Written by
Bob Stumpel

January 20

Ray Charles On Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show (1970 – 1992)

'70 TV TS'72 TV TS'73 TV TS'74 TV TS'76 TV TS'79 TV TS'80 TV TS'84 TV TS'86 TV TS'87 TV TS'88 TV TS'90 TV TS'92 TV TS

At one of the ’87 shows. Photo: NBC/Getty.

Ray Charles always enjoyed guesting on the Tonight Show. The performances that I have watched – with Carson’s studio band (conducted by Doc Severinsen), or with his own rhythm section, and even the ones where he only brought a prerecorded orchestra tape – were always inspired, without an exception.
Between 1970 and 1992 Ray Charles guested 18 17 times on the show (including one in 1980, where Joan Rivers stood in for Johnny).

  1. 17 February 1970. Among the guests: Ray Charles. Unknown content.
  2. 30 May 1972. Guests: Ray Charles, Maureen Stapleton. Unknown content.
  3. 20 April 1973. Guests: Ray Charles, Cliff Robertson, John Davidson, The East Trucking Company and Ann [inaudible](one source mentions a “Gymnast” as a guest). Unknown content [but possibly a performance of What’d I Say, with band and Raelettes]. 
  4. 12 March 1974. Among the guests: Ray Charles. Unknown content.
  5. 19 November 1974. Guests: Ray Charles, Petula Clark, Madlyn Rhue, Orson Bean. Ray performed Louise* and Come Live With Me*.
  6. 25 March 1976. Guests: Ray Charles, Arthur Ashe, George Gobel, Orson Welles. Ray performed Then We’ll Be Home (Sadies Tune).
  7. 16 February 1979. Guests: Ray Charles, Cheryl Hennington, Cindy Lynn Lawson, David Brenner, William Demarest. Ray performed Riding Thumb* and She Knows*.
  8. 1 February 1980. Guests:  Ray Charles, Bob Hope, Teri Garr. Ray performed Some Enchanted Evening*  and The Jealous Kind*. 
  9. 2 February 1984. Guests: Ray Charles, George Jones, Charles Nelson Reilly, Holly Palance. Ray and George did duets on Friendship* and We Didn’t See A Thing*.
  10. 18 March 1986. Guests: Ray Charles, Barbara Hershey. Ray performed Stranger In My Own Home Town* and Oh, What A Beautiful Morning*.
  11. 19 February 1987. Guests: Ray Charles, Lily Tomlin. Ray performed Mississippi Mud* and Come Live With Me*.
  12. 9 June 1987. Guests: Ray Charles, Madonna. Ray performed Chattanooga Choo Choo* and Yours*.
  13. 10 December 1987. Among the guests: Ray Charles, David Brenner. Ray performed Just For A Thrill*.
  14. 12 October 1988. Guests: Ray Charles, Cody Carr. Ray performed You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)* and There’ll Be Some Changes Made*. 
  15. 11 April 1990. Guests: Ray Charles, Richard Lewis. Ray performed I’ve Got News For You* and Oh, What A Beautiful Morning*, both with his own orchestra’s rhythm section. 
  16. 21 November 1990. Guests: Ray Charles, Father Guido Sarducci. Ray performed Elly, My Love* and Teardrops From My Eyes*From Ray’s rhythm section: David Rokeach – drums; Kenny Carr – guitar; Benoît Grey – bass; Doc Severinson & The Tonight Show Orchestra with Pete Christelieb – sax solo, Snooky Young – lead trumpet.
  17. 16 April 1992. Guests: Ray Charles, John McEnroe, Tom Selleck. Ray performed The Brightest Smile In Town* and The Good Life*.

The Tonight Show’s licensing site:

Video copies of the tunes marked with an asterisk (*) have survived – and some of these sometimes make it to the interweb (also cf. below). The submissions to Youtube often come with contradictory notes on the years or dates they were aired. In the list above, I have attributed them with dates that either are documented through listings in contemporary TV guides, or by the JohnnyCarson.com website, or by a list compiled by Joël Dufour.
#18 (the appearance on April 16, 1992) was announced as Ray’s “18th on the show, which was started in 1972”. This suggests that the list is incomplete and that #1 doesn’t belong here.
The complete history of all Tonight Show formats spans the period from 1962 to 1992. Before the Carson era Ray also appeared on one Tonight Show presented by Hal March (on 30 August 1960; see this).
For Ray Charles, late night talk shows have always been a great environment to plug new records (and an occasional book). In 1993 Ray was a one-time guest at Jay Leno’s Tonight Show (see this). He also guested at several Late shows hosted by Ed Sullivan (see this and this), by Joan Rivers (see this), and by David Letterman (see this).

In most of shows in the list above Ray was interviewed by Carson. All or most of this footage has also survived.

Over the years many (parts of) Tonight shows have been (re-)issued on VHS, laser disc and DVD; Ray is featured on some of them.
The JohnnyCarson.com website licenses and showcases a number of the programs listed above  (you can watch them in watermarked versions, but with good audio quality).

The Jealous Kind, from the 1980 episode hosted by Joan Rivers (includes nice interview):

From the 1987 show (Just For A Thrill + [poorly edited] interview):

On 21 November 1990 Ray Charles performed Ellie, My Love and Teardrops From My Eyes; the first with Doc Severinson’s The Tonight Show Orchestra: Snooky Young – trumpet; Pete Christelieb – sax (solo on Teardrops); the second also with The Ray Charles Orchestra‘s rhythm section: Kenny Carr – guitar, Benoît Grey – bass, David Rokeach – drums.


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