Sunday, July 16, 2006:

The Roots Canal: Ray Charles

Ray Charles -- Greenbacks
As I was relaxing after work at my favorite fancy cocktail bar the other night, I was surprised to hear this rare old Ray Charles track come on the stereo. The bartender told me he put the mix together himself, but didn't know much about that song so I filled him in.

What makes Greenbacks so great isn't just the ironic lyrics --
If you want to have fun in this man's land
Let Lincoln and Jackson start shaking hands
-- but that it shows Ray Charles on the cusp of his transition from lounge singer to soul pioneer. As everybody who saw Ray knows, his career started in the cool blues tradition of Charles Brown and Amos Milburn but didn't take off until he heated it up by putting gospel singing to a secular (and often ribald) purpose, essentially inventing soul music. This song combines both styles in one: verses sung in the cool semi-talking style of Charles Brown (best known for his hit Merry Christmas Baby) and in the chorus erupting with a short gospel-style burst:
On a greenback, greenback dollar bill
Just a little piece of paper, coated with chlorophyll.
I picked up this compilation of Ray Charles' early work after Ray came out because I wanted to hear more of the great early R&B where he made his mark -- and where the movie rightly spends its time -- instead of the later pop and country experimentations (noteworthy in their own right, but not as much to my taste) that made him a national superstar but where only flashes of his unique talent occasionally shine through. I can't recommend this CD highly enough; it's got all of his great early work in one place.

Bonus track: Ray Charles fans will love this, too. It's the original a cappella demo of Hit the Road Jack by Percy Mayfield, a great R&B singer in his own right who specialized in songs of depression like Life Is Suicide, Memory Pain and Two Years of Torture until he was seriously injured and disfigured in a car crash and focused his efforts on songwriting.
Percy Mayfield -- Hit the Road Jack

[The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years]
[Percy Mayfield, Part 2: Memory Pain] (also available on emusic)
That's a lovely demo of Hit The Road, jack. Nice find.

That is a good find.

Hey, Dan, nice post...Some day you'll have to explore the connection between appreciating mixed drinks and loving old R&B. There must be a common synapse or something.


Frank Sinatra called him "The only genius in our business" and that obviously wasn't a kind of exaggeration. Here I've tried to collect all notable tributes paid to Ray Charles by peers:

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