Transcendent live recording of a genius at his peak
Ray Charles is so much more than Ray Charles at this point, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he was once a terrific singer and performer first and foremost, rather than an icon of a time period, a game-changing crossover artist, Pepsi salesman, biopic subject and who knows what else. The re-release of this 1964 concert, recorded at the height of his powers, should take steps to remedy all that, and bring the focus back to where it belongs: the music.
By the time of this show, Charles was already well known to black audiences for his electrifying fusion of gospel and uptempo blues, which would eventually become known as soul music. He had gone further than that, too, reaching mainstream (read: white) audiences with crossover tactics such as his recording of country music, represented here by “Georgia On My Mind”.
A couple of bouncing instrumental tracks open the album, “Swing a Little Bounce” and “One Mint Julep”, and midway through the second, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether Ray is actually going to, y’know, sing on this record. But then he rips into a six-minute version of “I’ve Got a Woman”, and all is forgiven. Soulful and syrupy, with just enough grit to make it go down a little rough, Charles’s voice manages to be simultaneously sweet and licentious, tender and wry. It’s at this point that the show really fires up. “Georgia On My Mind” follows, its seven and a half minutes punctuated by chirping flute and the outbursts of the audience.
For many other performers, these two songs would be the culmination of the concert, not the beginning. But Charles’s repertoire runs deep, and he treats his audience to a string of superb tunes, superbly performed: “You Don’t Know Me”, “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”, “Baby, Don’t You Cry” and an extended, six-minute rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee”.
Of particular interest are the previously unreleased tracks left off the 1964 vinyl release. These seven cuts include “Georgia”, plus the deep blues of “That Lucky Old Sun”—an outstanding vocal performance on an album full of them—and the seven-minute epic “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)”. This last track features some of the remarkably adept, tinkling piano that Charles was known for, but which is relatively rare on this album. The 90-second intro to this tune provides a nice sampling, before the muted trumpet kicks in and engages with some back-and-forth with the singer.
Showman that he is, Charles ramps up the second half of the show to include a slew of crowd-pleasers: “Busted”, “Two Ton Tessie” (both unreleased previously), and especially, of course, “What’d I Say”, also known as “The Song That Never Gets Boring No Matter How Many Times You Hear It”.
The band behind Charles is impeccably tight, though perhaps a little heavy on horns for some tastes (like mine). The 19 tracks, including a throwaway intro and those first couple of instrumentals, provide a generous sampling of Charles’s oeuvre, ranging from swinging, brass-heavy tunes like “Margie” and “Hide Nor Hair” to more sedate, bluesy numbers such as “My Baby (I Love Her So, Yes I Do)”. The sound on the recording is well-balanced and remarkably free of noise or tape hiss.
Ray Charles is an artist who encompassed so many permutations and genres that it can be a little daunting for the uninitiated to know where to get started with him. This landmark live album—cleaned up and filled out with extra tracks—makes a fine place to start.