The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

10 June 2004

Brother Ray

In 1956, the Maddox Brothers and sister Rose issued a single called "The Death of Rock and Roll." America's most colorful hillbilly band gone apocalyptic? Not necessarily. After a couple of false starts — okay, half a dozen or so — they get down to business, and it sounds like this:

Well, I've got a woman
Way over town
She's good to me
Oh, yes

Not exactly the words of Ray Charles, a year and a half earlier, but it's the same song, and while the collective Maddox tongues were firmly in cheek, they perhaps sensed that their blend of bluegrass and boogie was becoming obsolete, and this was the very stuff that was going to displace it.

Not that "I Got a Woman" was all that auspicious in and of itself. A thinly-disguised rewrite of a gospel song ("There's a Man Goin' Round Takin' Names"), it topped the rhythm and blues chart, but Ray had already been to the Top Five with "It Should've Been Me," a Memphis Curtis number that hewed much more closely to R&B conventions. And the white segment of the nascent rock and roll audience wasn't quite ready for Ray and his rawness and his decidedly non-Pentecostal passion built on gospel chords; it wasn't until 1957 that he got a pop hit, and when he did, it was a reworking of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," issued as "Swanee River Rock."

After seven years at Atlantic, Ray Charles moved to ABC-Paramount, which promised to leave him alone and to let him keep his own masters, both among the most unheard-of contract provisions anyone had ever heard of. His debut for ABC in 1960 was a remake of Titus Turner's "Sticks and Stones," but Ray had lots of surprises to spring on us. While he'd written most of his own material at Atlantic, from now on he would be looking for previously-recorded songs that he could make his own.

And considerations like musical genre were secondary at best. During 1961, for instance, Ray hit big with "Hit the Road Jack," aimed at the pop market, and "One Mint Julep," an example of big-band jazz cut for ABC's Impulse label. And in 1962, he moved into country music with the seminal Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album. And while Ray didn't sound particularly country or at all Western — Dave Marsh once asserted that Ray's version of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" was "no more country than The Rite of Spring" — his claim to "modern" is indisputable.

The big hits petered out in the late Sixties, but Ray kept making music because, well, that's what he did. And he never, ever took himself too seriously; in the Eighties he did a series of ads for Pioneer's LaserDisc video system, pointing out that while he couldn't vouch for the picture quality, the sound was superb.

And now he's gone, his liver having given out after 73 years. His soul, in any sense of the word, is eternal.

Posted at 6:58 PM to Tongue and Groove