Ray Charles - piano, vocals; The Raelets; Mable John - contralto vocal (lead vocal); Susaye Green - soprano vocal; Estella Yarborough - alto vocal; Vernita Moss - bass vocal; The Orchestra; Leroy Cooper - director, baritone and tenor sax; David "Fathead" Newman - tenor sax; Andy Ennis - tenor sax; Phil Guilbeau - trumpet; Blue Mitchell - trumpet; Johnny Coles - trumpet; Henry Coker - bass trombone; Tony Matthews - guitar; Edgar Willis - bass; John Perret - drums; +unidentified others
From his early blues and jazz combos to his R&B review-style big bands to his landmark country and soul recordings, few artists have had a greater impact on 20th century music than Ray Charles. Now an American cultural and musical icon, Charles' explorations across musical boundaries literally changed the face of popular music. Succeeding in whatever musical genre he chose to explore, Charles took what had previously been a black and white territorial map and fueled it full of color. Not only one of the most emotionally engaging and easily recognizable voices of all time, Charles was a superb musician, arranger, bandleader, and visionary who embraced all genres; from pop to blues to country to jazz. In doing so, Charles has become the only musician in history who has topped the charts for five consecutive decades.
Ray Charles seemed to appear out of nowhere, releasing his debut album in 1957. A triumphant appearance at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival the following year established his reputation as a rising star and by the following year, when his "Georgia On My Mind" single topped the charts, he was being recognized as an important artist and extremely engaging performer. The 1960s was Charles' most successful and prolific decade. Earning four Grammy Awards in 1961 alone and many more accolades in the years to come, Charles regularly topped the charts and influenced nearly every musician exposed to his music, regardless of genre. By the end of the 1960s, Charles' live performances were rarely less than incendiary. Touring with an outstanding big band of handpicked musicians and female singers (known as the Raelets), Ray Charles concerts were full-blown events that covered the musical spectrum in a way that reached music fans of every persuasion and color.
This recording, one of the most delightful, yet equally frustrating discoveries ever to be found in Bill Graham's vast archive, captures Ray Charles, the Raelets, and his remarkable orchestra at an extraordinary moment in time. Discovered at the end of the Dizzy Gillespie master reels from Fillmore East on April 18, 1970 (also available here), only the first 25 minutes of the performance seems to have survived on tape. However, it is an astounding sequence, capturing a bit more of one of the most electrifying and legendary evenings of music ever to occur on the stage of the Fillmore East.
Following the introduction, the performance begins with Ray Charles' orchestra cooking up a musical storm on two instrumentals, with a phenomenally engaging three-song showcase of the Raelets sandwiched in between. Led by Charles' band director Leroy Cooper, this large ensemble kicks things off with a jazzy instrumental featuring the serious wallop of one of the greatest horn sections ever assembled, nearly all of whom would become more recognized individually in the years to come. Cooper and David "Fathead" Newman are the primary soloists here. Their solos are wonderfully expressive, but always tight and economical, serving to enhance the explosive sound of the group rather than showcasing any single musician.
At the end of this sizzling warm-up exercise, the Raelets are introduced to the stage. This faction of Charles' entourage changed over the years, but in 1970 he arguably hit on the most compelling lineup, thanks in no small part to the return of Mable John, the lead contralto voice during this time. Mable John already had an impressive history by the time Charles convinced her to lead the Raelets. She was, in fact, the first female artist ever to be signed to Berry Gordy's Tamla label, which preceded Motown by several years. Initially a blues label, her recordings during this time often featured the Supremes as her backup singers, who would become superstars on their own following John's departure from the label. Between 1966 and 1968, she recorded for Stax, releasing six singles including the soul classic, "Your Good Thing Is About to End," her most commercially successful record.
The Raelets sequence begins with a funky, Memphis soul-driven take on Ashford & Simpson's "Running Out," one of the singles Mable John recorded for Stax. Although her undeniably compelling voice is the lead instrument here, the voices of Susaye Green, Estella Yarborough, and Vernita Moss are so tightly arranged that they fuse into a powerful singular voice that is undeniably captivating. The Raelets next tackle the blues with a remarkable reading of the Joe Tex classic, "I Want To (Do Everything For You)," before concluding their showcase with the deep soul of Don Covay's "Chain Of Fools." One of Aretha Franklin's career defining moments when she released it as a single in 1967, Mable John and the Raelets' performance is equally compelling.
Following the Raelets showcase set, the orchestra again takes off into "One Mint Julep," featuring more incredible horn arrangements, prior to introducing Ray Charles to the stage of Fillmore East. As Charles takes over on piano, everything kicks up a notch and they blaze into another incredible instrumental workout. There are several outstanding solos here, with Charles encouraging Leroy Cooper to take an extended baritone solo that stands out from the rest. Prior to the tape stock running out, one tantalizing song is captured featuring Charles' utterly compelling and emotive vocal, "The Bright Lights And You Girl." This is another outstanding performance that seems to effortlessly glide along with Charles' distinctive flare. Following this, one can here the first few seconds of "Give It To Me," as the tape stock frustratingly runs out.
Still, what remains is a superb sounding partial document of one of the most legendary performances ever to occur at Fillmore East and no doubt one of the proudest moments of Bill Graham's monumental career.