Ray Charles – Ray Charles at Newport 1958

Ray Charles. What can you say about Ray Charles that hasn’t already been said? He occupied an interesting space as I was growing up – acknowledged as a genius, ubiquitous on the “oldies” stations, but not otherwise a real radio presence. I didn’t have any of his records, and at the time I began collecting records, his music would have seemed so . . . square, that I couldn’t have imagined collecting it. (I think I’ve made it clear before that I was an idiot as a teenager, subject to all the peer pressure that anyone was, and not nearly cool enough to just go my own way on everything.)

Ray Charles at Newport front cover
Ray Charles at Newport front cover

So, I knew who Ray Charles was. Everyone knew who Ray Charles was. In the summer after my freshman year at Syracuse, Ray was playing the Landmark Theatre, an incredible palace of a performing space that may have been Thomas Lamb’s greatest achievement. (If you think Proctor’s in Schenectady or the Palace in Albany are elaborate – the Landmark is a Persian acid trip.) It is an incredible venue. As one of the handful of staffers working on the weekly summer student newspaper, I got access to free tickets to the show, which was sponsored by the local AM country radio station. If I thought that perhaps Ray Charles’s music was a little square, the thought of going to a show sponsored by a country music station . . . well, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be seen going into the theater. But go I did. And thank goodness I did.

I had been to all kinds of concerts by that point — from big events at Saratoga with thousands of people milling about on the lawn, to mid-size theater shows, to tiny clubs and bars. It’s possible that my very first concert was a performance by Neil Sedaka, so I had a hint of what old school entertainment looked like, even in the age of rock. But I had seen nothing that prepared me for a show like Ray Charles put on.

For starters, no opening act. Instead, the curtain rose, and the Ray Charles Orchestra was just there, ready to swing. They launched into some numbers without Ray on the stage – very confusing to my young mind. I had no idea how warmups were done. After three or four swinging instrumentals, out came some Raylettes, dressed in fabulous gowns, singing something incredible and really capturing the audience. Then, once we were ready for him, out stepped Ray Charles, who sat down at the piano and proceeded to blow my mind. His utter control of the 10 or 11 musicians on stage, his utter control of his voice, his fingers, and ultimately, the audience . . . I had never seen anything like it.

And then, in an example I wish more musicians would follow, when he was done, he was done. The orchestra played him off the stage, the curtain came down, and the lights came up.

(Aside: What is this forced encore tradition we’ve endured for as long as I’ve been going to shows? Could we please just stop it. If the show is super great and the band is up for it, sure. If they literally can’t even get off the stage, and are just huddled off to the side waiting for you to generate enough noise to get them to play the one hit 80% of the audience is there to hear – what are we even doing?)

Ray Charles at Newport back cover
Ray Charles at Newport back cover

Despite that, it would be another few years before I started collecting Ray Charles music. A couple of his CD collections were among my earlier CD purchases, and from there on out we were on board the Ray Charles train. We saw him every chance we got – and there were quite a few chances. I’m not sure, it was probably 10 times, it could have been more. We saw him perform at the Landmark again. We saw him at the Starlight Theater in Colonie (the former Colonie Coliseum, the bizarre theater in the round), with John Hammond opening (and some old ladies who were clearly there only for Ray would not shut. the. fuck. up during John Hammond’s performance). We saw him at the Palace in Albany, I’m pretty sure, and at Proctor’s I know for certain. We saw him do a July Fourth show at Tanglewood. We saw him back to back at Saratoga – one night, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the next night doing an entirely different show with his own touring company. He did a version of Brel’s “If You Go Away” that left me weeping on the lawn – and while it’s not from that particular performance, there is a video of his rendition that’ll give you an idea:

If you don’t cry at this, you may not be human.

This record itself is pretty new to my life. Shortly after moving here, I finally decided to do what I should have done before moving, and carted a few boxes of comic books out to a dealer to finally be rid of them. They weren’t worth much, but they were going to be worth much more in trade than in cash. He sold records as well as comics, thank goodness, since the point was to be rid of boxes of books. But I also didn’t really feel like pawing through a few dozen records to work out the trade. I mostly didn’t care – I just wanted to be free of the books without dumping them (anything of value I’d sold off separately ages ago). So I looked around at the higher end stuff on the walls, picked off a decently valuable “Meet the Beatles” (yeah, I’ve told this story before) and a few really pristine old Ray Charles records – like this one.

This is Ray live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, with a fantastic band. It is great. Unlike all the stuff that would be released in the coming years with lush arrangements and maybe too perfect production, this is a little more raw, a little more jazzy, and a little more exciting. I listen to it pretty often for a “new” album — new to me, anyway.

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