Unfortunately, many of my generation grew up with Ray Charles as “the other blind, black guy” that wasn’t Stevie Wonder, and as the man hocking Diet Pepsi during commercial breaks while watching say, The Cosby Show, or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. As I grew up in a Coca-Cola household, the man lost points right there. So it was not until a few years ago that I gave him a true listen, and oh boy can this guy’s voice make you quiver, shake, and melt all in one song! Couple that with his extraordinary talent for composition and you begin to really appreciate that Ray Charles existed in a world of sound, and that the music he shared was coming from a place deep down inside.
Most are familiar with the biographical facts of Charles’ life through the entertaining—if somewhat caricatural—2004 film, Ray, starring Jamie Foxx, and so I don’t really feel the need to go into all that. Before moving on to song #2 of my planned 5 part series, I will point out that Ray Charles was an admitted drug addict since the age of 16.
In 1978 writer Greil Marcus joined The Band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, and Martin Scorsese in the filmmaker’s home in the Hollywood hills. The purpose of this visit was to discuss The Last Waltz, an amazing documentary Scorsese had made of The Band’s farewell concert held on Thanksgiving night of 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. What follows is an excerpt from the resulting article printed in the magazine New West:
Scorsese pulls out a Ray Charles album; the song he wants us to hear is “What Would I Do Without You,” from 1957. It’s a slow, tragic blues ballad; there’s the assumption of a happy ending, or at least of resolution, in the lyrics, but not in Ray Charles’s singing. “Leave out a few Billie Holiday tunes, and there’s more heroin in that music than in anything you’ll ever hear,” Robertson says. “Heroin does something to your throat, it makes the voice thicker. Listen.” We do; the title of the song takes on a new, acrid meaning. “We used to do it,” Robertson says, “‘What Would I Do Without You,’ after we left Ronnie, when it was just the five of us, before Bob, before Big Pink. But we couldn’t get away with it. The song was too down, it was death. That’s what it is. People would just sit there, or they’d leave” (Marcus, 2010).
I believe that this serves as a sufficient enough preamble to this song. So, originally released as the flipside to “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and compiled two years later on Ray Charles’ album Yes Indeed!!, here’s “What Would I Do Without You.”
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Like it? Buy it.
Ray Charles – vocal/piano
Joshua Willis – trumpet
Joe Bridgewater – trumpet
Don Wilkerson – tenor saxophone
Cecil Payne – baritone saxophone
Paul West – bass
Panoma Francis – drums
Charles, R. (1956). What Would I Do Without You [recorded by Ray Charles] On Yes Indeed! [CD] Atlantic. (1958). Rhino. (2008)
Marcus, G. (2010). Bob Dylan Writings 1968-2010. U. S.: Public Affairs