December 5, 2004 Leave a comment
When I was in my first year of college, an old friend gave me a cassette tape of a Ray Charles album: The Genius After Hours. It was solo and instrumental. Just Ray on the piano — no singing. It was the best Blues album I’d ever heard. Aching, beautiful, and brilliant. Slow. Important that it was slow — in that way that the best Jazz, the best Blues, and some Wagner can be.
I immediately sought out more Ray Charles stuff, and was disappointed with everything I found. I wanted to shoot the Raylettes and bomb the offices of whatever ofay record producers had forced him to work with a cheesy string orchestra.
There was the voice; there was the timing; there was the incredible piano. But it didn’t sound like the Genius I knew only from that cassette tape.
In the move to Compact Disc, I managed to lose all my vinyl and most of my tapes. For years, I was glad that I had at least held onto The Genius After Hours, even if my laziness meant that I no longer played tapes. It was probably the only old tape I really cared about. But in the late 1990s, when I moved into my first house, I discovered that the tape box was empty. How long had my favorite tape been missing?
I searched Amazon, eBay, et al., for a CD version of that album. I finally found something with a different cover, but the same album title. It’s not the same album, though.
Anyway, the wife and I saw Ray on Friday night — the Ray Charles biopic starring Jamie Foxx.
I feel about the movie the way I feel about Ray Charles’s music: all the talent is there — and even sometimes obviously brilliant — and yet it’s not put together in a way I’d call more than very good.
I was shocked to learn that the cheesy string accompaniment was Ray Charles’s idea, and not some godawfulness imposed on him by the suits. The Raylettes were his idea, too, but he can be more readily forgiven for them. Some of his best stuff required female singers, and they might as well do regular backup since they were already there. But over the years, I think they just became part of the cliché.
Another minor mystery the film solved for me was the question of Ray Charles doing Country music. I’d learned of this maybe 10 years ago, when I was offhandedly bad-mouthing Country as a genre and a friend registered his objection. I’m white and this friend is black, so a disagreement on Country music seemed predictable, but our positions were not. He had several things to say in the music’s defense, but the only part I remember was his telling me that Ray Charles respected Country enough to do an album that had been a best seller on the Country charts. So I watched the biopic on Friday with an anticipation of finally hearing what Ray Charles doing Country music would sound like. When it happened, I thought, Oh I’ve heard this stuff before! I just never thought of it as Country music.
So am I being stubborn and tautological or is it fair to imagine that Negro Country might sound good to me when Caucasian Country does not? Just as Negro Spiritual and White Gospel barely sound like they can exist in the same universe. There are white singers who can “sound black” and black singers who can “sound white” but Country singers always sound white to me and Ray Charles didn’t do anything to imitate that part of the sound. Maybe if I heard an instrumental version of the songs, I’d see a greater similarity, but I doubt it. There was deep Blues in Charles’s “Country” that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in the white stuff.
The one thing that the movie is consistently great at is showing how the musician’s best work came spontaneously, unplanned, in the moment. Mostly I’m talking about the music, but there are several key events in his life that seem to work the same way, including Charles’s unprecedented role in the history of Jim Crow and coercive racial segregation.
I admire Ray Charles himself for being involved in a presentation of his life that is far from flattering. It’s hard for me to look at either Ray Charles or Jamie Foxx without feeling some reflexive affection, but the character in this story was not a nice man. Not to his friends, not to his family, and certainly not to any of the women he ever took by the hand … then wrist … then …
I’m relieved that the movie came out when it did, since the death of Ray Charles was eclipsed by the death of Ronald Reagan.
When Reagan and Charles died within a week of each other, I remember thinking that it was good we’d have an opportunity to review Reagan’s legacy, but terrible timing, since we wouldn’t get our chance to mourn the passing of Ray Charles. I was wrong on both counts: we as a people (whatever that means) did not have the discussion and debate that’s been long overdue on the Reagan White House, but the movie Ray at least makes sure we can review the legacy of a very different American icon.