Saturday, August 06, 2011

Father of Many Things

1964 was an annus horribilis for Ray Charles. When his album »Have A Smile With Me« (ABC-Paramount LP # 495) was released in late June, he had lost a paternity suit barely five months ago and become, at least by way of judicial decision, father of Sheila Jean Robinson. Charles himself had »admitted to sexual intimacies with pretty, 21-year-old Ohioan Sandra Jean Betts on at least five occasions«, but said he did not believe that he is the father of the baby girl. He didn't take it with much of a smile. However, worse was still to come: his concert tour in autumn during which he was arrested on drug charges led not only to riots in several locations, but was over- shadowed by racial incidents. Some three weeks before his tour, a Jet Magazine staff writer speculated (Sept. 3 issue, p. 63) whether Ray Charles was about to quit singing. Quote: »That's what the man, Charles, himself, said in Paris. He said he would give up singing "very soon and play with my orchestra ...".« Well, this didn't happen as we know, but given the events of 1964 (and especially after touring in Europe and the Boston drug arrest in November) Ray Charles quit touring the following year. In his autobiography he said: »I decided not to tour in 1965. This
was the first time in twenty years that I wouldn't be performing in public. I had lots on my mind, and I couldn't see myself running around. I needed to stop and think.« (Ray Charles with David Ritz: Brother Ray. Ray Charles' Own Story, New York 3rd ed. 2004, p. 254).

ABC-Paramount LP # 495 (1964)
The LP »Have A Smile With Me« fits into that gloomy year 1964, the untimely title included. Billboard (Aug. 1.) hyped it, against all good reason, with the thinly-veiled panegyric: »Charles, the master of the soulful blues, shelves it all in this outing for a raft of fun songs. He sings 'em all with his usual genius. ... A real ball for all.« The curious expression »his usual genius« excepted (can genius ever be usual?), I beg to disagree. I think it's an awful album and quite a contrast to the brillant live recording »In Concert« which was taped some months later in L.A. The personnel on the record is outstanding, though, David »Fathead Newman« on alto sax, The Raelettes backing. Alas, this was to little avail, and Charles's choice of songs was meant to result in a »lighthearted« album »with the idea of letting Charles just kick back and have fun« (Richie Unterberger in the AMG to Soul). The sleeve notes stressed that point: »Here's the other side of the coin! ... this time around your phonograph, he'll bring you a smile, and even a laugh. Here is the light-hearted Ray Charles, again exploring material that, until now, has never been heard by his listeners.« Yet the overall impression doesn't live up to what Charles was aiming at. The best that may be said about this album is, in the words of Mike Evans, that it was »a collection of humorous novelty songs« (The Birth Of Soul, p. 179). And this, again, was also trumpeted out on the back cover: »This novelty package explores still another facet of the art of Ray Charles.«
     As it goes with novelty packages, they tend to be a mixed blessing. As mixed as the songs on the album: jazzy C&W, old vaudeville songs or even »pop standards« (that's how Billboard described »Feudin' & Fightin'«). On the other hand, all ten songs on the LP (six with the Raelettes) sound strangely alike, professionally done oldtime jazz-pop, but actually little of that was in any way up to the »modern trends« in music. Charles, who was proud of being a trend-setter and indeed had set different trends in the past, offers nothing much trendy on this LP. And just think what times these were! The first year of the Great British Invasion during which, ironically, black music played by white UK bands outsold black music played by black US artists. In this context, Ray Charles acquired, for some diligent observers at least, the status of a »father figure«, but with a twist to it: He had prepared the way of the »Mersey Sound« in many ways yet his UK emulators outstripped his fame by 1964. In a noteworthy gloss by P.F. Kluge, published in LIFE (Oct. 2, 1964, p. 28: »U.S. Roots of the Beatle Beat«), we read: »If the Mersey sound is an art form, this (i.e. black U.S. music) is the music that gave birth to it, although not one of its inventors, not even the very popular composer-performer Ray Charles, has ever been as sought after, televised, filmed, interviewed and just plain loved as their English imitators.«

* * *
The 50's-sounding song »Smack Dab In The Middle«, shuffling along in a R&B-style of years past, was the only moderately successful tune of that album. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 Pop the first week of October and one month later was lingering at #52. Another week later, in mid-November, the song dropped out of the charts. This all becomes more emblematic of Charles's status and style in '64 if you consider for a moment the songs which meanwhile climbed the charts: When »Smack Dab In The Middle« entered the Hot 100, »Dancing On The Street« (Martha & The Vandellas) had reached # 04, »The House Of The Rising Sun« (Animals) stood at # 08. The Shangri- Las' »Leader Of The Pack« and The Velvelettes with »Needle In A Haystack« were coming up behind; at the beginning of November, Motown's sequin-dressed valkyries made it to the top with »Baby Love«; when Charles's song left the charts, the Rolling Stones' cover of Irma Thomas's »Time Is On My Side« was approaching the Top Ten. Compared to all that, Charles's album seems come out of another epoch.

Need some demonstration of this? Well, there is ample choice on the LP. As I have a special liking for the Raelettes, you can hear in the following two songs that feature them as backing vocal group. I picked »Two Ton Tessie (from Tennessee)« and »Who Cares For Me« since in these tunes the backing vocals are given much room. The first song was recorded on May 7, '64, at the N.Y. Bell Sound Studios (days before Ray Charles would depart for Europe), the latter back in February 1962 in L.A. For the record I can add that almost all other songs of the LP were recorded in May '64 in New York, with the exception of »Move It On Over« (likewise from '62). Here you go:

Ray Charles (feat. The Raelets/Raelettes):
»Two Ton Tessie« / »Who Cares (For Me)« from the ABC-Paramount LP # 495 (1964, mono):

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