounds?
The Rhino anthology manages to track Charles, now age 66, through all of his numerous musical peregrinations. Organized chronologically, the collection allows the listener to take in his music as a sort of extended work in progress. Starting with his late Forties recording "Confession Blues," the initial songs are a mix of blues and proto-rock, reminiscent at times of more mainstream artists like Little Richard. The voice on these tracks is not Charles's own, either -- Jack Lauderdale, who produced these early recordings for his Down Beat/Swing Time record label, wanted Ray Charles to sound more like Nat "King" Cole. Imagine.
With Charles's migration to Atlantic in the Fifties, his voice became his own. From "Come Back Baby" on you can hear his range expanding number by number -- the bluesy ballads like "A Fool for You," the scat songs like "Greenbacks," the upbeat soul of "What'd I Say." While discs one to three are stocked primarily with early jazz and blues work, the anthology's final two discs venture into the territory of country, gospel, pop, and American standards. Disc four opens with two Beatles covers ("Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday"), while disc five includes reworkings of Stevie Wonder ("Living in the City"), Paul Simon ("Still Crazy After All These Years") and George Gershwin ("How Long Has This Been Going On").
What rescues these final two discs from sounding derivative or gimmicky is Charles's unrivaled ability to reinvent the songs he covers. Of special note are a rousing duet with Aretha Franklin, "Spirit in the Dark," Charles's moving update of "America the Beautiful," and his restrained duet with Willie Nelson, "Seven Spanish Angels."
Rhino's anthology, released this past September, is a first-class package all-around, from the glossy black CD covers to the spiffy accompanying booklet. In addition to a lengthy essay, the book provides detailed information about every included track (102 in all) and a full discography that includes every LP and single every released by Charles. It's almost as much fun to thumb through this handsomely presented arcana as it is to hear the music itself. Certainly it's a far cry from the simple album cover of Modern Sounds that I used to sit and stare at as a kid.
In 1970 my father got a job in Idaho. I remember spending days snowbound in the house, but I don't remember pulling my mom's Ray Charles album out of the RCA console's built-in record cabinet any more. My taste had worsened considerably.
I didn't start off too badly on my own; the first album I ever bought with my allowance money was Elton John's Honky Chateau. But then I got into John Denver. Then Kiss. I considered joining the Kiss Army at one point.
By the time I left home for college in 1981, I had become positively ill -- hanging out in my dorm room listening to Foreigner, Boston, and Styx. A friend of mine (to whom I will always be grateful) sat me down one night and forced me to listen to about six hours of the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan. I was cured of my malady.
Then it was 1986. I was on my way to New Orleans (where I ended up staying for three years), and I stopped at an older cousin's apartment in Jackson, Mississippi, for the night. When she left for work the next morning, I promised I'd hang around long enough to buy her lunch for letting me crash at her place. This meant I had four hours to kill.
She had an old turntable and a stack of records. I thumbed through them, looking for Elvis Costello or Prince or the Violent Femmes. No such luck. I found nothing I liked, or thought I liked, but my thumb kept stopping every time I came to her five or six Ray Charles records, and one in particular -- Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. I figured what the hell. I remembered the album cover, at least -- some dim association from when I was a kid. I thought I'd give it a spin.
I was mesmerized. It wasn't just the songs, it was the memories. The parquet floor. The sunlight streaming through the windows. The old RCA. I lay down on the floor with my head between the speakers and I listened to the whole thing, holding the cover in the air above me.
Then I listened to the other albums, and I found wonderful songs I'd never heard before, or never really listened to. I played "Georgia on My Mind" half a dozen times, "What'd I Say" at least as many. Then there were the haunting, gospel-tinged strains of "Drown in My Own Tears." I kept placing the needle right at the ending, wondering how he'd ever thought to close on such strange, perfect notes.
"Night Time Is the Right Time," "A Fool for You," "Lonely Avenue," "America the Beautiful," for chrissakes! The man sang the hell out of that dull chestnut. When he shouted out "My God, He done shed His grace on thee," I didn't know whether to cry or pledge allegiance to the flag. You could take that Hendrix "Star-Spangled Banner" piece of crap right on out of the time capsule, I decided, and put in Ray's "America the Beautiful" instead. Yeah, Jimi Hendrix could light his guitar on fire, and he could play it with his teeth, but holy shit, Ray Charles could sing.
Eleven years later, on a sunny November afternoon, I come home from work to find "Hit the Road Jack" blasting from the CD player. I see my wife in the back room changing the baby's diaper, so I know she's not responsible. Then someone starts banging on the old piano our landlord left for us. I walk around the corner and find my five-year-old son. He's got on a pair of sunglasses and he's pounding the keys. He knows Ray Charles is blind -- I explained to him what that meant -- but he intends no disrespect. He's just imitating my own imitation.
I tried to show him one night how Ray Charles played the piano when I saw him in concert in 1988. He's got the sway down, too. The glasses are his own idea, undoubtedly from checking out the photos that accompany this box set.
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"Listen to this one," I tell him, and cue up "Georgia on My Mind." The keys go quiet. My son stares out the window; the sun shines.
I'll never listen to my Ray Charles five-CD box set straight through, at least not till I'm 50. But my five-year-old might. My new son might too. Maybe one rainy Sunday, while I'm working around the house or attempting to balance the checkbook, one of them will lie down with his head between the speakers and make the same memories I made.
It's possible. It's not out of the question. Because it's that kind of music, the kind that lasts and lasts. Already, my five-year-old says Ray Charles is the greatest. His second favorite is Johnny Cash.