“I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.” – Ray Charles
Ahmet Ertegun, the chief of Atlantic Records, once said that he had encountered only three musical geniuses in his lifetime; the first of those was Ray Charles. You don‘t need to know anything about soul or black music to understand what Mr. Ertegun was talking about; Ray Charles defines soul. Even more than Frank Sinatra, Ray is the one guy who could sing a page from a telephone book and leave the listener spellbound.
Soul goes by any number of names. Here‘s what Mike Zwerin had to say about soul, something he called “The Cry”:
“Zoot Sims, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen. Bob Marley had it. The blues are the classical incarnation of The Cry. You could also call it “The Wail”, a direct audial objectification of the soul. You know it when you hear it. Billie Holliday had it, to die. I wonder whether to include Mozart‘s operas, which might be a bit to structured to fit my definition of The Cry. The Cry must be a bit off, informal, direct, not stifled by structure or commercial considerations.” (Quoted from the article Miles and Me by Mike Zwerin, published in The Picador Book of Blues and Jazz.)
One of Ray’s most soulful recordings is an early one that never got much attention over the years, but fully deserves a re-appraisal for its revelatory nature.
‘I‘m Gonna Move To The Outskirts of Town’ was famously recorded by Louis Jordan, who followed that hit up with one of the first “answer records”, which Jordan recorded as ‘I‘m Gonna Leave You On The Outskirts of Town’. The original as Roy does it is a simmering piece of sexual frustration and marital unhappiness beginning with a quiet trumpet solo that reveals a tortured man contemplating the unfaithfulness of his wife. Seems the iceman has been delivering a little something other than ice on his rounds. Ray‘s wife has been taking in some “fresh cream”, delivered personally by the way-too–cool iceman.
The chorus bursts in, a wordless assembly of Ray‘s closest friends who just happen to have with them several big band horns that fully express Ray‘s jealousy, anger, and determination to hang on to his faithless wife. It‘s a raucous updating of the classical Greek function of the chorus: commentary on the action. That saxophone-driven chorus is a dynamic contrast to the lyrics, a concentrated shotgun array making up Ray‘s only friend.
Just after the second verse, Ray enters with an astonishing Hammond B3 organ solo that belies his soft-spoken heartbroken vocal. Then Ray, not yet well enough to take on his singing chores again, utters a soft moan, a low cry of such pitiable desperation that we know that no man has ever suffered for his woman the way our man has.
This Hammond powerhouse interlude brings Ray enough courage to resolve that he will move to another neighbourhood and buy his wife a new Frigidaire so that they have no call for an iceman. In his new digs, he is sure, “if we have a dozen children, they‘re all gonna look like me, when we move to the outskirts of town.”
‘I‘m Going to Move To the Outskirts of Town’ has been recorded dozens of times, notably by Jimmy Witherspoon, B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, Rod Stewart and Van Morrison. The Ray Charles version just sounds so damned fresh it could have come out this morning. This tune deserves your attention: I guarantee it.