Written by
Bob Stumpel

June 1

Ray Charles Crossing Over To Teenagers (1961)

Off topic

Photo top by Jim
Marshall, probably
from another concert;
photo bottom by
“Skeetz”, shot at the
Hollywood Bowl.

In April 1961 Ray Charles formed his first, “temporary” bigband, for a 3-weeks tour in the U.S. This “A Salute To Genius” tour was promoted by Hal Zeiger. During the last part of Spring and early Summer Ray alternately played with his “small bigband” (as in Antibes), and with his “augmented” bigband.
After returning from Europe, a 3-day concert series was staged at Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise in New York (from July 31 to August 2), with “his 19 Piece Band and Raylets Quartet”. Through August he toured through the U.S., probably doing all concerts with the augmented band.
On September 10, Hal Zeiger staged a huge show at the Hollywood Bowl, re-using the title “A Salute To Genius”.* It required a week of rehearsals – according to one of my sources with a “19-piece string section and 12-voice chorus”.
I assumed this information (about the strings, and the size of the chorus) was false, but contemporary descriptions of Ray’s shows are extremely rare – any information about this period is therefore very hard to check (and, as I prefer, to doublecheck).
That’s why I was very happy to receive a copy of a very evocative review of the Hollywood Bowl concert in my email today – another generous gesture from my friend Joël Dufour. The article, titled The Genius & The Kids At Hollywood Bowl, appeared in Down Beat on December 7, 1961, and was signed by that magazine’s editor, [John] Tynan.
The importance of this article, however, is much bigger than in the surprising conformation of the odd line-up at this show (I guess Zeiger must have used this particular concert as a show case to convince local promoters and agents to book Ray). The story also describes and analyzes the essence of Ray’s unsurpassed fame and recognition in the year 1961, stating that The Genius’ established appreciation among fellow jazz musicians, jazz critics and jazz fans had now also crossed over to an entirely new audience segment: the teenagers – who turned out to celebrate Ray’s music in entirely new ways:

“Since increased popularity invariably runs neck and neck with increased income, the fallacy of thought exists among some jazz musicians that critics are opposed in principle to economic improvement.
Ray Charles may change all this.

Not only is his music beloved of professional jazzmen, most critics, and jazz fans, his singing also seems to reach an ever-growing public of remarkable variety.
A recent Charles concert […] revealed a[…] possibly revolutionary shocker: The smoldering blues singer has captured the hully-gully set, the great U.S. teenage bloc.
For more than an hour […] Charles, backed by his 16-piece band, a 19-piece string section and a 12-voice choir, stirred mounting excitement among some 6,000 fans – mostly teenagers concentrated in the lower-priced seats – until the audience scaled heights of enthusiasm that assumed near-riot proportions before the close of the program. […]
At concerts and in night clubs throughout the country the impassioned singer works with his own band, and it is seldom 16 pieces. On this occasion, though, the trappings were lavish. […]
From the first measures of Moanin’, he had them. Then, when he hit Let the Good Times Roll, the lusty tenor of Newman alternating with Charles’ high hoarseness, the teenagers responded with impromptu performances all their own. Screaming, they leaped onto seats, hands wriggling in air, torsos twitching. They erupted into the aisles, hully-gullying solo or in pairs. […]
With each new flare-up of dancing, police moved from aisle to aisle, shining their flashlights at the gyrating dancers, urging them back to their seats.
Finally, at about 11 p.m., Charles announced, ‘I am shocked, shocked to learn there’s fighting in the audience. The police have asked me to cut it off.’
Defiantly, the children responded, What’d I say… What’d I say…! Shrugging, Charles returned to the keyboard.
With the opening of the familiar What’d I Say?, the teenagers went wild. Beyond restraint now, they poured into the aisles once more and flowed in a human torrent down the steps from the cheaper sections to the edge of the pool separating audience from stage. Two youths leaped onto the low wall of the pool; a dozen followed. In moments the top of the wall was alive. A line of youths was silhouetted against the lighted water, arms madly waving, bodies jerking in ceaseless motion to the music.
From the packed mass at their jigging feet came roars of appreciation. […] The entire audience was now on its feet witnessing in mixed amazement and laughter the dervishlike display of the pool-wall prancers.
Then, from either side, police moved in cautiously, quietly, gradually breaking up the throng […].**
And then it was over/ The children dispersed quietly. […[ Charles brought What’d I Say? to a shouting close and the audience, still agog, moved toward the exits.
Thus has Ray Charles, proclaimed “Soul Genius” etcetera, traversed musical taste from the professional jazzman and dedicated jazz fan to [the] teenage screamer.”

This level of appreciation for Ray Charles by teenagers was a shortlived phenomenon. It ended somewhere in 1963 or 1964, and surely did not survive Ray’s sabbatical year 1965. In later interviews, the Genius himself has several times explained why:

“My stuff was more adult. It was more difficult for teenagers to relate to; my stuff was filled with more despair than anything you’d associate with rock ‘n’ roll. Since I couldn’t see people dancing, I didn’t write jitterbugs or twists. I wrote rhythms that moved me. My style required pure heart singing.”

* After that, this tour’s title remained in use until the end of the year. ** An article in the St. Petersburg Times reported a more serious situation: “‘A crowd of 500 teen-agers rioted […], in a frenzy over music of the Ray Charles Quintet [sic!]‘, police said. They were among an audience of more than 6,000. Some of the screaming youngsters organized a ‘dance group’ and staged what police said were objectionable dances. Ten arrests were made on various charges.” Source here.


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