Hello again, fellow roadies! It’s 68 bloody degrees F. here right now and sunny in Chicago — HELL yeah! — and it promises to be a high of 75 degrees tomorrow. Excellent! Must do something to celebrate that, so boy, have we got a treat for you today. It’s a road music double-header. Only the best from vocalists Ray Charles and Kevin Mahogany. Can you say encore? Oui, mes amis!
The clip from the versatile Mr. Charles is from the year 2000, by which time Ray’s voice wasn’t the best. All those years of smoking had caught up with him. The live performance is in Paris. Ray made it to the gig at the Grand Olympia, but alas, three-quarters of his band was still in L.A., as in on another continent due to travel problems. So what does a veteran performer do? Why, he improvises like any a jazz or blues artist would. He took a tune from his early playbook, when he was still trying to sound like Nat King Cole so that he could get nightclub bookings, and used it to give the audience a performance that felt like a small, intimate jazz club rather than a huge venue. Only now he really sounds like himself, not Cole, particularly in the phrasing and expression. There’s no mistaking who it is, even though at the beginning he starts with Nat’s classic piano lead-in. It’s like a musical inside joke. Needless to say, he wowed the crowd.
Born Ray Charles Robinson, he dropped the last name when he signed up with Swing Time records in order to avoid being confused with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Swing Time folded in 1952, but it worked out okay for Charles — because he got signed by the founder and CEO of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun. The Istanbul-born Ertegun came from Turkish aristocracy and a musical family; he also had a love of jazz and blues and an uncanny knack for spotting and recruiting new talent. In 1947, Ahmet, his brother Neshi and National Records’ A&R man, Herb Abramson, founded Atlantic and created something then really unusual in the process: they brought a jazz sensibility a lot of jazz artists into the Rhythm & Blues genre, successfully combining blues and jazz styles from all over. This suited Ray Charles just fine, as he was already interested in fusing R&B, gospel and blues as well as jazz. He eventually crossed over into country befoer coming back to blues and R&B. Later, when Atlantic was sold to Warner Brothers Records in 1967, Ertegun remained at the helm of the label, finding and nurturing new artists and producing existing ones. That was fortunate for Charles, because it was under Ertegun that Ray Charles really began to be noticed as a performer, starting in 1955 with a song he penned himself, “I Got a Woman” — which became his first number-one R&B hit.
It was Charles’s versatility that allowed him to bounce back into the spotlight after a commercial decline during the 1960s, when it seemed like all anyone wanted to listen to was psychedelic rock. He recorded a number of country albums that gave him yet another listening public, then veered back into R&B. Slowly but surely, his musical notoriety made a comeback, aided by such things as his making musical TV commercials for Suntory in Japan, a Diet Pepsi TV ad in the U.S, and his appearance in the highly successful 1980 film The Blues Brothers. It didn’t hurt that in 1979, his song “Georgia On My Mind” became (at last) the official state song, or that his cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” recorded on his 1993 album My World, became a hit single and won him a Grammy award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. And when after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 he performed a month later at Game 2 of the World Series and sang his soulful, unforgettable rendition of “America the Beautiful,” Charles brought both the live crowd and the television audience to tears.
Ray Charles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, received the Kennedy Center Honors the same year, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. In 1991, he was inducted to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and was presented with the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. He died on June 10, 2004 due to acute liver disease at his home in Los Angeles with family and friends around him (and there were many of those: he was married two times and had 12 children with ten different women — !). The 2005 Grammy Awards were dedicated to him.
An almost balmy day like today just begs for a stroll. And since one great peformance deserves another, here’s the much younger Kevin Mahogany, a bluesy jazz vocalist who knows how to swing it, doing a laid-back take of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin'” that you can stretch out and Lindy to (oh yes!). Like Basie’s first vocalist, Jimmy Rushing, Mahogany is a big guy who knows how to work the music. This is no surprise, as the man was born in Kansas City, where the Count Basie band first made it big. The number in question is the first track on a YouTube video recording of the entire album on which the singer recorded the tune, Portrait of Kevin Mahogany. Give a listen, and you’ll see why I groove on this:
Y’all have a nice weekend, now, and enjoy the spring weather before the April showers kick in. And don’t forget to ‘like’ our posts here and give us a ‘star’ rating at the top of the page, just below the headline. We appreaciate our readership and we hope you appreciate us. Thanks for listening!
Until next time,
your own DJ SweetMarie