Deep Cuts: Ray Charles, "Am I Blue" (1959)


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By Nick DeRiso

“Am I Blue" is a largely forgotten argument for Ray Charles' striking ability to synthesize jazz, blues, country and gospel into music with a broader appeal.

That's saying something, considering that it appears on The Genius of Ray Charles, a half-big band/half-strings Atlantic release that became one of his most celebrated efforts.

Charles effortlessly melds both the secular and sacred singing styles, all the while injecting sharp flourishes of jazz. But “Am I Blue" is often overlooked because it immediately precedes a career-making turn on “Come Rain or Come Shine," the closer on Genius—which itself became the capstone on a stint from 1952-59 at Atlantic where Charles solidified his place as one of America's most important musical innovators.

Still, for me, “Am I Blue" just as clearly delineates how Charles reinforced a bridge between styles that eventually came to be known as soul music.

And it hasn't been played to death.

First, there is the sensitive arrangement of woodwinds and strings conducted by Ralph Burns, appearing behind a swinging combo that includes Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone.

Even as he pushes his voice to a range associated with the lonely echoes of blues, Charles' rough-hewn, though rhythmically complex presence is made all the more wondrous by producer Nesuhi Ertegun's pillow-soft sophistication. Charles jumped right in with suggestions. Together, they created another masterpiece in an album filled with them, tracks that absolutely live up to the title billing.

“Genius," to be sure, is a term often misapplied—ball coaches seem to be our most common current honorees—but Charles illustrates why he once earned the compliment. At 30, he had already moved beyond the popular idea of R&B belter with this revelatory session.

To think, Charles—who worked and recorded for nearly five more decades—had only just begun. Could any other person, black or white, have so definitively broken down the walls between Tin Pan Alley and Nashville, as Charles later did on Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music? He had just as much influence on Bob Dylan as he did Al Green, as he did on Willie Nelson. George Harrison once said he was thinking about Ray Charles, not his wife Patti, when he came up with “Something," his first No. 1 single.

Who else covers the waterfront like that? Then you have his remarkable productivity. (The All Music Guide actually lists around 60 original albums and more than 200 compilations under “Charles, Ray.") Combined, they make finding an initial foothold on Charles' work difficult.

Start here, with “Am I Blue," then work your way outward.

This tune was later included as part of a highly recommended 2008 compilation called Hommage A Nesuhi that spanned 61 songs produced for Atlantic Records by Nesuhi Ertegun between 1955-76.

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This story appears courtesy of Something Else!.
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