Fine Ray Charles piece by Marcello. (Update – also explore and listen to Tofu Hut’s memorial post)

I don’t know Ray Charles’ work well enough; another example of the (slightly shameful if hardly unique to me) syndrome where someone’s death prompts me to look deeper at their work. Aside from his acknowledged classics there is one song of his I know and really love, though, that Mike Daddino taped for me years ago: a version of “Ol’ Man River” that Google suggests is pretty uncelebrated. The first time I heard it it stopped me in my tracks – one of those headphone moments where you just have to stand and listen.

It was my first time with “Ol’ Man River” too – I’d never seen or heard “Show Boat” though I guessed it was from a musical. I didn’t know what liberties if any Charles had taken with the tune, but I could tell that it was an old song and a corny song. If you’re singing a sentimental song you can try and fight or subvert the sentiment, maybe approach the tune more starkly than expected or try and draw out some more fundamental meaning. Ray Charles does not take this road with “Ol’ Man River” – with a full choir and wide, rich string setting he embraces the sentimentality and runs with it, amplifies it, trusting in the power of his singing to make you hear the song as if you’d never heard it before. Of course I had never heard it before, but no version I’ve heard since has moved me nearly as much.

Charles pitches his singing perfectly – there’s a staginess which matches the grandiose arrangement but an intimacy too, the first time he sings the chorus it’s almost to himself, as if the words had just that moment occurred to him and he’s trying them out. It’s a crafted performance: it reminds me that a great soul man, a great singer of any kind, needs to be able to act as well as feel. Thanks (again) Mike and thanks (again) Ray.