Perfect Sound Forever


A personal reminiscence by Jason Gross
(July 2004)

After hearing the loss of hero/guitarist (and dare I say, 'friend') Robert Quine, I was already numb so maybe I was ready to hear that Ray Charles wasn't going to be with us anymore. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised since another writer had told me a month ago that he was already preparing an obituary after Charles had been hospitalized and was canceling a series of concerts for the first time in ages. Happening in the same week that the television media experienced a week of massive amnesia, mourning the loss of a president who was far from universally loved as they made him out to be, Charles' death still felt a shock. It seemed like he'd be singing and performing forever, ready to outlive us all.

Hopefully, you know the story of this guy changed the course of popular music like few people before or since him (if you don't, skip down to the end here and find out first) and as a confirmed bleeding heart, I didn't dig his coziness with Republicans but I'd like to talk about how I knew Ray. Most of all, I admired and honored him because he had helped me though some really troubled times in my life. I never actually knew or met him but I felt his work in a very personal way and was moved by it in a way that nothing else could reach me sometimes. What was so comforting was that no matter how bad I felt after I had my heart broken or when I was left alone, or when I had to contemplate failures of my own or when I was just plain suffering from depression about my life in general, I'd turn to Ray for solace and help.

The reason was that when I'd hear some of his songs, no matter how awful I'd feel, I could listen and suddenly, he would put me in my place and slap some sense into me. When he truly plumbed the depths of sorrow, I felt like a fool and wondered how I could be so blue when that man REALLY SOUNDED SAD, much sadder than I could ever feel. There would be his songs from his late 50's years at Atlantic Records and his early 60's days at ABC to pick me up: "Lonely Avenue" ("I could die, I could die, I could die") or "You Don't Know Me" or "Born To Lose" or "Hard Times" ("Who knows better than I?") or "A Fool For You." Now THAT was true sorrow, something that I barely knew about in comparison, I thought. I mean, I would feel like total shit but nothing near what he was expressing in his most down-and-out songs.

Even now, I'm willing to believe that he wasn't as miserable as he made himself out to be in these songs but just the fact that he could make me believe it proves what an incredible performer he was and how much emotion was contained there. Maybe Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray, Sly Stone, Ian Curtis, Nick Drake, Morrisey, Nick Cave or Elliott Smith explored similar territory but none of them could sink into that pit of utter despair that Ray could express so powerful and meaningfully.

Ray, you helped me through some times that I never thought I'd dig myself out from and I'll always be grateful to you for that. I can't tell you how much it means to still have your songs here to soothe us.

One of those songs in particular proved to me the old saw that "you sing the blues to get rid of the blues." "Drown In My Own Tears" from 1955 was a heart-wrenching ballad, perfect for a slow dance or just for us sad sacks to commiserate with. Each line is hung and stretched out and wrung for its pained emotion. Charles alternates between putting a dead stop at the end of each line or stringing out the last word into a screech with the horns gently sounding in the background (shades of Otis Redding later on) as Ray's piano occasionally makes a little statement.

It brings a tear
Into my ey-y-y-yyeeees
When I be-gin (small piano flourish)
To realize rea-l-i-i-ize
I've cried so muchhh
Since you-u-u-u've been go-o-o-one
I guess I'm dro-o-owning... in m-y-y-yy own tears

Already by now, the lyrics read like a poem. Just think of image of the title. It's suicide by any other name.

I sit and cry-y--y-y-yyyy
Just like a chi-i-i-illld
My pouring tears (piano flourish)
Are runnin' wi-i-i-ild
If you don't think
You'll be ho-o-ome sooo-ooo-oon
I guess I'll DROWN... oh yes!... in my own tears

He works himself up to a climax where everything else, all of that suffering we've heard before was just a prelude to...

I know it's true
Mmm, mmmm, Into each life
Ooooh, some ra-ai-ai-aiiiiiin, rai-ai-ain must pour
Here without you-OU-OU
It keeps RAIN-ing
Mo-oo-oo-oore and moo-ooo-ooore

Come on-N-N-N-N home
Ohhhhh yessss so I won't (piano)
Be all alo-o-o-o-one (trailing off)
If you don't thi-i-i-ink
You'll be ho-o-o-ome soo-oo-oo-oon

To bring it home, he's got a femme chorus (The Cookies) singing the title for him now at the end as he prolongs his own agony. They sound like they're at the end of a tunnel or way above or below him, egging him on, maybe taunting him. Or maybe they finish or speak his thoughts because he's been so worn out doing it himself for the last three minutes.

I guess I'll
Ooh, don't let mee-ee-ee
When I'm in trouuuuble, ba-A-A-by
OOOOOOH, yeah, baby don't let meEEEE
I guess I'll DROW-OW-OW-OWN IIIIIn mYYYYY... ow-W-Wn... tears
... OHHHHHHHHH.... MM-MM-mm-mmmm...

But Ray was definitely not all doom and gloom. One of my all-time favorite songs was a huge hit that he came up with as he improvised a call-and-response at a club one night- "What'd I Say." When he was ready to lay it down for a single in 1959, he was armed not with his usual keyboard but a novelty-then electric piano, which he made sing like he rarely could with a keyboard before or since. Of course, it helped that he had drummer Milt Turner wit him, playing what sounded like a breakbeat samba, deftly riding the cymbals like no one since Elvin Jones. The beginning alone, with Ray's solo intro followed by Turner's booming stride and then the stop-and-go of more of Ray's solos (lithe, one finger exercises that Thelonious Monk would/should have loved), would have been classic even if the words weren't coming in later but only after he's over a whole minute-and-a-half into the song. But they do come in.

Hey mama, don't you treat me wrong
Come and love your daddy all night long
All right now, hey hey, all right

Each line he sings solo with the band stomping in at the last word and then charging through when he's finishing off the verse.

See the girl with the diamond ring
She knows how to shake that thing
All right now now now, hey hey, hey hey

(Trivial side note: Ray had to apologize for the first line of that verse when he sang it at Disneyworld once, saying "I don't mean any harm" as the minions there obviously didn't want anyone to get the wrong impression about what 'that thing' might be.)

Tell your mama, tell your pa
I'm gonna send you back to Arkansas
O-o-o-oh yes, ma'm, you don't do right, don't do right

When you see me in misery
Come on baby, see about me
Now yeah, all right, all right... aw play it, boy

Then Ray solos again but why would he need need to call out to himself though? Out of body experience? Also, he doesn't painfully stretch out the words like he does on "Drown In My Own Tears" but who cares when he's driving along at this pace, stopping and starting with the band again as he solos? When he comes back in, he sings the last verse again, just to make his point.

When you see me in misery
Come on baby, see about me
Now yeahhhhh, hey hey, all right

See the girl with the red dress on
She can do the Birdland all night long
Yeah yeah, what'd I say, all right

Wonder what the 'Birdland' is...? Now the horns come in to answer him with each line, an instrumental version of the singers coming in later for other, less professional purposes.

Well, tell me what'd I say, yeah
Tell me what'd I say right now
Tell me what'd I say
Tell me what'd I say right now
Tell me what'd I say
Tell me what'd I say yeah

And I wanna know
Baby I wanna know right now
And-a I wanna know
And I wanna know right now yeah
And-a I wanna know
Said I wanna know yeah

And then it stops. A crowd (not a real live one but likely the boys in the band) yells for more. Ray asks what they're saying, uncertain, promising that he'll do it again. Remember, this staged commotion was all happening in the space of a hit single, which is kind of audacious when you think about it. And now, the Raeletts, his official back-up singers, answer him with each shout- Ray and the girls sing accapella except for some percussion rumbling beneath. At first they sound sultry but eventually as they go back and forth with him, there's no doubt about what's going on: they're having sex with Ray. Think I'm kidding? Listen again.

Uhnnnn...! (uhhhn!)
Uhn...! (uhn!)
OOO...! (OOO!)
Uhn...! (uhn!) OOO...! (OOO!)

One more time (just one more time)
Say it one more time right now (just one more time)
Say it one more time now (just one more time)
Say it one more time yeah (just one more time)
Say it one more time (just one more time)
Say it one more time yeah (just one more time)

When they exchange shouts now (again with barely any instruments heard behind them), they're dripping with sweat, getting faster and faster, the moaning gets shorter and louder each time, climaxing with a shout from Ray. Still think I was jiving here? The only thing that would have made it more obvious (and probably would have gotten him banned from the radio) would be if the girls screamed back at him at the end of the line.

Huuuuuh! (huuuuh)
hohhhhh! (hohhhhh)
Huuuuuh! (Huuuuuh)
hohhh! (hohhh)

They start yelling so quickly at/with each other than they're different parts sound inseperable at the end. Ray and the girls have become one.

Make me feel so good (make me feel so good)
Make me feel so good now yeah (make me feel so good)
Woooo-aaaaah! Baby (make me feel so good)
Make me feel so good yeah (make me feel so good)
Make me feel so good (make me feel so good)
Make me feel so good yeah (make me feel so good)

Listen to the way that Ray sucks his breath in this time and trails off in almost in a yodel in the first line and hyperventilating with the girls later. He's not even hiding it anymore! The man is just plain makin' out and lovin' every minute of it.

Uuuuu-HAH! (uuuuu-hah)
Ho-ooooh! (Ho-ooooh!)
Huuuh (huuuh) ho-o (ho-o)

It's all right (baby, it's all right)
Said that it's all right right now (baby, it's all right)
Said that it's all right (baby, it's all right)
Said that it's all right yeah (baby, it's all right)
Said that it's all right (baby, it's all right)
Said that it's all right (baby, it's all right)

Woahhhhhhhh! Shake that thing now (baby, shake that thing)
Baby, shake that thing now now (baby shake that thing)
Baby, shake that thing (baby shake that thing) (one of the Raelettes- breaks off to yell 'Hey-ey')
Baby, shake that thing right now! (baby shake that thing)
Baby, shake that thing (baby, shake that thing)
Baby, shake that thing (baby, shake that thing)

Woooooah! I feel all right now yeah (make me feel all right)
Said I feel all right now (make me feel all right)
Wooooooo-aaa-aaa-ah! (make me feel all right)
Tell you I feel all right (make me feel all right)
Said I feel all right (make me feel all right)
Baby I feel all right (make me feel all right)

And then it just stops dead for good. As exhilarating as the whole six minutes before, the ending is a slap of cold water in the face. Time for a cigarette.

To finish off, I'd like to offer up several moving tributes that speak more eloquently and intelligently than I could about the man.

Thanks again Ray...

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