We were at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner, the year Billy Joel was inducted (I know, you’re asking: Why?, but whatever…), and the thing about Joel getting in was that he asked Ray Charles to be his inductor. Ray Charles accepted (again: Why?), and he came out to do his presentation, and in the midst of it, I turned to my colleague and said/asked: “He’s the greatest living American musician, isn’t he?” While Joel was giving his acceptance speech, we mulled it over and agreed that, yes, we were in the room with the Greatest Living American Musician, and we had another glass of wine.
The last time I saw Mr. Charles was at the Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner, honoring Van Morrison. Charles and Morrison did a duet on “Crazy Love,” and it didn’t matter that Ray’s voice was kind of shaky. This was mind-blowing.
I’m not sure why we were so narrow that earlier night. American? Maybe we just didn’t want to deal with that whole slate of U.K. contenders, or split hairs about Canadians, or wrestle with the idea of Joao Gilberto, or maybe we were drunk. Really, who even came close at that point? Ray Charles could pretty much do anything: R&B (he practically invented it), jazz, pop, country, standards. I mean, genius, right?
My office window looks out on 56th Street between Broadway and 8th. Right across the street, I can see Patsy’s, the famous Italian joint, and right above Patsy’s was Atlantic Records. So I can pretty much look right into the windows where all those classic records were made, except there isn’t anything there now. I’m thinking about this because the other day I was in the Virgin Megastore. Virgin is going out of business, and everything is On Sale, so I finally bought that 7-CD, 1 DVD boxed set of everything that Ray Charles recorded for Atlantic in the ’50s. It was like $112. It’s a monumental thing.
It’s all here, the classic singles, the collaborations with Milt Jackson and David ‘Fathead’ Newman, the live concert at Newport, the essential “Genius of Ray Charles” album, a whole disc of Charles working out arrangements on piano and other rarities.
I don’t know, exactly, how I came to own the Atlantic 45 of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” why a nine-year old white kid would even want to possess this, where I heard it (my parents had a Belafonte album with a batch of Ray Charles songs, but it wasn’t on that, and they had no Charles LPs), what radio station might have played it. It wasn’t rock & roll as I was beginning to know it, and it wasn’t like my parents’ adult-pop (Sinatra, etc.), it was something deeper, there was something in his voice that moved me. That was my first exposure to Ray Charles, and I worked backwards to “I Got A Woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” and What’d I Say.”
All I wanted to do as an A&R guy was a simple jazz-trio album of Ray Charles doing standards. Like the Nat King Cole ‘After Midnight’ album. In the ’90s, I reached out to his management with the concept, and some song ideas, and never heard back. Later on, he did that duets album that won all those posthumous awards, and that had some ok tracks on it, but it wasn’t the last act I’d have preferred.
I don’t customarily recommend spending more than a hundred bucks on a collection of music, but if you’ve gotten a tax refund, go ahead and splurge. Worth every dime.