Jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues: Ray Charles, “The Genius,” can do it all, and do it all he does in his 1964 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Originally released by ABC-Paramount in 1965 as a twelve-song album, it’s now being reissued by Concord Music Group on a nineteen-track (seventeen-song) CD, Ray Charles: Live in Concert. There are some performers who seem uncomfortable outside the recording studio; live audiences are inconveniences that have to be put up with. Then there are some performers who always seem to manage a little something extra in live performance; audiences energize them. Not only is Ray Charles in this second group, he may well be at the head of the pack. The audience is having a good time; he is having a great time.
Whether he is taking a hoary old standard like “Margie” and making it his own, or rocking out his own chart topper, “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” this is a singer who has his audience in the palm of his hand. He begins with two big-band jazz instrumentals, “Swing a Little Taste” and “One Mint Julep.” The band has a brassy vibe that someone like Count Basie would have been proud of. On the first of the two you can hear Charles’ patented growl over the piano. Original liner notes indicated that the fifteen-piece band included a dozen horns featuring sax players David “Fathead” Newman, Hank Crawford and Leroy “Hog” Cooper. This is a band that can swing with the best of them. (As an aside, I recently heard “Fathead” Newman’s “Hard Times” on an old time rock podcast, and if you’ve never heard it, you can download it from his web site. It’s worth your time).
The set includes a remarkable bluesy “Georgia on My Mind” with a flute and organ accompaniment that unaccountably didn’t make the original album. Whoever decided to leave it out should have his head examined. It is one of the singer’s finest moments. Lillian Fort joins him in a duet on “Don’t Set Me Free.” “I Got a Woman,” a Charles standard, begins with a playful shout out to Chopin and then morphs into the blues. Other Charles favorites in the set include “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” with some really nice interaction with a solo trumpet, an eloquent “You Don’t Know Me,” and a rocking version of “What’d I Say” as the concert’s finale.
Of the repertoire not normally associated with the singer, the jazzy “Makin’ Whoopee” highlights his versatility. His sly, suggestive take on the song will make you forget bouncing Eddie Cantor’s bulging eyes; that is of course supposing you’re old enough to member who Eddie Cantor happens to be. Liner notes by Bill Dahl point out that the song was an “off the cuff” addition with improvised accompaniment by Wilbert Hogan’s drums, bassist Edgar Willis and Sonny Forriest on guitar. In contrast there is a passionate, heartfelt version of “That Lucky Old Sun” that could well be a definition of soul. There is a swinging “Baby, Don’t You Cry” and a comic change of pace with “Two Ton Tessie.” Here, indeed, are the many moods of Ray Charles.
There are nineteen tracks because the first cut is a short introduction and the last is a little joke with the audience added as a kind of coda to the evening’s entertainment. “What’d I Say,” in a nearly five-and-a-half-minute version is the real climax of the concert, and rightly so. It is everything that is great about Ray Charles and it is a fitting ending for an exciting night of music. For those of us around back in the day, Ray Charles Live in Concert will bring back a lot of wonderful memories. For those not quite that old, it may just give you some idea of what you missed.