I was reading something, somewhere, recently about the way that gospel audiences were appalled by what they saw as the sexual nature of Ray Charles’ vocals in early releases; it was a strange moment for me, because I came to Charles at the end of his career where the innuendo one grunt could have was nothing compared with the tales the man had built up around himself, but listening to this early single, it make a bit more sense. “Ain’t That Love,” after all, has a very gospel structure with the call-and-response to it, something really emphasized by the tambourine, oddly enough. You listen to this and you can imagine a younger Charles singing songs of devotion amongst the faithful and raising spirits as well as temperatures with each note.
(I love the chasteness of this song, too; “Oh, when you walk/I wanna walk with you” Charles says, asking “Ain’t that love?” and it is, albeit a particularly innocent, amusingly desexual idea of it.)
We’re at the point now where we can all agree that Billy Preston is a forgotten soul hero, right? He can even make this minor track from 1970s’ Encouraging Words – with a title that sounds like a threat – into something that just makes you want to dance. It’s the enthusiasm in the playing; it sounds as if everyone is ridiculously excited to be performing, and giving it their all and then some. There’s a palpable joy in the song, pushing the whole thing forwards with organ stabs and horns that push you out your chair. You can hear the Ray Charles influence on Preston here – Maybe not so much in the vocals, but definitely the piano and push and pull structure of the whole thing; if you can imagine Charles performing with Sly’s Family Stone, the result would probably be something not unlike this song, really.
First off, I apologize for the video. Scroll down and ignore its terrible flashing.
Secondly: Holy crap. This is Nina channeling Ray Charles, isn’t it? The call-and-response, the freak-out at 0:59, the arrangement that sees horns and electric guitars in the background, the vamping in the background at 1:51, the breathless vocal in general… It’s all weirdly Ray Charles-esque, whether intentional or not.
Not that that’s a bad thing, and yet… There’s something weirdly off about Simone doing this; she was enough of an individual that such imitation seems beneath her, somehow. It’s like when you hear her “Revolution” from 1969 and feeling as if it’s just ripping off the Beatles song of the same name the year before:
I feel like a bad pop fan, thinking such things. One of the things I genuinely love about pop music is that everyone steals, and then twists things and turns them into something else, and so seeing Nina obviously take on some influence or another should feel like something to approve of. Maybe my problem is that I can see the original all too clearly in each of these two cases…?
For years now, one of my favorite Beatles songs has been “I’m Down,” which was the b-side to “Help!” and, I thought, something that was just structured so unusually and so un-Beatley that I wondered where it came from.
And then, last night, I realized that it’s just a rip-off of (another of my favorite songs) Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”:
It’s all in the drumfills, really (No, seriously; somehow, the drums made the connection for me before I even got to the call-and-response-ish vocals or the electric piano similarities). I’ve always loved the Beatles’ shameless folding in of whatever they were into at any given moment, and I can’t work out if the connection between these two songs make me love “I’m Down” less, or even more…
Day two of feeling sorry for myself (This is actually not necessarily true; I’m writing ahead, so this is actually coming from the inner darkness that is Friday evening, still), and so another song with “Blue” in the title, this time Ray Charles doing “Born to Be Blue.”
There’s a fascinating romanticism of sadness in pop music, maybe in more than any other artform, I think. Normal service will be resumed soon, of course.