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Calling tech support

Apropos of nothing:  I was driving around today thinking, “wow, the independent college radio station here (WKPS-FM, 90.7, ‘the Lion’wink is doing a Ray Charles special” for about five or six minutes before I realized that I was, in fact, listening to our Ray Charles Ultimate Hits compilation CD, which Janet had apparently left in the car.  I mean, what are the odds that someone’s going to play “At the Club” followed by “I Can’t Stop Loving You” followed by “You Don’t Know Me”?  Well, maybe some really lazy DJ.

But those last two songs are always almost-ruined for me by the excruciating, hyper-enunciated, early-1960s-4H-Club-in-sweater-vests backing vocals.  Modern sounds in country and western music, indeed-- they sound like Saturday Night Live’s 1977 parody, Ray Charles with the Young Caucasians.  Especially Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” which would otherwise be one of the more heartbreaking songs rendered in English, and which the late Mr. Charles delivers with just flawless understatement.

So here’s my question.  Now that we have TiVo and iPod and wiki and the eighth generation of MIDI, can’t we simply go back over these classic recordings and remaster them ourselves?  Why should we be subjected, yea, unto the seventh generation, to the most soul-sucking backing vocals known to humankind?  Why can’t we just revisit the original studio digitally, so to speak, and gently turn a couple of the knobs down to zero?  I mean, the CD version of Mingus Ah Um contains two fine, fine sax solos by Booker Ervin and John Handy that were deleted from the vinyl version of “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” as well as a vastly expanded “Bird Calls,” and I’ve heard the same kind of thing on any number of CD rereleases, like the CD version of “Young Man Blues” on the Who’s Live at Leeds that restores about eight seconds of guitar that were excised from the vinyl for reasons known only to Pete Townshend.  If CDs can augment the original releases, can’t they do some judicious editing as well?

I’ll be willing to share patent rights with anyone who comes up with the technology.  For the Ray Charles “Nashville sound” backing-vocal extraction, I suggest the brand name “Wite Out.” (I don’t think it’s being used anymore.) Any takers?

Posted by on 08/16 at 04:35 PM
  1. I think that that’s the way Ray wanted it.  I don’t know the specifics of that album deal, but he was able to do his own arranging (Quincy Jones was his student) and the fact that he did the country albums at all tells you that he had a lot of artistic control.

    If you look at the first album closely, incidentally, you’ll see that it was bicoastal, and that the Hollywood cuts had strings and the NYC cuts had brass.

    For me the songs, sort of like Motown, represent a hopeful, semi-desegregated America, 1960 or so, and I wouldn’t want a different arrangement. It has the authenticity of what it was, and it sure was great to hear that stuff on the radio when it came out.

    Posted by  on  08/16  at  07:52 PM
  2. Ah, historical context.  Thanks, Zizka. Yes, there’s no question that Ray’s crossover into C/W in 1962 was as important a desegregationist gesture as anything attempted by Berry Gordy-- or, for that matter, Elvis.  And I didn’t know that Ray did his own arranging (I spent some time looking for album credits on producing/arranging, too).  But still, I’m calling here for a principled ahistoricism, to be exercised by the individual end-user.  What, is that too much to ask?

    Posted by  on  08/16  at  08:33 PM
  3. I have *always* hated those backing vocals. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    Posted by George  on  08/17  at  03:48 AM
  4. The “black singer, white chorus” was invented, also on ABC records, by Lloyd Price in 1959, arranger Don Costa I think.
    In theory you could go back to the master tapes and excise the choir, but the Charles recordings were probably done on 3-track (at most) recorders and there’d probably be some other stuff on the same track. It might be possible to do a digital cut & paste - I can’t remember if there’s a whole chorus before the choir joins in?

    (Oh, and I doubt Quincy Jones was Ray’s “student” in any meaningful sense. Even by 1962 Jones was putting his name to his “students’” arrangements.)

    Posted by dave heasman  on  08/17  at  04:49 AM
  5. Why should we be subjected, yea, unto the seventh generation, to the most soul-sucking backing vocals known to humankind?

    Though they squawk through the valley of the shadow of death, you shall hear no evil…

    Posted by  on  08/17  at  02:47 PM
  6. Some exaggeration perhaps, but they met in Seattle in their teens, and Charles was the elder and more experienced.

    Charles had a dumb, sexy persona but he was a well-schooled and versatile musician. He could have done be-bop or cool jazz, but he had a taste foor money and girls.

    When I said that he was able to do his arranging—he didn’t always do it himself, since that’s somewhat of a chore and he was the star.  I just mean that he wasn’t a naive musician, and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t have his orchestrations imposed on him by The Man.

    I’ll stick with what I said, since I first heard it in a the present form at a key moment in my life.  People at the time thought he lowered himself by playing race music instead of jazz, and now we say he should have been more authentic, but I say he was right about everything. 

    Posted by  on  08/18  at  03:28 PM

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