I liked the job David Ritz did of telling Willie Nelson’s story in Willie’s own voice.
So I’m now reading Brother Ray, Ritz’s collaboration with Ray Charles (Da Capo Press, 1978). It’s likewise a charmer. This is a book I’d picked up from the dollar table at the library’s encore store and just hadn’t gotten around to reading.
One interesting tidbit is that a teenage Ray lived and played in Tampa for a couple of years. One of his regular gigs was as piano player and occasional singer for a white country and western band. He said he never caught any flak from band members or folks in the audience in the then Jim Crow Tampa. No one seemed to consider it odd that a country and western band in late-forties Tampa should have a blind, black piano player. (The band had lost its piano player. The band leader heard Ray playing somewhere, liked what he heard, and took him on.) Apparently, just as there was racial crossover in baseball before the general culture got with it and ran Jim Crow out of town, there was likewise crossover in music.
Like Willie, Ray was ecumenical in his musical tastes. He had no trouble with the country tunes as he had always listened to the Grand Old Opry on the radio as a kid in Greenville, Florida (in the panhandle near Tallahassee). He liked black blues and jazz and gospel music. But he also liked country, big bands, and the pop crooners of the day.
In the early sixties, a by-then nationally popular Ray did two outstanding albums of country classics, much to the annoyance and trepidation of his producers at ABC Records who didn’t think the albums would sell and feared they would put off Ray’s black audience. Apparently they didn’t put off anyone and they sold well (I bought them first in vinyl, later on CD). Individual songs from the albums did well on the country and pop charts and fetched in many a juke-box coin. Ray put a distinct R&B spin on the tunes, but that’s just another interpretation of some great songs. I like Eddy Arnold doing “You Don’t Know Me.” But I like Ray’s rendition too. They both win listeners with their sincerity. And it would take a hard heart indeed not to be moved by Ray’s take on “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
An interviewer once asked Ray why he liked country music. “It’s the stories, man,” Ray replied. “Listen to the stories.” Just so.
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