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George Edward Tait

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The Reverend Ray Charles

Still Slammin’

     Night-time in New York.  A cloudless sky of full moon clarity.  Summer is still here, but the air sings, “Call me autumn ‘cause I’m so cool.”  It’s September 9, and the great Ray Charles is featured at Tramps.  People pile into standing-room only space to see the man who is called “The Genius.”  In semi-darkness, waitresses spin smiles around tables.  Food and drink, talk and smoke: the clatter and chatter of clubtime culture.  It’s the 20th anniversary of Tramps , and Ray Charles was chosen to commence the celebration.  A stroke of genius.

     After the warm-up comedian ushered the audience through a half-hour of humorous material, it was time for Brother Ray.  The audience waited as time passed.  Although those sitting continued to jawbone and elbow-bend, the feet of those standing forced their tongues to speak out.

     First, a discord of disappointment, then a din of disrespect.  More waiting.  Time knew how to pass the audience, but few knew how to pass the time.  Soon the voice of restlessness became the venom of rage.  More time passed.  Then, finally, the band came on, without Ray, but under the capable quality control of music director/alto saxophonist Al Jackson and the keyboard cushion of Ernie Vantrease.

     The crowd quieted.  The orchestra opened with a composition called “Woodie and Bu,” a bright jazz romp with both an intricate and intriguing  arrangement.  Outstanding were the call and response exchanges of the ensemble and an exquisite solo by tenor saxophonist Rudy Johnson.

         After the selection received a stirring applause, Ray Charles himself was ceremoniously introduced and brought on to a rousing ovation of earsplitting cheers.  Ray ritualistically stood front stage center, with smiling head thrown back, slightly swaying with hands on hips before outstretching his arms to the stratosphere.  He absorbed the applause and then embraced its essence and energy.

     Seated at the piano (Vantrease switched to organ), Ray plunged deep into an up-tempo song as the band lunged forward with symbiotic sophistication.  The song was further dramatized by Ray’s verbal gymnastics and body dialect.

     For his next song, Ray adroitly altered the mood and sang his hit “Busted,” a western blues with a country accent.  Next came his first signature song of the evening.  Sometimes in the second spot, sometimes in the third, but invariably the one or the other: “Georgia.”  It is always included, same key, same tempo, same fundamental arrangement.  But always different; always original, decade after decade.  It is his most serious song.

     Each time he sings it, his face changes to a frozen blend of melancholy and mystery.  A standard that has become a state anthem is still a private horror transformed to blues.  His enunciation of the name “Georgia” shifts through somber subtleties of personal significance.  Sometimes “Zhorgia,” or “Gordia,” or “Ghorja,” or “Shor-cha,” one hears the name and feels the meaning.

     Another favorite followed.  Ray’s vibrant version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” was additionally noteworthy for its time signature and tempo alternation between commontime stanzas and waltztime chorus.  Brother Ray’s trademark personalization of lifeless lyrics combined with original interpretations of outdated material consistently elevates the simplest song into the echelon of excellence and excitement.

     “Just For A Thrill” was Ray’s dissertation on pain.  He sang it with frostbitten tones supported by the sympathetic sounds of a broken-hearted band.

     When Ray sang “The Good Life,” he lasered the lyrics onto an acoustic screen so that everyone could “see” the good life.  Ray became the consummate jazz singer, city-smooth and cosmopolitan, with urbanized inflections painting nocturnal skylines of downtown landscapes.  His delivery danced in the debonair tempo of definitive swing.

     After two back-to-back blues songs.  Ray brought out the Raylets and presented a clever cause and effect juxtaposition with the next two songs.  First, the Rayless Raylets sang “Guess Who I Saw Today” with harmony so perfect they could have been renamed “The Mills Sisters.”  The lyrics became both lush and luscious while the band intoned sound sculptures of intimacy and scintillating shapes of things to come.  The “effect” of “Guess Who I Saw Today” was “Hit The Road Jack.”  Ray’s updated version of his original hit was a marvel to behold.  He interweaved music, monologue, dialogue, drama, and sit-down comedy.  Through it all, his musicality flawless, his title of genius justified.

     Ray’s second signature song of the evening was his groundbreaking country and western classic, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”  As soon as he recorded it, the song opened up a global ear to country and western music, immediately lifting it out of the mire of disregard and into the mainstream of distinction.

     He closed, of course, with his inevitable tour-de-force finale: “What’d I Say,” his third signature song.

     Speaking with Angela Woodman, an eight-year member of the Raylets, she expressed that “Ray is a perfectionist who caters to people’s souls and is able to tap into them through the keys on the piano.”  She further stated, “Ray Charles is a forefather.  He has his own sound.  People try to imitate him.  He stands out because of his unique trueness to himself regardless of the trends and pace of the music industry.”

     Had the popular songwriting team in 1967 with the tune called “When I’m Sixty-Four” looked into the future and seen Ray Charles in action at Tramps, they would have changed the title.  On September 23, Ray Charles’ 65th birthday, he heads for his next concert in Brazil.

     The depth of his soul inspired Aretha Franklin to call him “Reverend”; the scope of his behavior encourages many to call him crazy.  Whatever he is called, he is nevertheless a genius and still slammin’ after all these years.

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Publication Date: 09-23-95