Thursday, March 3, 2016

In Performance at the White House: A Tribute to Ray Charles (Black & White Films/PBS, aired March 1, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago, on March 1, PBS broadcast the latest episode in the series In Performance at the White House, featuring various artists put on by the Smithsonian Institution for a tribute to Ray Charles. It helped that not only did the bandleader use the original Charles arrangements of the songs — or at least pretty damned close to them — but virtually all the performers were African-American, though surprisingly one of the few who wasn’t, Demi Lovato, shone above the rest. The performers who were Black included Andra Day (who, blessedly, pronounced the “t” in “often”), Anthony Hamilton, Brittany Howard (the lead singer and guitarist of the band Alabama Shakes and, if only because she’s a heavy-set Black woman soul singer and guitar player, would seem to me perfect casting for a biopic of Sister Rosetta Tharpe), Yolanda Adams (whose reputation is as a gospel singer and whose song choice wasn’t even a Ray Charles song — more on that later), Jessie Smollett (a good young neo-soul voice), Leon Bridges, Sam Moore (formerly of Sam and Dave, and between the sunglasses he was wearing indoors and the bright red jacket he even looked like Ray Charles!), and Usher. Demi Lovato looked racially ambiguous (according to her Wikipedia page, she’s from a Latino father and an Irish mother) but sang with more soul than any of the Black performers. 

The other non-Blacks were The Band Perry, and I’ve previously praised Kim Perry as one of the most intensely emotional and soulful singers among the younger generation. But she wasn’t given a chance to shine; instead of being let loose on one of Charles’ soul classics she was obliged to do a duet with one of her brothers on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” which she said was a song Charles had made sound like Duke Ellington in his cover. I can’t remember a Ray Charles record of this, and frankly it doesn’t sound like his sort of song — and The Band Perry did it dutifully but not particularly stirringly. The show opened with Andra Day and Anthony Hamilton doing a duet on “Let the Good Times Roll” — there are at least three songs with this title, but the one they did was the one Charles covered but was originally introduced by another of the greats of African-American music, Louis Jordan — and then went into Brittany Howard doing a version of “Unchain My Heart,” a bit restrained by comparison to Charles’ own recording but still very much worth hearing. Then Demi Lovato came on and blew her Black competition away; she did one of Charles’ country covers, “You Don’t Know Me,” and (like Ray Charles himself on a surprising number of his records) she started the song as a soft ballad and gradually ratcheted up the intensity until she was belting out the end as a soul scream. Anyone would have been hard put to follow the riveting emotion of Demi Lovato on that song, and the person given the thankless task was Yolanda Adams, who was introduced as a gospel singer and given the task of singing Aretha Franklin’s hit “Spirit in the Dark.” The reason that got included on a Ray Charles tribute was that after making the studio recording, Aretha performed it on her 1970 live album at the Fillmore West (a recording that came about because Bill Graham wanted Aretha to perform there, but couldn’t afford to pay her going rate — so Atlantic agreed to record the gig and the money they paid Aretha for the recording, added to the fee Graham could afford, brought the total “take” to enough to persuade Aretha to do it; more recently the documentary on her Amazing Grace gospel recording has been held up by her demand for $1 million). Ray Charles was at the gig, sitting backstage, when Aretha called him to the stage and the two sang an encore of the song as a duet. Adams did the song righteously and showed off her (and Aretha’s) roots in the Black church, but the song was still a bit out of place in a tribute to Ray Charles.

Then Usher, whom I hadn’t heard (or even heard from) in years, did a quite eloquent version of “Georgia on My Mind” — and I once again marveled that this odd song, very much a white Midwesterner’s fantasy vision of the South, would have got its two best performances ever from Black artists: Louis Armstrong in 1931 and Ray Charles in 1959. Then came the Band Perry’s version of “Bye Bye Love” — a song even more out of place in a Ray Charles tribute than “Spirit in the Dark” — and a version of “Drown in My Own Tears” by Audra Day that disappointed because the famous wailing vocal at the end wasn’t used. Ray Charles didn’t write this song, and he wasn’t the first to record it; it was written by 1950’s Black bandleader Sonny Thompson and his wife, singer Lula Reed, and was originally recorded on the King label as “I’ll Drown in My Tears.” Ray Charles took the song from the Thompson-Reed record and rearranged it, ramping up the intensity level and introducing a counter-melody, to which his backup singers, the Raelets (on one TV documentary about Charles one of the ex-Raelets said the reason they were called that is in order to get in the band you had to “let Ray”), wailed, “Drown in my own tears, drown in my own tears, drown in my own tears,” at the end, a far more creative and moving bit of arranging than anything Sonny Thompson had come up with. Alas, Day’s performance on the tribute left that part out! Then there was one of the most interesting bits of the show: a woman named Kathie Hughes came out to do a spoken introduction and mentioned that her mother had been a member of the all-woman band International Sweethearts of Rhythm, whom Charles had heard and told, “You play almost as well as men” — to which one of the Sweethearts answered, “Better.” (The International Sweethearts of Rhythm don’t appear to have made commercial recordings, but a CD of their radio broadcasts exists and they are that good.) The person Kathie Hughes was introducing was Jessie Smollett, who did a nice, respectful version of “I Got a Woman” (the sexism of the line, “She knows a woman’s place is right there in her home,” still rankles me, even though Charles pulled back from it a bit and apologized for it in his autobiography).

Then Anthony Hamilton came back and did “Night Time Is the Right Time” with an amazing woman singer who was, alas, unidentified, and afterwards Brittany Howard, Demi Lovato, Andra Day and Yolanda Adams, identified as “Four Celestial Voices,” came out and did “Heaven Help Us All” — another odd song choice for a Ray Charles tribute. The song was written by Ron Miller and first introduced in 1970 by Stevie Wonder — who tends to get lumped in with Ray Charles because they were both Black, blind and keyboard players — and though Charles covered it it’s still more Stevie Wonder’s song. The four “celestial” singers took turns on the verses — and once again Demi Lovato soared above the other three, putting real emotion and intensity into her contribution while the others were musical and moving but oddly restrained. After that Leon Bridges did “Lonely Avenue” (a genuine Ray Charles song I was glad to hear included — it’s not one of his biggest hits but it’s a great record), and then Sam Moore did “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and did it movingly and righteously. The finale was Usher doing “What’d I Say,” the remarkable song that Ray Charles improvised at a gig at the historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta. He had played for six hours and run through every number in his book — and the audience was still demanding more. Charles sat at his electric piano and started improvising a riff, then barking out lyrics he was making up on the spot, and he and his backup singers started singing, “Baby, what’d I say?” as a chorus. The song might have been forgotten except Atlantic Records had a recording crew there taking down the concert for a live album, and though the hit was a studio re-recording the Morehouse version was also released and the song eventually became a soul standard. Charles said the title should be “What I Say” and resented the way Atlantic corrected it to standard grammar. At this concert it was used as an excuse to invite the audience into a call-and-response performance, and President Obama barked out a few of the lyrics despite his earlier promise at the start of the evening that he would not be singing. The only bits of Ray Charles himself in this show were bits of his recordings of “America, the Beautiful” and “One Mint Julep” used as outro music.

The Ray Charles tribute — probably the last concert which will be held at the White House during Obama’s presidency (one wonders who Donald Trump will invite if he gets elected — probably he’ll have a nationwide contest to see who can produce the best song singing the glories of Donald Trump) — was a good show, but if it had a flaw it’s that the performances (except for Lovato’s) were a bit too respectful. The sense of danger, the edginess of Charles’ own best work was absent here; soul music has become part of the standard diet of American sound, but in the process it’s lost a lot of the passion and rebellion it had when Ray Charles and its other great practitioners were young and at the peaks of their powers. That seems to be the pattern of music generally; one reads about the struggles Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner went through to get their envelope-pushing sounds accepted before they became standard concert and operatic repertoire. It seems that yesterday’s musical rebellion is today’s mainstream and tomorrow’s Muzak (it still seems weird when I hear The Doors on supermarket sound systems — but it probably won’t seem weird once all of us who actually lived and were musically conscious during the 1960’s pass from the scene), and Ray Charles’ marvelously edgy and heartbreaking music has become “safe” and usually gets performed that way today.