Ray's Scream

Back in the mid-1960s, I was the unusual white, suburban preteen who, for reasons I've long pondered and never fully understood, was drawn much less powerfully to the Beatles than to blues and R&B. I was a bit of a jazz snob, too. Given these leanings, it's no surprise that one of the half-dozen or so albums that fried my impressionable young brain was that seamless blend of blues, R&B, and jazz, Ray Charles at Newport.

Though it was cut on July 5, 1958, at the still-new jazz festival, for some reason I always had the year at '57 and didn't realize my error until recently; I had barely ever glanced at the liner notes, so riveted was I on the front cover: His Own Bad Self in a shiny electric-blue suit, alto sax dangling from around his neck, the photograph snapped from below so that Ray is radically foreshortened, a pair of tree-trunk legs narrowing rapidly to a tiny pinhead, an image transfixing and ugly. Pre-crossover Ray, just 27 and arguably at his peak. (That's David "Fathead" Newman, the stalwart tenor man, behind Ray.)

If you were to hold my treasured copy up to the light, you'd notice that of the eight cuts, two are worn almost to the nub. It's those ruined two I'm here to talk about.

Ray Charles kicked early rhythm and blues, with its almost polite shuffle, into fifth gear, and he did it on November 18, 1954, in Atlanta. It was just another record session for just another Nat Cole imitator, but in the weeks prior, Ray had been fiddling around with a new, quite subversive, idea. He took an uptempo gospel song of the day, the Southern Tones' "It Must Be Jesus," and injected sex into the lyric. Lo, There's a man giving sight to the blind was now She save her loving early in the morning just for me! "I Got a Woman" shot to #1 on the R&B chart, and black music tilted. The Saturday-night/Sunday-morning proximity of sacred and profane, long an undercurrent, was now, as it were, explicit. Which made a lot of people, including blues singers, nervous. "He's got the blues he's crying sanctified," complained Big Bill Broonzy. "And I know that's wrong. He should be singing in a church."

Maybe so, but here, he's trashing Newport with six-plus minutes of filthy testifying over the tightest of tight-assed rhythm sections; the '54 single is rinky-dink in comparison. Ray starts out rubato, portentously, whisking right-hand arpeggios up the keyboard, moaning in that rheumy voice. Whoa-oh shumtimes I get a little worried/But I wanna tell y'all it's allright, yeah/Beeeeee.... CAUSEIGOTAWOMAN! and Ray, band, and Raelettes are out of the starting block. Everything slams to a halt for a stop-time bridge of macho utter bullshit—She know her place is right there in her home—then it's back to speed in the stretch, Ray wailing like a banshee over an endless one-chord riff, shades of James Brown funk to come, except Ray, as is his wont, is genre-hopping nonstop: a little calypso here (Harry Belafonte was all the rage then), a little minor-interval downward slide there that sounds like nothing so much as a cantor. Here, a nod to the venue (I got a woman/Right here in Newport!); there, a few flexes of the screaming muscles. Big crescendo and out. All rise.

Killer #2, the album's final song, is another extended take on another tame original, from 1955. It is Ray Charles's finest moment (cue the howls of dissent).

"Thankyouverymuchladiesandgentlemen. And now we'd like to do something that we're sure that uh, each and everybody can understand. And that's the blues. Everybody can understand the blues!"

Ray's composition "A Fool for You" unspools, seven-plus minutes of exquisite torture in slow ¾' time. I know you told me/Such a long time ago/That you didn't want me 'round no mo'.

I haven't got space to tell the whole story, but here's how it turns out: The horns slowly build, build, build—and then drop out. And Ray unleashes what to me, who has spent years cataloguing recorded music's great screams, is the one: a goosebump-inducing, neckhair-raising WHAAAAAAGHH!! that seems to hang in the air forever, even though it's only five seconds long. That anybody can marshal such overwhelming power for any amount of time—well, go listen. It doesn't even sound like a human voice, but it is one, and not a 10-horsepower chainsaw in overdrive. I have never heard anything like it, and I doubt I ever will.

Yes, James Brown has his transhuman moments, and yes, we have the young Wilson Pickett of "I Found a Love." We also have Joe Cocker taking a deep breath and unfurling that larynx-shredder out across Yasgur's farm in "A Little Help from My Friends," so moving because Joe gives himself over to the moment so completely. We have Ray himself, elsewhere, on other recordings. I'm not here to get into an argument. All I'm saying is, I'm lucky to have stumbled across—homed in on, rather—so historic a moment at such an early age.

On school mornings around 1966— that would be seventh grade—I'd drag myself out of bed at 6:45, stumble over to the record player, put the needle on At Newport, set the volume superlow so as not to terrorize the household, and go back to bed for another 15 minutes. I don't know how other kids charged their batteries, but this is how I charged mine. One of my most effortlessly recaptured early memories is of Ray Charles's voice, tiny but insistent, wrecking the house at Newport as I drifted in and out of sleep. It's how I started my day.

Long-time listener's picture

This sure is strange. What on earth do you find "ugly" about this image? Ray's big smile signals music and great fun ... and, well, I'm just puzzled. "Ugly"? Tell us what part of your personality finds this ugly please.

Jack L's picture


Take it easy even if you admire Ray Charles like yr kissing cousin.

"One man's meat is another man's poison" quoted Lucretius, 1 century BC.

Jack L

deckeda's picture

Thanks for sharing!

partain's picture

But it is so vital , so intense , that I see why you feel the need to hedge a bit . My daughter's take on watching Talking Heads in concert was " wow , they feel the music !" , I can feel it in that picture .
I was one grade ahead , but I'm heading to Tidal now to complete my education . I didn't even realize he played sax .