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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Tomorrow would have been Ray Charles' 80th birthday. Here's his quite lengthy entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Charles, Ray [1930 - 2004]
Ray Charles Robinson was born into rural poverty in Northern Louisiana on September 23, 1930 and went blind in childhood, a process that began soon after the accidental death of his younger brother. He was brought up by his mother. Taught piano informally, in the late 1940s he took a bus up to Seattle and got into music, meeting Quincy Jones and LOWELL FULSON and joining the latter’s band. Signed to Swingtime Records, his first recordings catch him as a Nat King Cole soundalike. Signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegun in 1954, he found his own voice and made a series of mostly self-composed hit singles, in part by a flagrant and controversial secularisation of gospel songs (as with ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘Leave My Woman Alone’ and ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’).

When his contract with Atlantic came up for renewal, Charles, a shrewd businessman, signed instead to ABC Paramount, a major label, in a deal that gave the artist, unprecedentedly, ownership of his own master recordings. In the early 1960s he was banned from performing in the state of Georgia after refusing to play to segregated audiences; a state government ceremony, attended by Charles, gave him an official public apology in 1979. He died of cancer of the liver on June 10, 2004, aged 73.

The influence of his (mostly 1950s) R&B records on Dylan is one thing, and the influence of his seminal soul-country crossover work of the early 1960s is another.

First, Charles appears to be the source for a very early piece of near-plagiarism by Dylan. The fragment of a song called ‘Blackjack Blues’, which Dylan’s first biographer, ANTHONY SCADUTO, says Dylan had told him was his ‘first original folk song’, comes almost verbatim from Charles’ 1955 R&B-charting single ‘Blackjack’. The Dylan lyric fragment is: ‘Blackjack blues, yea yea yea / How unlucky can one man be? / Every quarter I make / Old Blackjack takes away from me.’ Ray Charles’ first verse ends with this: ‘How unlucky can one man be? / Well, every quarter I get / Blackjack takes away from me.’

A later, less plagiaristic use of Ray Charles’ R&B material by Dylan occurs in the mid-1960s. ROBERT SHELTON says that Dylan and PHIL SPECTOR were in an LA coffee-shop when they heard Charles’ ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ (written by Ashford & Simpson) on the jukebox, and were struck by the open upfrontery of the lyric. A few months later Dylan recorded ‘Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35’, with its chorus of ‘Everybody must get stoned’. As the webmaster of a ‘Ray Charles is God’ website says of the song that inspired this (and what is says about Charles): ‘He could be particularly pleasingly dark and wilful in his humor. Notably, he recorded “Let’s Go Get Stoned” some scant few months after kicking a 20 year heroin addiction.’ (He gives a better example: ‘On SNL during the Carter administration, Ray waxed sentimental about their mutual Georgia roots, claiming to feel a special closeness to the president on the grounds that “his grandad used to own my grandad.”’)

It might also have been Ray Charles’ late 1950s recording of the old blues song ‘(Night Time Is) The Right Time’, included on his 1961 album The Genius Sings The Blues, that prompted Dylan’s importing of the lines ‘The night time is the right time / To be with the one you love’ into his own Nashville Skyline song ‘To Be Alone With You’.

Decades later, Dylan performed Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ with TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS at rehearsals for Farm Aid (LA, 19 September 1985) and then performed Charles’ Freddy Jones-penned ‘Unchain My Heart’ in US concerts in June and July 1986, soon after three attempts at recording it at early Knocked Out Loaded sessions that April and May - sessions at which he also twice attempted ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, another song that many associate with Ray Charles, thanks to the memorably outrageous version he recorded in the early 1960s. (Britons find it hard not be hit over the head with renditions by the awful Gerry Marsden - he of Gerry & the Pacemakers - because he can always exploit a perverse fondness for it among crowds at football matches.)

Charles’ R&B hit singles also almost foregrounded the back-up singers - he gave the Raelettes some of the lines in the lyrics, rather than just having them echo his own (again importing the devices of the gospel performance into the secular song). In London in June 1978, backstage at Earl’s Court, ROBERT SHELTON remarked to Dylan in my hearing that a review of his warm-up dates in LA at the start of the month had said that his back-up singers sounded like the Supremes. Dylan retorted: ‘Oh, no: not the Supremes - the Raelettes, maybe!’

This was a shrewd remark: in retrospect, it’s striking that many of Dylan’s live 1978 song renditions had a distinctly Ray Charles flavor, both in his own exuberantly R&B phrasing and in his use of the back-up singers (his equivalent of the Raelettes), to whom he, like Charles, allocated a number of midsong lead vocal lines. A similar Ray Charles flavor can be detected on the tapes from Dylan’s 1981 European tour too.

Charles’ crucial crossover album was Modern Sounds In Country And Western, released in 1962. Regarded as a ‘sell-out’ by R&B purists, but widely welcomed as bringing fresh life into country and pop, it was influential and immensely successful, as were a number of hit singles taken from it - one of which was the lovely ‘You Don’t Know Me’, 1962. Dylan introduced this song into his concert repertoire, performing it with great affection, in Andrarum, Sweden, 27 May 1989, and sang it at five further 1989 concerts and at five in 1991, including at South Bend, Indiana, 6 November 1991: an exceptional performance, managing to be both the ultimate prom band moment and an affecting tribute to Ray Charles.

(‘You Don’t Know Me’ was written by Eddie Arnold and Cindy Walker. As with Dylan’s contribution to the WILLIE NELSON-Bob Dylan song ‘Heartland’, it is alleged that Arnold wrote only the title of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and his co-writer all the rest.)

The Ray Charles version of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ also seems the prompt for Dylan’s performances of this beguiling, neo-minstrel pop song, which he may have recorded in 1971 at the session that yielded the ‘Watching the River Flow’ single, and which he certainly offered in concert at Farm Aid, Champaign Illinois, 21 September 1985, at 23 concerts in 1986, at Madison Wisconsin, 5 November 1991, in Hollywood, 19 May 1992, and at the so-called ‘free rehearsal’ at Fort Lauderdale, 23 September 1995.

There is at least one further small connection between Ray and Bob. The main soloist in the Ray Charles band of the 1950s to early 1960s was Dave ‘Fathead’ Newman; he and Dylan play together behind DOUG SAHM on the track ‘Me & Paul’ on the fine album Doug Sahm & Band, 1972. Fathead is one of many long-suffering musicians in Ray Charles’ band given sympathetic treatment in the vivid, old-fashioned biopic Ray.

[Ray Charles: ‘Blackjack’, Atlanta, 18 Nov 1954, Atlantic 1076, NYC, 1955; ‘The Right Time’, NYC, 28 Oct 1958, Atlantic 2010, NY, 1958, & on The Genius Sings The Blues, Atlantic 8052, 1961; ‘What’d I Say’ NYC, Feb 1959, issued as 2-part single Atlantic 2031, NY, 1959 & on What’d I Say, Atlantic NY, 1959; all reissued on the 3-CD set Ray Charles: The Birth Of Soul - The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952-1959, Atlantic & Atco Remasters Series, Atlantic 82310-2, NYC, 1991. Ray Charles: ‘Unchain My Heart’, NYC, May 1961, ABC-Paramount 10266, US, 1961; ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’, LA, late 1965, Crying Time, ABC-Paramount & then as single, ABC-Paramount 10808, US, 1966; ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, nia, Modern Sounds In Country And Western, ABC Paramount 410, Hollywood (HMV CLP 1580 & CSD 1451, London), 1962; ‘You Don’t Know Me’, Hollywood, 15 Feb 1962, ABC-Paramount 10345 (HMV POP 1064), 1962; ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, Hollywood, 10 Jul 1963, ABC-Paramount 10509, 1963. The Ray Charles website is at
Bob Dylan: ‘Unchain My Heart’, Topanga Park CA, 29 Apr, 1 May & 2 May 1986, all unreleased & uncirculated; ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Topanga Park CA, 28 & 29 Apr 1986, unreleased & uncirculated; one version overdubbed with different bass player 28 May 1986, ditto. Dylan’s remark re the Raelettes in this writer’s presence, London, 17 Jun 1978; ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, reportedly recorded NYC, Mar 16-19 1971. Doug Sahm & Band: ‘Me & Paul’, NYC, Oct 1972, Doug Sahm & Band, Atlantic SD-7254, NYC, 1972. Ray, dir. Taylor Hackford, written Hackford & James L. White, Anvil / Baldwin / Bristol Bay, US, 2004.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I hate to rudely change subjects but I am eager to hear your thoughts on Bob's Pawn Stars appearance.

What did you think?

5:11 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thanks for drawing this to my attention. See today's post.

11:28 am  

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