Posted by jeff on Sep 24, 2014 in Personal
, Song Of the week
Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles: ‘Spirit in the Dark’
I live in what I like to call the only non-Christian country in the Western world. We’re Jewish here, and we have a looong history of being different. In high school and college, half of my classmates and most of my neighbors were Jewish, but the subject was virtually unmentioned. Unmentionable. Obliquely noted only on a very few holidays, it was not something you talked about. If you weren’t ashamed of it, it was certainly nothing to strut.
Why would you want to be different?
Well, most of my friends chose that route, and they became less different than their parents (first-generation Americans) and grandparents (European-born, speaking English with a Yiddish accent). The Old World was left back there, Hitler obliterated it anyway, we are all Americans. Well, most of us.
Our grandparents had rescued us from Hitler, our parents had couched us comfortably in suburbia. But in the throes of the Vietnam War, the Chicago convention and Kent State, the American Dream was going sour. My entire generation sought meaning elsewhere – Molotov cocktails, drugs, alcohol, feng shui, communes, even dentistry. A perverse few even did a retro backflip into the religion of their forefathers. A substantial number of them – well, us – found ourselves in Israel, embracing and embraced by Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, and 10,000 miles distance from our nagging mothers. I even wrote a song about this very odyssey.
We Jews have our own calendar. The day starts at sundown (yeah, I know, that’s oxymoronic), the month starts with the reappearance of the moon (whew, I was really worried it wouldn’t show this time), the year on Rosh HaShana (Head of the Year), which occurs (according to our half-lunar/half-solar calendar) somewhere between September 5 and October 5 (except after 2089, when it will come no earlier than September 6 – let me tell you, this is one tangled can of worms).
Spirit in the Dark
The event is proscribed in the Bible (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1) as a day of blowing the ram’s horn. Nowadays here in this Jewish country it’s a two-day holiday. Everybody puts on their holiday finery, buys a lot of flowers and newspapers, and gifts for the friends who are hosting them for a holiday meal. This year it begins at sundown tonight (Wednesday), and runs right into Sabbath (sundown Friday), making this a three-day bacchanalia.
For most folks here, three days of vacation and rest. For those of us who joined OAR (the Observe All the Rules club), it means the Day of Judgment, in which we’re called to account for our behavior during the past year. It’s a ten-day period of soul-searching, climaxing in the Yom Kippur fast. In practice, it’s a 72- hour prayer marathon in synagogue, with occasional breaks for (a lot of) eating and (a lot of) sleeping and (a lot of) reading the newspapers. I want to tell you, 72 hours without internet is a very long time. Or, to put it more philosophically, “Life is short, but the days are very long.”
Some people, spiritually more highly evolved than myself, manage to engage the day in all its gravity. I overheard a young security guard at the entrance to the mall saying to a friend, in utter earnest, “It’s so frightening – on Wednesday were all gonna stand before The King in judgment. Scary, man!”
I won’t tell you how challenging that prayer marathon is for me, because My Better Half reads this and she likes to try to picture me with a gray beard swaying in rapture.
I will confess that my two regular synagogue buddies and I occasionally exchange during breaks in the prayer a word or two (or a few trillion) about such spiritually lofty subjects as the new officially released boxed set of Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Z and D and I grew up with Lesley West’s Mountain more prominent in our landscape than Mount Sinai, and we all made a similar journey to the same pew in the same synagogue saying the same prayers for 72 hours that our great-grandfathers did in Eastern Europe. That’s a very gratifying concept, but great-grandpa was hardwired in a way that we’re not. Our attitude to spirituality is somewhat wry, to put it mildly. So it’s at times like this, with Divine Judgment hanging over our mortal souls, that Z and D and I and our like reach into the bag of cultural resources on which we were raised for a booster.
And there’s nothing more boostful than Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles’ rendition of her ‘Spirit in the Dark’ as performed at the Fillmore West on March 6, 1971. The folks up on the stage grew up singing their hearts out in churches in Detroit and rural Florida. The kids in the audience occasionally visited Temple Beth Israel in Squirrel Hill or Shaker Heights.
The 3-night gig was a big one for Aretha, her commercial popularity burgeoning. Jerry Wexler put her on stage in front of a white audience singing popular white songs (Beatles, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills) mixed with pop soul (‘Respect’, ‘Dr Feelgood). He replaced her road band with A-level studio musicians King Curtis and his band The Kingpins (featuring Billy Preston) and The Memphis Horns, with Aretha’s regular backup singers.
On the second night, she spontaneously brought Ray Charles on stage to duet with her on ‘Spirit in the Dark’, a quasi-spiritual she’d written and had a hit with a couple of years previously. She sings the song, then disappears off-stage, then returns with The Genius: “I discovered Ray Charles”, she quips, a reference to Flip Wilson’s Christopher Columbus 1967 skit in which “Queen Isabel Johnson” tells Chris that he can have “all the money you all the money you want, honey — You go find Ray Charles!” And shouting/testifying (drunk) from the dock, “Chris gonna find Ray Charles!”
We’ve written before about Aretha and about Ray. As Ray said, “There are singers, then there is Aretha.” She calls him “The Right Reverend Ray”.
The gig was documented in the album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”, not one of her big hits, but gaining respect over the years. It includes a recording of part of the second night’s version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ with surprise guest Ray. “I actually saw Ray a week or so earlier and told him what I was doing at the Fillmore but I didn’t think too much about it – until the night and there he was in the crowd. The next thing I knew he was up onstage and we were singing ‘Spirit.’ It was really a fantastic show and one that I’ll always remember.”
In 2005, Rhino Records released a 4-CD box set, “Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West”, but the version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’ there is from the first night.
The entire duet with Ray is recorded in video, all 25 minutes of it. Technically, the quality is low. Musically, it’s sublime. Do yourself a favor, watch it all. Then watch it again. Watch it just before Rosh HaShana. Watch it just before Christmas and before Aid al-Fitr. Watch it before Martin Luther King’s birthday. Watch it before your own birthday. Watch it on your cat’s birthday. Just watch it.
It’s magic. It’s inspired. Know what? It’s spiritual.
Aretha is ostensibly singing about God, but it’s one very gritty God: Are you gettin’ the spirit in the dark?/People movin’ oh and they groovin’/Just gettin’ the spirit in the dark/Tell me sister how do ya feel?/Tell me my brother, how do you feel?/Do you feel like dancin?/Get up and let’s start dancin’/Start gettin’ the spirit in the dark./Riiiiide Sally ride/Put your hand on your hips/Cover your eyes/And move with the spirit.
Ray may be singing a church tune, but he’s doing it across the street in a honkey-tonk: Every time you get a girl singing with you, can you feel it deep inside?/When my woman wake me up in the morning, she give me the spirit/I gotta find me a woman tonight, ‘cause I feel the spirit.
Maybe Brother Ray can find The Spirit in a honkey-tonk or at the Fillmore West, but me and Z and D, we’re going to be in our neighborhood synagogue, and if we do any singing it’s gonna be a whole lot more bowdlerized than Ray’s. What can I tell you? We didn’t grow up in Rev. Franklin’s church. Well, we didn’t grow up in Grandpa’s shtiebel either, but each of us decided that those are the roots we choose to embrace. Not drugs, not Moonyism, not Fillmorism. We’re gonna sit in shul for three days and be bored out of our minds and try real hard to reconnect with where we came from and seriously ponder our destiny for the coming year. And maybe here and there we’ll even sneak in a little schmooze about Aretha and Ray’s ‘Spirit in the Dark’.
Posted by jeff on May 23, 2014 in Rock and Roll
, Song Of the week
Ray Charles – ‘You Don’t Know Me’
You can’t imagine how different it was in The Good Old Days – i.e., the Eisenhower Years. Today, anything goes. Can you imagine Cole Porter watching Jerry Springer? Back then, nothing went. Not between the birds and the bees, not between The North and The South, certainly not in the recording studio.
The world was orderly, coherent and predictable. People knew their place. Crooners crooned. Violists violed. Polkadeers dotted polkas. Saxophonists smoked weed and wore sunglasses. Morally upstanding ‘coloreds’ sang in church, while their lapsed younger brother sang the blues. Hillbillies sang Country & Western. Believe me, it was a pretty tidy place back then, the world was.
And then came Elvis Pelvis and got things all shook up. A white boy singing black music. Who ever heard of such a thing? Well, just create a new pigeonhole for him to roost in, call it Rock & Roll, and try to keep Suzie from listening to it. Well, good luck.
Elvis had grown up sneaking across the tracks to eavesdrop on some of those younger church-raised blues musicians who were adding drums and bass to the gumbo, what Billboard monickered Rhythm & Blues. Separate charts, separate drinking fountains. Musical segregation. Fats Domino may have made the original, but all Suzie’s going to hear is Pat Boone. Never the twain.
Then came Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and leading the pack, Brother Ray – infusing R&B with a whole lot of gospel fervor, and not a little big band sheen. Let’s call it Soul, just so we’ll have a label for it.
Ray Charles (1930-2004) grew up in rural Georgia and Florida. As a child, he witnessed his little brother drowning in a laundry tub. He was blind (glaucoma) by seven. His father died when he was ten, his mother when he was 15. He studied classical music at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, but played ‘Jingle Bell Boogie’ at their Christmas parties.
He hit the road, Ray, at 15 and bounced around from Seattle to Miami, made enough regional recordings to get himself signed to the brand-new Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegün and Jerry Wexler, and in 1955 scored his first nationwide R&B hit with ‘I Got a Woman’, with his signature gospel moans and bouncy horn-driven arrangement.
He continued in the Soul vein (‘This Little Girl of Mine,’ ‘Drown in My Own Tears,’ ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So,’) through the 1950s. He finally broke into the white charts with ‘What’d I Say,’ followed by a move to ABC-Paramount Records, where he was granted artistic control (a first for a black artist on a major label) and a series of slightly tamer pop hits (‘Unchain My Heart’, ‘Busted’ and ‘Hit the Road Jack,’). Spanning both labels, he made a variety of excellent big band albums (“Ray Charles at Newport”, “The Genius of Ray Charles”, “Genius + Soul = Jazz”), many of them in collaboration with arranger Quincy Jones.
Sid Feller, Ray Charles
So Ray pretty much invented soul and then cornered the market. Not bad for a blind boy from Greenville, Florida. But the guy just didn’t know his place. Instead of leaving well enough alone, in 1962 he had to go and invade Nashville, dressing a string of Country and Western classics in his jazz/pop/soul style, but with fiercely personal interpretations. Something new under the sun.
Arranger Sid Feller brought him 250 Nashville songs to choose from. The resulting albums, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” and its sequel “Vol. II” were landmark music back then, and they still glow today.
Arrested 3 times for heroin
It has been said that “the album’s integration of soul and country music bent racial barriers in popular music, amid the height of the African-American civil rights struggle.” That’s 20/20 hindsight. I was subjected to ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ some 11 bejillion times on AM radio. Even today I leave the room when it comes on. Nothing personal against it. It’s a fine song. Just, you know, 11 bejillion times is tsu fill for anything. At the time, the song wasn’t perceived as a statement, it was music. A hit, five weeks at #1 on the white charts.
Check out ‘Born to Lose’, ‘Careless Love’, ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’, ‘Your Cheating Heart’. Ray Charles: “The words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.’ That’s the way you say it. Where in Tin Pan Alley will say, ‘Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.’ That’s cleaned up now, you see? But country songs and the blues is like it is.”
But most of all, check out ‘You Don’t Know Me’.
It was written in 1956 by Nashville songwriter Cindy Walker from an idea by Eddie Arnold. Jerry Vale had #14 hit with it on the country charts, followed two months later by Arnold’s own version hitting #10. Here’s Eddie singing it live at the Grand Ole Opry. Here’s Cindy herself singing it in 1964.
Ray transformed this simple, honest ballad of unrequited love to a masterpiece of heartbreak. I’ve listened to it 2.5 bejillion times over 52 years, and it still wrenches my stomach every time. We’ve all been there, even if it was back in high school: loving her to the core of your soul and her not even recognizing it – it’s a pain that never dies. Ray brings it all to the visceral surface, even after half a century.
Feller: “He listened to all of them to see which ones he could make a Ray Charles record with. A Ray Charles version. Not copy a country & western singer’s version. So in other words, by hearing the original, he knew what he didn’t want to do. So consequently, he made up his own things, and some of the things he made up, you know, the melodies themselves are interpretations. Some of the ballads, that were so beautiful, he just made it sound like Ray Charles made it up, even though he was singing the exact melody of the original. And yet when Ray Charles sings it, it sounds like a brand new song.”
Here’s Ray’s original recording of ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Here’s a video of Ray singing it live from back then.
Ray’s recording has spawned more versions than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. Elvis Presley. Jackie Wilson. Willie Nelson. Van Morrison (with his daughter Shana). Alison Krauss & The Jerry Douglas Band. Michael McDonald. Here’s Meryl Streep, proving yet once more that there’s nothing she can’t do stunningly well. Here’s the fetching Norah Jones with Wynton Marsalis. Here’s Ray singing it with Diana Krall.
And of course we can’t wrap this up without paying homage to Richard Manuel of The Band. Rewind Ray Charles back to 1960, his first single for ABC, a Grammy-winning recording of ‘Georgia on My Mind’, a country-ish reading of the Hoagy Carmichael classic. We wrote recently about The Band’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ and its roots in the Hoagy Carmichael ‘Rocking Chair’. The Band covered ‘Georgia on My Mind’ as well, and Richard’s version belies comparison with Ray’s. Ray is Ray Charles. Richard isn’t Pat Boone. He’s one fine, moving singer.
Likewise with Richard Manuel’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’, performed here by a 1983 post-Band regrouping. Ray inspires Richard. Both versions are moving.
Richard Manuel, and all of us, have been schooled by Brother Ray in soul, in pain, in passion, in all the emotional intensity that great music can awaken in us.
One more time. 2.5 bejillion and one. Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me.’
You give your hand to me and then you say, “Hello.”
And I can hardly speak, my heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell you think you know me well.
Well, you don’t know me.
No you don’t know the one who dreams of you at night;
And longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight.
Oh I’m just a friend, that’s all I’ve ever been.
Cause you don’t know me.
For I never knew the art of making love, though my heart ached with love for you.
Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by, a chance that you might love me too.
You give your hand to me and then you say, “Goodbye.”
I watched you walk away beside the lucky guy.
Oh, you’ll never ever know the one who loved you so.
Well, you don’t know me.
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Posted by jeff on Jul 8, 2011 in Rock and Roll
, Song Of the week
Have you ever thought about the relative personal-ness of the various wind instruments? It’s a subject that occupies me at various moments of repose. How much harder it is to get a personal tone on, say a brass instrument (trumpet, valve trombone) than it is on a saxophone, for instance? Not that a brass player can’t express his personality on his ax; but it’s a whole lot harder to recognize a trumpeter from just a few notes than it is a saxophonist. A pianist is even harder. A glockenspielist may be even harder than that. A vocalist, obviously is the most individually expressive instrument, but God made that one, so it’s not really a fair competition. Anyway, it seems to me that running a close second to the human voice, and far ahead of the rest of the pack of wind instruments, is the harmonica.