Trying To Get To You

Friday, June 05, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Ray Charles, 1976

For this week’s Bootleg Friday, I’m going back to a Founding Father, Brother Ray.

I didn’t grow up listening to Ray Charles; I only started getting into him during my early 20's. But he was always there – on radio and TV and in the ether, with that voice that was always immediately recognizable no matter what song he was singing, or where you heard it. He's one of those artists that people who don't follow or even care much about music can identify him as the artist within four bars of his vocal. That voice, much like Sinatra's, is part of the fabric of America.

When I was 10, I got a compilation of Rolling Stone interviews, and while I quickly memorized the John Lennon and Pete Townshend interviews, I remember not really being able to get into Ray’s interview. I’m not even sure I read the whole interview for years. He gave what seemed to me to be defensive answers. He didn’t want to share everything. When the interviewer (Ben Fong-Torres) inquired about Ray’s experience in therapy, Charles blew it off, saying that he spent most of the time talking to the Doctor about how the Doctor’s life was going. Of course, I now understand the reasons for that “defensiveness” I perceived - born dirt poor, losing his sight at 7, orphaned at 15, on his own from then on. A scuffling musician, a target for other musicians and unscrupulous promoters to take advantage of, a heroin addiction and much more. He intimately knew the blues he sang - and he also knew to be careful about how much he gave away.

But as I got into his music – via the great early 90's Atlantic/Rhino box set, The Birth Of Soul, and then the epochal Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music – I came to realize that to interview Ray Charles was, in a way, a futile gesture. What you needed to know about him was in the music. It was there that the tools and defenses he used to survive a world he had known as hard and cold were no longer necessary, and he could shine without impediment, conjuring a range and depth of human emotion in his own singular way.

I can’t help but think that when I listen to this show, recorded in Stutgart, Germany in 1976. It’s a towering performance, especially the opening track, “How Long Has This Been Going On,” a song about discovering infidelity. Charles conveys more than just the hurt of being betrayed; he sings in the voice of a man discovering his own blindness, and now with sight, knows what a fool he has been. And sometimes, it seems like he sings the song with a very wry smile on his face.

Download: "How Long Has This Been Going On" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "Feel So Bad" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "Am I Blue" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "I Can't Stop Loving You" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "Country Road" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "How Much I Can" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "What'd I Say" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany