What A Concept!

Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker are four of my all time musical heroes. No surprise there. For purposes here, I’m especially focusing on how each of them released an album that not only signaled a major shift in their careers but also impacted the development of the album as a primary delivery method for music in their respective genres. Finally, given the mission of this blog – “Finding Classic Cowjazz R&B,” these are four flat out great albums. Yes, they’re old dating from 1959 to 1974, but if you missed them or it’s been decades since you’ve heard them, you need to put them in your regular rotation today.

For the last several decades, the album (or since roughly 1990, the CD) has been the dominant commercial vehicle for the distribution of music. People have listened to hit songs on the radio, but by and large they have purchased albums. Even in the digital download age today, major artists like Taylor Swift and Adele still rely on albums. This was not always the case.

Briefly, from the dawn of audio recording until roughly 1948, performances were sold on 78rpm records, often one song on each side but never more than a couple of songs per side. Then in the late 1940’s technology changed to enable the so called long play record with better sound quality, which became known of course as the LP. The LP played at a much slower speed, 331/3 rpm’s, thus allowing roughly 20 minutes of music per side, usually five or six songs given radio’s and listener’s preference for songs in the three minute range. Record sales, however, were still largely driven by radio and juke boxes which were both geared to play hit songs. Very quickly the more flexible technology replaced the 78 with the 45rpm with the expected hit on the A side and a filler song for the B side. In other words, volume sales were still focused on “singles.”

Record companies didn’t really know what to do with the LP album. Initially the album became just a way to re-sell hit singles. Most albums consisted of two or three of an artist’s hits plus the tunes that had been the B sides and, if needed, filler songs from recording sessions deemed not good enough to release as singles. Ray Charles’ discography offers a clear example. Ray recorded a string of hits for Atlantic beginning in 1953, but the company didn’t release his first album until 1957. It was primarily a repackaging of his first batch of hits.

Frank Sinatra and his arranger Nelson Riddle are generally credited as the pioneers who saw the true potential of the album to be more than just a grab bag of songs. They began experimenting and developed what is considered the first “concept” album, In The Wee Small Hours. Sinatra strived to make a strong, singular statement from the album’s jacket design through the song selections and the arrangements. It became one of his biggest selling and critically acclaimed albums of his career. From that point forward, most if his albums followed a similar if not always quite as clear path.

The chairman’s example, notwithstanding, most artists and companies in the newly emerging rock n roll market as well as R&B and country continued to focus almost exclusively on hit singles with albums an afterthought. That’s why I think these four albums are so compelling.

Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles

As I mentioned earlier. Ray’s first album for Atlantic, released in 1957, was a re-packaging of his single hits going back to 1953. His third album released in 1959 was a primarily a vehicle driven by the title song, “What’d I Say,” which had been his biggest hit to that time. His second and fourth albums were both all-instrumental jazz albums. Their sales were negligible, but in hindsight they signaled that Ray had far bigger ambitions than being simply a great R&B star.

The Genius of Ray Charles also released in 1959 was his first effort to wed his soulful singing to the kind of repertoire, arrangements and production that might normally be associated with a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Clearly he wanted to establish himself as an artist whose talents bridged the full spectrum of popular music, including as he demonstrated here the Great American Songbook.

For the first time, Ray eschewed the R&B small band approach of producer Jerry Wexler. In fact, this time Wexler is joined as producer by Nesuhi Ertegun, who was responsible for the jazz division of Atlantic Records. The first side of the album (meaning the first six cuts on the CD version) is big band jazz with sax man David “Fathead” Newman from Ray’s band augmented by an all star lineup of players from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras with arrangements by Quincy Jones. The only two numbers with R&B roots are the opener “Let The Good Times Roll,” originally a hit for Louis Jordan, and Percy Mayfield’s bluesy “Two Years of Torture,” but even these are given the kind of treatment that Jones employed on an album with Sinatra and Count Basie just a few years later.

Bob Burns is the arranger for “side two,” the final six songs. Burns worked as a composer and arranger with folks ranging from Tony Bennett to Aretha, and won Academy Awards for the music in “Cabaret” and “All That Jazz.” A full orchestral string and woodwinds section is brought into the mix for this all-standards side. Charles’s voice and soulful feeling cuts through all the instrumentation and breathes new life into these chestnuts. “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is certainly a highlight and I also really like “Just For A Thrill” and “Don’t Let The Sun Catch Your Crying.”

Here is Ray singing the Great American Songbook stalwart “It Had To Be You” from side 1.

Neither the critics nor fans liked The Genius Of Ray Charles initially. They weren’t prepared for Ray Charles singing standards. Ray Charles, however, knew where he wanted to go with his music. Although he remained ever soulful, he never released another truly R&B album. He also shifted his focus from singles to albums. Going forward he planned and recorded his albums first, and singles would be pulled from them instead of the other way around. By the way, the critics eventually came around. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine included it among it’s top 500 album of all time.

In fairness, I have to agree with some criticism that in places the engineering is less than pristine causing over modulation, but these are very minor annoyances. Bottom line, Ray Charles is in splendid form vocally and on the piano. In short, he is a genius.


Sam Cooke – Night Beat

Sam Cooke’s Night Beat recorded in 1963 is analogous to Frank Sinatra’s fifties period concept albums In The Wee Small Hours and Sinatra Sings Only For The Lonely in that all three are intimate late night conversations between a lonely, blue singer and the listener. The quintessential song in this vein has to be “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road.) Even though there are strings on the Sinatra records, the emphasis is on the singer’s voice and mood and a tinkling piano. He calls them “saloon songs.” This is even more pronounced on Night Beat because for once Cooke eliminated the strings, horns and background choruses that always threatened to over schmaltz his records.

Like most of his contemporaries, Sam and RCA were focused on hits where he was a machine who in eight years put twenty-nine singles in Billboard’s Top 40 Pop Chart and twenty in the Billboard’s Top 10 R&B Chart. As already discussed, however, the teenagers who bought singles rarely bought LP albums.  RCA seemed to want to position Cooke as a more contemporary Nat King Cole to appeal to the adult and largely white crossover audience. Cooke himself was experimenting with Gershwin tunes while still with the Soul Stirrers in the early fifties. Hence his first few more concept oriented albums combine hits with standards often featuring rather heavy handed arrangements laden with strings and choral backgrounds, more than a tad on the schmaltzy side. His vocals make albums like My Kind Of Blues and Mr. Soul very good, but the over done arrangements keep them from being great.

Then, who knows why exactly, other than Sam wanted it, he gathers a small handful of his favorite studio musicians from the legendary “Wrecking Crew” in LA for three late night sessions in early summer of 1963. The title, Night Beat, tells you all you need to know about Sam’s concept for the album. No strings; no backing singers; no orchestration. Just Ray Johnston on piano, a sixteen year old Billy Preston on organ, Barney Kessel and Clifton White on guitar, Hal Blaine and Sharky Hall on drums, Cliff Hils on bass, Rene Hall on rhythm guitar, and one of the all time voices at the mic. They play the midnight songs, the ones that beg to be accompanied by a dying fire and smooth whiskey. Sam’s voice is full of emotion, full of soul, yet devoid of histrionics. He doesn’t need to strain or scream to convey despair, he can simply bend a note. And his musicians are with him every step of the way. On “Get Yourself Another Fool” Kessel’s guitar and Johnston’s piano engage in dialog that underscores Cooke’s blues. At the instrumental break on “Little Red Rooster,” Sam implores “play it for me Billy” and then compels Johnston with “answer him Ray.” It may be a slow burn on most of the tracks, but trust me, the guys are cooking. Singer and musicians are so into it, laying it all on the line, that they finally have to break the blue mood and close the session with the R&B classic, “Shake Rattle and Roll.” It shouldn’t fit, but it does.

The album produced only one hit, “Little Red Rooster,” and it didn’t do much sales wise. Many of us who were growing up at that time didn’t even know it existed, including me, but this was the greatest album by maybe the greatest soul singer, hell one of the greatest singers period, ever.

Sam Cooke was shot and killed in December, 1964, in a bizarre incident at a hotel in Los Angeles at the too young age of 33. Etta James wept over his body. Ray Charles sang at his funeral. In Chicago, 200,000 lined up to pay their respects. In tribute to his idol, Otis Redding covered four of Cooke’s songs on his own next album. More so than all the hits, Night Beat explains why.

Jerry Jeff Walker – Jerry Jeff Walker

OK, I admit it: I never turn down a chance to write about Jerry Jeff. The occasion this time is the reissue of this long out of print album by an Australian company no less. My old vinyl LP was lost along the way decades ago, so this re-discovery has been illuminating.

Jerry Jeff’s first album in 1968, Mr. Bojangles, had been moderately successful, but it hardly changed his career as an itinerant folk singer, who sometimes hung his hat in Greenwich Village, sometimes in Texas, and even for awhile in Florida between his travels all over the country wherever there was a place to play. From his original album through 1970, he put out three albums that garnered little attention, although one aptly called Driftin’ Way Of Live is quite good. He says he was searching for his true performing persona. By 1971, despite the commercial success of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of “Mr. Bojangles” the pervious year, he was frustrated from wasting away in margaritaville with Jimmy Buffett in Key West. One night he even smashed his favorite guitar to smithereens. He had experienced good vibes in Texas, so he decided to move back there full time.

The Austin music scene was just starting to stir. Willie Nelson moved there around the same time. Rusty Weir, Doug Sahm and Michael Martin Murphy with his band of pickers that included Gary P Nunn and “Cosmic” Bob Livingston were well ensconced, and singer-songwriters like Guy Clark and Towns Van Sandt were drifting in and out of town. There were places to play, talent to play with and audiences aggregating a curious blend of hippies and rednecks. And down the road in Luckenbach was Hondo Crouch, who became both mentor and muse. The stage was set for something big to happen, and Jerry Jeff was ready.

He had a new record deal, but he hated (still does) the typical studio setting for recording, so he just rounded up a bunch of friends and decamped with a tape machine to the Rapp Cleaner Building to make “the Texas Record” as he described it in his liner notes. In his autobiography Gypsy Songman, he wrote that he wanted “guys who listened to jazz and blues, some rock and roll, some country guys who could follow me wherever my impulses led.” He didn’t have a preconceived notion of how he wanted his music to sound. “I wanted them to play whatever they felt was right for each song, let it go where it felt best.” Some played while others just listened, and the tape rolled. Then he headed off to New York to “mix” the tapes, fell into pickin’ with some other old friends including David Bromberg and decided to add a few more tunes. As fate would have it, Murphy and his band, which included many of the players from the Rapp Cleaner session, were performing at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. Most of them came on into the studio and joined the New York sessions as well, so it continued to be a “Texas Record” with the same, dare I say, gonzo approach to singing, pickin’ and recording whatever came out.

The result is staggering, a veritable greatest hits collection from the get go. This 1972 release includes classics like “Hill Country Rain,” “Charlie Dunn,” “That Old Time Feeling, “L.A. Freeway,” “That Old Beat Up Guitar,” the saga of the guitar Jerry Jeff smashed in Florida, and more. Jerry Jeff had found himself musically, and never looked back. From a broader perspective, some folks like Todd Snider, have said that this album is the spark that ignited the “outlaw country” movement. It was loose and free, bordering occasionally on wild abandon – the polar opposite of the slickly produced “countrypoliton” sound dominating Nashville, New York and Los Angeles at the time. Later, big city critics and writers attached the outlaw label primarily to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but I’d argue that Jerry Jeff and his merry men were the originals who paved the way with this album. And they were still going strong about twenty years later at the Kerrville Folk Festival, now with John Inmon on lead guitar. “When I leave I’m leaving nothing behind, I’m tasting every single grape on the vine.”

Note: the only place I’ve found this Australian reissue is on Amazon. It contains all twelve original tunes plus five terrific bonus tracks from the “A Man Must Carry On” album.


Willie Nelson – Phases And Stages

By 1972, Willie Nelson was already a Hall of Fame caliber songwriter with hits like “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and more, but his career as a singer was in reality dead in the water. Then he moved to Austin, fell in with Jerry Jeff, Mike Murphy and the rest of the “outlaws,” grew out his hair and beard, and rejuvenated his approach to music. Somehow, his agent negotiated him out of RCA and into Atlantic with greater control of his music. Ironically his producer, and the head of Atlantic’s brand new, one artist country division was R&B/Soul legend Jerry Wexler, whose Midas touch had made stars of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and many others.

Willie’s first album for Atlantic in 1973 was Shotgun Willie, a terrific album in its own right. Although it didn’t do much chart-wise, Willie said the album “cleared his throat” as he shifted directions musically. He was already working on one of the first concept albums in country music, Phases and Stages. Willie gathered specific songs to musically convey the story of the unraveling of a marriage with occasional insertion of the “Phases and Stages” theme to tie them together.

Side 1 would be from the woman’s perspective.

Side 2 (beginning with track six) would be from the man’s perspective. Here’s track 8.

When Wexler heard the songs, he jumped on board. Against the wishes of Atlantic Records executives, Wexler took Willie to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to record with the swampers. Wexler later stated: “They said Muscle Shoals was too R&B for Willie. I said Willie was too R&B for Nashville.” Willie had actually recorded the album back in his days in Nashville. They re-recoded the whole thing at Muscle Shoals in two days, and the results were fantastic. Unfortunately the album was a mediocre seller after its release in March, 1974, and was later overshadowed by the concept album that followed, Red Headed Stranger, so it’s often overlooked. Don’t make that mistake.

Overall, the songs are stronger than on Red Headed Stranger, and the singing and playing are superb. Blending Willie and country session players like fiddler Johnny Gimble with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section – Barry Beckett, keyboards; David Hood, bass; and Roger Hawkins, drums – proved to be brilliant. The blend built on Willie’s start with Shotgun Willie in evolving his own version of the outlaw sound. In a sense, I re-discovered this album as I began researching the notion of the concept album for this blog. Like the other three concept albums I’ve discussed, this is not a “history museum piece.” This is great music that remains fresh and exciting.

And now for the rest of the story: Disappointed that Phases and Stages only sold 400,000 copies and never came close to Billboard’s Top 100. Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic’s CEO, released Willie from his contract and closed their country division. Wexler was so upset he resigned from the label he had helped build for over twenty years. As for Willie, he knew he was onto something, so he moved to Columbia Records and released another concept album, Red Headed Stranger, which went double platinum to became the first of nine #1 country albums and six more top five albums in the next ten years.

Post script: By the 1970’s albums had become the dominant music delivery form in almost every genre. Even some radio stations focused on playing album tracks rather than just the hits, a practice that continues today on Sirius/XM. In addition to these four artists plus Frank and Ella, I’d be remiss not to add the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band among the most influential developers of the concept album. Now in the digital download age, we see a re-emergence of singles releases and also the shorter form EP with three to five tunes. Still, many major artists like Taylor Swift and Adele still emphasize concept albums. And this includes old Willie. In late February, the red headed stranger himself – perhaps celebrating his most recent honor, the Library of Congress Gershwin Award for Popular Song – will release Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings The Music of George Gershwin.

What a concept indeed!  How ’bout a preview?


One thought on “What A Concept!

  1. Excellent, Bruce ! I am now in the middle of “Sinatra – The Chairman” by James Kaplan, which details ( occasionally more than you want ) those Sinatra/Riddle collaborations you mentioned around the time of “Wee Small Hours”. It has kindled in me an interest in Sinatra’s music, but he sure was a bad boy !

    Sent from my iPad



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