Friday Five: Ray Charles

It’s hard to say anything about Ray Charles that hasn’t been said by countless others, countless times, and in countless venues.  For that matter, there’s no shortage of stories related to his life and music, whether online, in books and magazines, or in film.

So I’ll say this: you can not understand popular music without knowing a little bit about Ray Charles. And, for that matter, there’s never a bad time to listen to his music. In a career that spanned more than a half century, he has very few things that don’t deserve more than a listen.

These are five Ray Charles songs that are among my favorites. (My thinking here is to create a list that might serve as a nice introduction to Ray, rather than to his breadth, and so my bias is toward his pre-1960s work. After that, I think he becomes something of an eclectic cover man, reinterpreting country, gospel, and even pop tunes from his distinctive R & B style.)

5. “Come Back Baby” (1954)
This is the B-side to the #2 song on this list. Produced by Jerry Wexler, this music in this song always sounded to me like it dragged behind Ray Charles’ vocals. I suspect that was the point.


4. “The Danger Zone” (1961)
Ray Charles wasn’t a very political singer. Maybe that’s why I like this song so much. Beyond the lyrics, it is a master work of soul.


3. “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” (1958)
This is one of the rhythm and blues songs that evolves over time as a number of blues artists contribute to the tune and/or the lyrics for their own performance. Roosevelt Skyes may be the first recorded version of it (in 1937) but it bears only a bit of similarity to this version by Ray Charles. Charles wasn’t the first to record the song in this version either (Nappy Brown did so a year earlier) but its’ safe to say it put it to bed. (Fellow Gen Xers are likely to now it from this Cosby Show episode.)


2. “I’ve Got A Woman” (1954)
You can build a class around this song. It’s a gospel song (“It Must Be Jesus” by the Southern Tones) which Ray Charles secularized in lyric and sound. He makes it sexy in every single little way. When he does that, he turns it into his first biggest hit (it went to #1 in 1955) and he creates one of the most influential songs in popular music.


1. “What’d I Say” (1959)
Ray Charles improvised this song at a concert in 1958. He recorded it in 1959. The Wurlitzer piano intro, the vocals, the horns, the rhythm section, the background vocals… goodness but this is a piece of work! (It was released as a part 1 and part 2 single; here are both together.)

October 15, 1988

Today is the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Gibson’s dinger is one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, and certainly the greatest in Dodgers’ history. It came in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, when the Dodgers faced the Oakland A’s.  (The boys in blue would win the series 4 games to 1.)

Gibson came up in the bottom of the ninth, two outs, with the tying run (Mike Davis) on first. The count went 3-2 before he lifted one over the right field fence.

A lot of folks might forget that Game 1 also included a grand slam by Jose Canseco, the source of the A’s 4 runs in that game (and, incidentally, his only hit in the series).  I never forget that. It was a trauma I lived with for hours waiting for the end result of that game to unfold.

I bring that up because that made the home run all the sweeter. Of course, Gibson wasn’t even in the line up that night, the stalwart workhorse sidelined by leg injuries that left him hobbling. As Vin Scully said that night, if he had hit it anywhere in the park they might have thrown him out at first.

The call by Scully–who was broadcasting for NBC at the time–is so familiar to baseball fans. But I didn’t get to hear it until the replay.

On October 15, 1988, I was 16 years old and I was working the night shift at my first job, Taco Bell (on Colima Rd., just past Azuza Ave.). I brought my walkman along and listened when I could, usually running off to a supply closet to check in. I listened to the entire 9th inning in that supply closet–alone, in the dark, with a walkman.

This is what I heard: Don Drysdale calling the play-by-play.

I started screaming when Gibby hit the home run. I was a little more excited I think than Drysdale! I went out to tell everybody what happened, but they didn’t understand baseball enough to get it. I mean, a scenario that every kid who has ever played imagines him or herself being in just transpired. In real life!

It’s one of my fondest memories. That night, I felt like Don Drysdale and I shared something special.

Friday Five: Motown

There is no conceivable way to reduce the Motown catalog down to just 5 songs and have that mean anything. Not a best list, not a favorites, either.

So here are 5 Motown songs that I would like to share, right now.

5. “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 (1969)
If I made a fav 5 list of the Jackson brothers this wouldn’t be my top, but it would be in the list. That might seem like a lukewarm endorsement, but this is one of those song’s I never get tired of hearing (and signing along with).

4. “Tracks of My Tears” by The Miracles (1965)
Smokey Robinson was a big part of the Motown greatness.  This is right up there with some of his greatest greatness.

3. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1967)
These two had a string of hits, none more glorious than this 1967 hit.

2. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by the Temptations (1972)
These legends of Motown were hesitant to record this song, thinking it might be too reflective of the larger societial perceptions of African Americans and “broken households.” I’m glad they thought that, if the story is true, as I am glad they ended up recording the song. This is the super long version, with a lot more instrumental interludes.

1. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops (1966)
A simple love song is really a careful anthem of solidarity during the height of the civil rights era. It’s a beautiful arrangement, backed by some of the best vocal work from this group of legendary vocal workers.