Ray Charles and Cleo Laine
Arranged & Conducted by Frank Devol
LP Label: Classic Records Catalog No JP 1831
Norman Grantz put the idea of recording Porgy & Bess into the late great Ray Charles' head. Ray's first choice of partner was Gladys Knight, but when contractual difficulties nixed that option, Ray settled for Grantz's suggestion, the English jazz singer Cleo Laine. How different this recording might have been had things worked out with Gladys!
This two-disk recording didn't quite work out the way it was supposed to, because Ray never checked the final masters. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the engineers had mastered some of the wrong takes of Cleo Laine's tracks. Cleo had initially approached the role from a dramatic angle, but Ray asked Grantz to persuade her to treat her part, as he approached his, on a more emotional level instead. This she did, and Ray selected these later versions for inclusion, but his picks never made it to the final cut for some reason. Ray vowed never to repeat this mistake. "Biggest mistake I ever made," he said.
Does it matter? Well yes! Ray is a natural is this repertoire. He never repeated a single take. But Cleo struggles to match his direct approach, particularly in "My Man's Gone Now." She is trying too hard here. And although I'm a Brit myself, I am not comfortable with her English accent, which sounds quite out of place next to Ray's authentic American accent.
I'm also in two minds about the arrangements. The musicians are absolutely top notch, and the orchestration is for the most part outstanding for its color, attack, rhythmic vitality and idiom. But sometimes it just doesn't seem to fit. The guitars and the organ are the chief offenders. But some outstanding piano contributions from Vic Feldman and the great brass section easily make up for this.
"Summertime" is one of the most loved songs of the twentieth century, and opens this album in two versions, one instrumental and one featuring both singers. Ray's voice is tight and focused, Cleo's intimate and smoky. The sense of space is palpable. Presence and detail abound. But this is not the knockout track I was hoping for. That comes on side B with "I Got Plenty O'Nuttin," again played once with and once without vocals. The piano swings like mad and the tone production is amazing — this what tinkling the ivories means. Ray and Cleo are at their joint best here, Cleo singing low in her range with a lively tone, deep and husky.
"Bess, You is My Woman Now" is where Cleo's English accent offends the most. Ray simply outshines her with his soulful singing. "It Ain't Necessarily So" leaves me cold for once, the effect of a surfeit of organ and guitar, but "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" is a top-notch instrumental standout.
The finale is "Oh Lawd, I'm on my Way", and this suits Ray to a T. It's a gospel number and the choir's in great voice. Again the choice of orchestration drives me nuts. Why the guitar, why the percussion? Never mind, Ray and the choir drive each other to new heights of excitement and the adrenaline rush is complete.
If I had to recommend a jazz performance of Porgy & Bess, this would not be it, for all its strengths. My vote goes without hesitation to Norman Grantz' earlier recording featuring two of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. It's tough to choose between Ray and Louis, Ray more soulful and Louis the consummate jazz musician. But there's no contest between Ella and Cleo, good friends though they were. Ella does so much more with so little effort, her voice is so much richer and she is the absolute master of phrasing. The biggest single difference is the wonderful rapport between Ella and Louis, they strike sparks off each other and that clearly loved singing together. There are no such sparks between Ray and Cleo, who had never met before this recording and for the most part laid down their vocals an ocean apart.
My copy of the album came without track details or a list of musicians. I hope an insert will be available in production copies. The rather defensive liner notes try earnestly to convince that Porgy & Bess is great opera. It may be, but this is no operatic performance. The original 1976 Rhino recording is now available in updated sound on 200g Super Vinyl Profile from Classic Records. The sound quality on these records is outstanding, the image deep and wide, the dynamic range extended. Instrumental color, particularly from the strings, has rarely been so well captured. The strong bass underpinnings give full weight and impetus to the music, while at the same time you can distinguish tiny details buried deep in the mix. Demonstration quality, I would say.