Painting by Bruni

Never Stop Loving

Ray Charles 

 Article by Gayle Hutchinson

 I Can't Stop Loving You, a multimedia exhibition honoring Ray Charles's trailblazing contributions to county music, opened Friday, March 10, 2006, at the County Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville. The exhibition served as a fitting anchor for the free opening weekend museum events, starting on Friday with Charles biographer Michael Lydon's lecture and book signing surrounding his book, Ray Charles: Man and Music.

Saturday's slate of museum events was as interactive and memorable as the exhibition itself. Local Grammy-winning songwriter Mike Reid began the afternoon by giving a spirited and heart-felt tribute to Ray Charles. He lauded the soulful ways Charles phrased country music lyrics and arranged and played country music chords, bringing to country music his gospel, blues, and jazz music masteries. As importantly, Reid acknowledged the international exposure and cultural acceptance Charles brought to country music. His tribute to Ray Charles's greatness as a musician, one who not only crossed musical genres but transformed them, was an excellent segue to the other Saturday events.

A panel discussion followed Reid's presentation with Joe Adams, Charles's manager for more than forty years, world-renowned Gerald Wilson, who arranged and conducted numerous hit recordings for Charles, and country music legend Vince Gill.

Joe Adams, always the consummately humble and debonair professional, shared intimate memories of his life with Ray Charles, including his music mixing experiences of Charles's songs.

Gerald Wilson conveyed the retelling of his initial meeting with Charles gleefully and gave the discussion of his work with Charles, including work on Charles's landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country Music, the same reverence.

Vince Gill, in fitting homage to the music industry seniority of Adams and Wilson, provided brief discussion of the more technical aspects of Ray Charles's contributions to country music.

Famed saxophonist and Tennessee State University graduate Hank Crawford, Charles's band leader for many decades, was woefully missing due to his hospitalization on Friday. Michael Gray, Associate Editor of Museum Services for the County Music Hall of Fame, served as a gracious moderator for the panel. This exhilarating educational discussion, we hope, is archived and will be added for its historic significance to the exhibition.


 Photo by Lloyd Rucker

Saturday's events closed with a rousing musical tribute to Ray Charles by formidable bassist John Birdsong and his group of amazing artists: Rashaad Barber ("sitting in for but never replacing" Hank Crawford on saxophone), Marcus Finnie on drums, pianist Richard Doron Johnson, and vocalist Paula Chavis.

When Hank Crawford was asked by Michael Gray what local musicians he wanted to play with for this tribute, he responded immediately that he wanted John Birdsong, saying "John will know who else to get." And get it they did, ending with a standing ovation for their swinging rendition of Charles's The Nighttime Is the Right Time.

Sunday's single event was a screening of the Voice of America film showing Ray Charles's appearance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. The black-and-white film, despite its age and grainy quality, provides excellent capture of Ray, his band, and the Raelettes at the height of their fame.

Hank Crawford, David "Fathead" Newman, Leroy "Hog" Cooper, and Phil Gilbeau made up the famous horn section, rounded out by Edgar Williams on bass and Milt Turner, also a TSU graduate, on drums.

The set opens with several instrumentals (Little Darlin and Gone Fishin') followed by the more up-tempo vocals of a Charles favorite hit, Let the Good Times Roll. The Raelettes join Charles and the band for several lush songs, including What'd I Say, that had the festival audience up and dancing.

A filmed interview with Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun followed the Jazz festival footage. Ertegun provides historical discussion of Ray Charles's career with Atlantic records and the label's launch of Charles as a major recording artist. "He brought music from heaven," to quote Ertegun.

Ray Charles by Bruni

The I Can't Stop Loving You exhibition will continue through December 2007. Footage of Charles on the Johnny Cash and other television shows, singing duets with Willie Nelson and other legends, actual stage costumes worn by Charles, preserved original musical scores and song sheets, and other Ray Charles memorabilia are looking, listening, and touching experiences for the exhibition patron.

Other in-museum events will continue throughout the exhibition's tour at the County Music Hall of Fame, including a Sunday, March 26, 2006, screening of the 1984 Willie Nelson Special that paired Nelson and Ray Charles at the Austin Opera House. An educational opportunity for all ages, the exhibition provides learning tools about Ray Charles, a man who many have claimed as the best singer of the twentieth century.

Ray Charles, the man who liberated country music (once considered just Southern music) is now world music because of his contributions. Ray Charles, a man unsighted who could sing about the joys and sadness of all people with his music. Ray Charles, the man who was the best and who made us all better.

 By Gayle Hutchinson

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