[8 December 2005]
Before the advent of BET, it was difficult for even the best R&B artists to secure extended television airtime. An exception to this general rule, however, is the respectful way Dick Cavett treated Ray Charles here. This two-DVD set features three original full-length Cavett programs. Two of these episodes spotlight Charles as a musical guest, and on the third one, Charles is the lone guest. If you’ve seen the excellent film Ray, and now you want to know what all of the Ray Charles fuss is about, this package presents the soul man in his prime.
At first—during the scene where Cavett desperately tries to sing “Am I Blue” with Charles on the June 25, 1972 episode—it is a tad uncomfortable to watch. Cavett is nearly unbearably white, which he cannot hide here. And Charles is deep, dark soul to the bone. Nevertheless, Cavett is not trying to pretend that he’s hip during these moments. Instead, he’s living out the dream to sing with one of his musical heroes. Reciprocally, you also get the sense that Charles respects Cavett’s sincerity, and especially his professionalism. This is not some sort of a bi-racial summit; instead, it’s two entertainers from polar ends of the entertainment spectrum, which somehow find a whole lot of unlikely middle ground together.
If you love to just sit and watch Charles sway back and forth, as his beautifully gravelly voice squeezes out every last emotion from his songs, you won’t be disappointed here. In other words, you can skip over Cavett’s interview portions altogether. There are many familiar Charles favorites to choose from, such as “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. One is also treated to Charles’ take on “Eleanor Rigby”, which significantly increases the pain factor of The Beatles’ original version. Another pleasant surprise is his approach to “Shake”, which was a song originally introduced to the world by fellow soul brother, Otis Redding.
If you choose to watch each of these programs in their entirety, including Cavett’s non-musical invitees, you’ll also get a taste of just how eclectic the Dick Cavett Show truly was. For instance, one guest on the first episode was that The Odd Couple guy, Tony Randall, as well as famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Cavett easily trades humorous barbs with Randall one moment, and then shows off his natural smarts during his discussion with Mead. Randall, while all the while speaking in that oh-so-formal voice of his, can be seen and heard explaining his shock over witnessing the topless sunbathing phenomenon in Los Angeles. Mead, on the other hand, takes on more serious topics, such as pollution, overpopulation, sexual taboos, and women’s liberation. The second disc’s non-musical lineup of John Lindsay and Dr. Samuel Rosen, however, is not nearly so fascinating. When viewed as a whole, this TV look-back is a reminder that there once was a time when talk shows booked guests because they were interesting, not just because they had a new book or film to promote. This is expressly why you don’t see the likes of Mead on today’s late night television.
During his interview segments with Charles, Cavett poses a lot of questions we’d all like to ask blind people. And due to the mutual respect they shared, Cavett could get away with some rather naïve queries. For example, he asks Charles what he thinks about people when familiar names are mentioned. He prefaces this question by mentioning the way sighted ones get mental pictures of physical attributes when this common practice occurs. So what do blind people “see”? As Charles explains it, he pictures people the way folks used to imagine their favorite stars, back in radio’s heyday. He imagines what they must look like, including height and weight and so forth. During one other Q&A session, Ray also tells Cavett that he can still picture basic colors, because he was a pre-teen when he first lost sight. Nevertheless, he has trouble with modern colors (well, these were modern at the time) such as “electric pink”. Most importantly, Cavett asks Charles if he’d ever want to regain his sight again, if medical science were able to give that back to him. Although he’d love to see what his children look like, Charles answers, he’d probably only need about one day to see all of his previously denied sights. Quite simply, he had adjusted well to being sightless by then.
On a few occasions during these three programs, Charles politely complains about the state of television at that time, and how it related to music. It bothered him that so much emphasis was placed upon how people looked, rather than how they sounded. At one point during his commentary, he even breaks the word television into two parts, revealing that “vision” was the operative word. Charles was so in touch with sound, being that he hadn’t been able to see since the age of seven, it’s not hard to empathize with his frustration. Now with around 30 years of hindsight, Charles also comes off way ahead of his time—what with the near omnipresence of stereo television these days. Sadly, the re-release of these three shows doesn’t even come in 5.1 Surround Sound. So if Ray were alive today, he might still be disappointed after listening to these DVDs.
Even without great sound, however, Charles never fails to exude charisma on the TV screen. Although it’s highly recommended that all true music fans watch Ray the movie, there is still nothing like the real thing.