[9 August 2009]
If one human voice could dignify the plight of the impoverished, celebrate the brief respite of the working class and honor the patriotism of a people, in that post-turbulent era of the early ‘70s—that instrument would belong to singer-pianist Ray Charles.
In Concord Music Group’s reissued CD, A Message from the People, Charles produces a surprising repertoire that deflects from the expected “Georgia on My Mind” piano-emblazoned ballad and the famed, funky attitude-displayer “Hit The Road Jack” snap-pop. Instrumentalists such as Freddie Hubbard, Ray Brown, and Jean “Toots” Thielemans provided substantial production, and sprightly charts were written by producer-writer Quincy Jones and Sid Feller.
When Charles covers “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” originally recorded by singer Melanie, he adds lots of lovely improvisatory wordplay between phrases, injecting wit through the cracks. “They put it in a plastic bag and, Lawd, they turned it upside down”, he drips. A calypso beat has also been charmingly added to this classic, plus a heap of syncopation and a bevy of background singers broadcasting chic French phrases.
Charles also experiments with one of his later day favorite genres: country. Here, he covers the originally straight-laced, folk-country John Denver tune “Take Me Home Country Roads”. Contrary to Denver’s version, which highlights “homesickness”, Charles’ take is slick, cavalier—and profusely more wise-guy. “Hey, Mister” is a rant against legislation. It posits “How can you find a job when there just ain’t none?” and “Rich or poor, a man’s still a man”. It has a jarring “Polk Salad Annie” effect, with its “uunnhh-uunnhh” vocal intensity that—though somewhat dated in today’s era—is intriguing from a musicological standpoint.
“Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong” has the “umph” that many associate with Charles’s distinct vocal performance. It has a form-fitted, yet familiar sounding structure, and words that shadow and detonate blues. “Another weekend passed me by / It’s not because I didn’t try / Nobody heard me talking”. The sentiment is powerful—detailing the plight of loneliness and the cost of powerlessness—but the production is excessive, overpowered by extraneous electric guitar.
But the two definitive songs that provide historical context to the album are “Abraham, Martin and John” and “America the Beautiful”. The former begins with a simple unfettered keyboard background, which enhances Charles’s earthy instrument, but then a brassy swing interlude that leads into vocal cliché distracts. While the original paid somber, folksy tribute to slain Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy—this version bears down a bit too much on production, leaving the profound lyrics adrift.
The standout, however, is the closer “America the Beautiful”. Implemented with stirring beauty and grace, inflected with lush, lugubrious gospel-organ, cushioned with uplifting, melismatic clauses and infused with Charles’s particularly personal affectation—“I’m talkin’ about America—sweet America / God done shed his grace on me / He crowned thy good / He told me he would…”—this glorious epic shines a crowning halo on Charles’s cool persona.