The 60s Official Site

 

What I Say About Ray Charles

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

When push comes to shove when asked who’s my all-time top male singer, I have to say that Ray Charles is the number one. He beats Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison into second and third place, but only by a whisker. And that’s taking into account that Bob Dylan and Van Morrison also rate highly on my greatest list. So, Ray it is who sits at the summit. He’s the first vocalist I heard who sent shivers down my spine and stirred emotions that I never knew I had. I was in my teens when he made a lasting impression, his voice and musical expression a wonder to behold. He stretched my appreciation of music to a whole new and exciting level.

 

The song that first grabbed me was the live version of I Got A Woman from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. I first heard it in the early Sixties when a school friend bought me the Ray Charles at Newport extended play disc as a Christmas present. It had just two tracks, the other being A Fool For You. I played the disc over and over. From then on I was a big fan. I spent hours in record stores, searching for as much of his music as I could get my hands on.

Charles, who died in 2004, was a prolific writer and performer and produced so many classics, which means one’s spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting his best work — but here goes. Most of them are covers, but that doesn’t, I would argue, in any way detract from their excellence. These are my personal preferences:

 

I Got A Woman : I think I’ve said it all above, just to add that it still packs a punch after all the intervening years.

 

What’d I Say : A superb song in two parts, this all-out R&B stomper certainly hits the spot. I defy listeners not to start tapping their feet and adding their own voices to the mix. It has so much going for it. I had the EP for several years until it mysteriously went missing in a house move. I was devastated, but I did get it in another format some time later, although it was never quite the same as having the original.

 

Georgia On My Mind : The great Hoagy Carmichael was co-responsible for this beautiful tune, but it was Charles who made it his own. Released in late 1960, it was an instant hit, a perfect vehicle for Charles’ plaintiff, pleading voice. It was a constant play on the radio, I recall, and never failed to move me. I didn’t actually own a copy of the song until a few years later when I came across a mint condition single buried in a batch of otherwise ordinary records in a cardboard box in a second-hand junk shop. It was well worth the rummage. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for it, but it was very little for such a lot.

 

I Can’t Stop Loving You : I’d heard the Don Gibson original in the late Fifties and always thought it was a memorable country song. My parents liked it, too. When I first heard the Charles’ version in 1962 I was pleasantly surprised. He’d taken a classic song and given it a new lease of life, delivering a fresh approach while at the same time respecting the pathos and heartfelt emotion that Gibson had evoked. Charles had shown that terrific music is terrific whatever the genre, be it rock and roll, country, folk or R&B. The crossover was important in making it possible for musicians to mix and match and embrace the best influences from a whole range of music.

 

Hit The Road Jack : This is a fun item. The boisterous banter between the put-upon woman and her good for nothing man is a sheer delight. It hit the charts in 1961 and became one of the most-covered songs.  It has a verve and joy about it that few records can match. It has a special appeal for me as I was given the nickname Jack by some of my school pals. When I asked them why they’d picked Jack they said it was because I was prone to using the song’s sentiment when trying to get rid of irritating fellow pupils. Also, they said, I looked like a Jack, whatever that meant! I never did get to the bottom of that one. 

  

Drown In My Own Tears : Charles recorded this in 1956 and I was bit too young to appreciate it then. I was just 11 and my musical tastes were still mainly rooted in whatever my parents listened to on the radio or had in their record collection, which was mostly big band sounds and ballads. Rock and roll was just faintly bleeping on my radar, but when it did come into full view I embraced it with a vengeance. So when I was ready to lend an mature ear to Drown In My Own Tears I was fully equipped to recognize a classy opus when I heard one.

 

Take These Chains From My Heart : Hank Williams was a country genius. He had the aching voice of a man who knew the heartache and troubles of life. He burnt out early and died tragically before his time but his legacy still lives on, and this song of his is as good as it gets. It’s almost impossible to better Williams’s interpretation but Charles made a magnificent effort in capturing the spirit of the lyrics. It’s not better than Williams’ version, just different but equally as strong. It’s one of those songs that I found always has the power to move.

 

No Letter Today : This may have been a B-side but it earns an A-grade from me. It was originally a country hit, written before I was born! However, it slipped into my consciousness when Charles gave it his distinctive stamp of approval. I still like to play it now and again to remind me of the time when I was growing up in the Sixties and experiencing the great changes that were taking place around me and in my own life at that time.

 

Eleanor Rigby : Everyone was covering The Beatles songs. It was expected! Some did it with style, some made a reasonable stab at it, and some are best forgotten. But this is pure magic from Charles. It’s a gem of a lament by a true genius, given an extra dimension thanks to his instinctive understanding of what the song is saying. He does it beautifully and in my view it’s the best cover of a Beatles’ song I’ve ever heard.

 

Without Love (There Is Nothing) : Again, another cover version of a classic, this time nodding in the direction of the fabulous Clyde McPhatter, another of my admired singers. McPhatter had a hit with Without Love in the late Fifties and I do recall hearing it on Radio Luxembourg, which provided me and many other teenagers with a regular dose of rock and roll and blues that wasn’t available on air anywhere else in Britain at that time. I’d forgotten about the song until Charles popped up with it in 1963. It wasn’t a super hit for him, which was a disappointment to me. I thought it deserved better and loudly let my pals know how I felt. They weren’t as enthusiastic as I was but they did respect my view, which was some consolation.

 

David SoulsbyDavid Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now Somewhere in the Distanceretired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.