My times with the Ray Charles Orchestra

Ray & Al 

In 1970 I decided to move away from my hometown of Jacksonville,FL, where I had a decent day job and a, somewhat, active music career–on a local level; I led a band and did studio work, as well as working with the local symphony orchestra, as a 3rd trombonist when the score called for an additional player. I plan to detail what it was like for me as a ‘local’ musician in a future post. This post will give some insight on my move to Los Angeles,….. I had great experiences while I was based there and I will revisit some of them via upcoming blogs. This one focuses on my work with Ray Charles.

After debating with myself whether to try New York or LA, I decided on LA. I do like New York–but, for me, only for a visit. Plus, I had lots of ‘home boys’ on the west coast at the time; among them was Lionel “Billy” Moore (others included Von Barlow and Allen Jackson). Billy had been one of Jacksonville’s noted band directors and a master percussionist. After moving to LA and having played drums in Ray Charles’ band, he suggested that I audition for a spot. He arranged for me to meet and introduced me to R.C. and I was invited to the auditions. I had begun to establish myself in LA and wanted to stay in town; but, a chance to work with Ray Charles– I didn’t want to pass on that. So, on the day of auditions at the RPM studios, I showed up.., and it was something. Many of the band members were there as well as those hoping to become members. Some I knew—like Andrew ‘Andy’ Ennis, who I’d met a decade before while we were stationed a the Naval School of Music’s Army Element Band School; some I had heard of and others I didn’t have a clue about. The band was set up—seats, stands with the folders containing the band’s famous repertoire. It was sort of interesting how the audition went down.

The auditions took on a ‘jam session’ feel, with lots of fun, trash talking, joking, etc…….but, the music was serious. While some of the seats(positions) were already filled by returning and long time band members, everybody there got a chance to play. Some of the musicians played their asses off, but do to the fact that the seats they were going for were already filled, they didn’t make the band. The trombone section, four players and parts—for which I was auditioning—had two openings. Fred Murrell, a long time band member and good friends with Ray had the 3rd seat and Glenn ‘Champ’ Childress held down the 2nd (solo) spot. Knowing this, and not having a bass trombone, the the 4th part was not an option. That left only the 1st (lead) spot open. The lead seat is a hot one; but, I had no choice. If I wanted to make the band, I had to get that seat. Several players went for the lead chair that day—some of which had lead experience and great ‘chops’–meaning they had endurance and could play. After all factors were considered—including the pay (some guys would rather not go on the road, if they could make as much or more staying home), dependability, etc.– I got the gig. Steve Turre won the 4th chair, he was more of a soloist, but he had a bass trombone and, like me, wanted a chance to be a part of the Ray

Charles’ Organization.

MUSIC:

The band folder contained an array of ‘charts’; ranging from Ray’s hits to small band arrangements. The hits were either as originally recorded or closely arranged thereto. The book also contained a number of band only entries, arranged a/o composed by a who’s who list. Small band pieces were always for backing Ray with a combo sound—usually a rhythm section and four or five horns. As to that who’s who list mentioned; it included names like Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Neil Hefti, Billy Byers, Rene Hall, etc.

Many LA based arrangers—including Arf Clausen, Mike Post, Pete Carpenter, and Rodger Neumann—would come in and audition music at Ray’s request or attempting to sell a piece to the orchestra. The band’s folder was vast and it was hard to add to it. One of my high points was that I had two of my arrangements make the cut. With the success of the movie Shaft and the popularity of Isaac Hayes’ music score; and almost everybody covering the theme song. I asked baritone sax man and director Leroy Cooper( a very close personal friend of Ray’s) to ask Ray if he would consider a couple of the more ‘jazzy’ selections from that score for the band. Cooper did ask, and a few days later he came to me and said, Ray wants to see you. ……., I went to see him and he said, ‘Leroy told me you wanted to do some music for the band,….what you got in mind?’ I said, ‘Well I’d like to try two arrangements from Shaft– Bumpy’s Blues and No Name Bar—I think they would work and since the music is current and might fit well on some of the band portion of our shows’. After a few moments, Ray said, ‘Okay man, I ain’t promising nothin’, but you bring ’em in and I’ll listen; if I like ’em I’ll buy ’em and we’ll play ’em.’

Things worked—we played ’em! Weeks later Leroy come over to me and said, ‘Ray likes the charts, I know that because he didn’t change anything.’ It was well know that if Ray didn’t like a particular phrase or voicing, he made a change, regardless of who the arranger was.

PERSONNEL:

The trombone section, mentioned previously, stayed intact for the complete touring season. The reed section remained intact also; all of them doubled on flute, accept baritone sax player Leroy Cooper, and one also doubled the clarinet. Don Garcia, played lead alto sax, the other alto player was Fred Smith; and the tenors were Andy Ennis and James Clay. The trumpet section consisted of Tony Ferrell (lead), Mike Conlon, Tommy ‘Cab’ Cortez and Tommy Turrentine. The rhythm section was anchored by drummer John Perrett; Ed Willis (section leaded) was the bassist and Ralph Byrd played guitar.

On rare occasions musicians would fill-in or sit-in with Ray’s approval—including Billy Preston, Blue Mitchell, Francois Vaz, Marcus Belgrave, John Henderson, Joe Mitchell and Lenard ‘Len’ Bowie and a few others.

On almost all shows the Raelettes performed along with the band; three or four background singers with occasional lead work by Mable John and Susaye Green. Ray once said of the Raylettes: Most of my hits always had ‘dem gurls on ’em.’

Joe Adams, Ray’s long time manager, two pilots—when we used the band’s turbo-prop plane (aka ‘The Buzzard’) owned by the Ray Charles’ Company; a valet and at times additional support staff–such as Harold Patton–, as needed, were there too.

VENUES:

Ray’s itinerary had gigs galore. We played one -nighters, clubs, jazz festivals, theaters (indoor and outdoor), and matinees throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe(east & west) as well as Lebanon and Israel. Most of the European shows were promoted by Norman Granz. Both stateside and abroad we used a ‘hub’ at times—based at a city and bus or train to nearby locations. Sometimes we had a day or more off and were free to do as we wished, within band rules guidelines of course.

It was always a pleasure bumping into musicians from other bands and meeting interesting people, and seeing new things, in general. The B.B. King band was one, Dizzy Gillespie along with many others; as we were booked on the same nights at most of the jazz festivals played.

The European tour included; London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Milan, Belgrade, Amsterdam and other shows in outlying regions—btw, arriving at the hotel in Rotterdam was fun; we were met in the lobby by a couple of gents peddling weed and porn; after check in, they invited us to the bar for drinks as they provided samples of their product(s)–all legally.

Being ‘on the road’ was a challenge—at times. But, the experience, music, camaraderie and plain old fun, far out weighed it; most of all, working with the legendary and masterful Ray Charles.

THOUGHTS and QUOTES:

These are some memorable things I remember being said by Ray and other band members—some are obvious and the others ‘inside’.

Ray: ‘Watch my foot son’

Ray: ‘I might not can see it; but I damn sho’ can feel it’

Ray: When asked by a reporter, how important the Raelettes were(?); he answered: …….’If you listen to all of my hits, you’ll hear dem three or four gurls singin’ on em’.

Band members to each other regarding how much fun and enjoyment the band gave us: ‘Wonder what the poor folks are doing right now’?.

Me and Steve Turre (inside): ‘Every refrigerator is not a Frigidaire.’

Ray: One day a group of band members were discussing watching television in our hotel rooms, Ray overheard it and said: ‘I like watching Days of Our Lives myself’

John Perrett: Whenever, we went to a restaurant and John came along, we’d let him place the order. He had a way with waiters and waitresses. He always ended by saying: ‘Now, with our wine, bring us lots of bread and lots & lots of butter’

Fred Smith: We went into a hotel dinning room in Spain and the maitre d was decked out—full tuxedo and all. …..; As Fred walked pass, he said ‘What’s up Drack’?…………….After we were seated, we asked him why he had said that, Fred replied: ‘That motherfucker looks like Count Dracula’!

Ray: “Bob[pilot], are we gonna get some ‘weather’?”–………….Although its been said that Ray use to fly the plane some times, I can’t confirm that. However, he loved to be in the cockpit during thunderstorms……Most of the rest of us, generally, hated flying in those conditions.

This is but a small sample; as you might imagine, this could go on and on—but, hopefully, you get the picture.

A final memorable personal experience I’ll mention here is: I remember after having played a gig in Florida, the band was flying to Ohio—I think—and had three or four days off. I asked Ray, if I could stay and visit my mother and family in Jacksonville and meet up with band on gig day. He not only agreed to my request; but, gave me a salary ‘advance’ to boot………. ‘Just don’t be late man!’ …….. What can I say……(?)

PERFORMANCES and RESHEARSALS:

It was a joy playing with this band and Ray on these gigs as they went. The Band always opened the shows; sometime we also had a local M.C., manager Joe Adams—introducing Ray, or Aaron and Freddie—a great ventriloquist act– also. Aaron had a great relationship with the band and sometimes, even let the guys have interplay with Freddie for fun, from time to time. On rare occasions, Ray would play his alto sax (as soloist) with the band on one of the normal, four or five, selections played before he did the main show.

As for rehearsals, once on the road, we only did it when a new piece was added to the book; Ray or Leroy wanted to clear something up in a arrangement. Otherwise, the sound checks served as rehearsals. Sometimes Joe Adams would call a meeting to address band issues a/o Ray’s concern about about the music or the tour—but, that was rare. Once the ship set sail, it was pretty smooth as it went.

A few interesting side notes here: Ray had some interesting ways of getting some songs started; for instance, he never counted off ( nor did Ed or Leroy) the song The Long and Winding Road. He would just sing (a capella) …., ‘The Long,……and Winding Road’…….pause, then nod his head—that was the downbeat!

He would call out; ‘Bring It’!…..than meant that the Fender Rhodes would be setup next to his grand piano. Ray never had the electric piano onstage otherwise. Only once did he play organ on tour. That was the time Billy Preston joined the band for a couple of shows and Ray jammed with him on the Hammond B3. I gotta tell ya,……………. the house actually shook that night! Sometimes Ray would change the set show order or do an encore; many times it [the song] would be ‘Georgia On My Mind’…… He would just say softly into the mic. ….’ Every time I sing this song’……….pause[no count off], and start into the verse. One thing is certain, being a part of the Ray Charles Orchestra meant you had to always be on your P’s & Q’s. Reed man Andy Ennis once said, about Brother Ray’s keen musical ears: ……..’He can hear a mosquito pissin’ on cotton’!

CODA:

I’ve tried to tell this like I remembered. There were some personal issues with some of the members regarding drugs and alcohol. But, its a matter I don’t care to discuss. I will say that they found a way to handle their situations and the show went on. Many members were married. Either way, ladies always found a way to meet you if they wanted. I’d say a couple of incidents came up; nothing on the serious side though. We looked out for each other. As for Ray, I never saw him drunk or high. He loved his Bols; but, he was always cool as he went—about the business of being Ray Charles; master musician, leader and Man.

As the tour season headed towards its end; I had to begin to think about staying with the band. That was decided for me, in a way; …..because, along with a couple of other band members, I was a part of, had a salary dispute when the tour ended. Having to appear at a musician’s union arbitration; I decided not to return to the band and, to my knowledge, the other members involved didn’t either. Still, I wanted, and felt compelled, to leave on good terms. The members won the dispute and we were paid the disputed salaries.

I came into contact with Ray at his studio on several occasions afterward—a never released project for Leroy Cooper, and a LP for Billy Brooks (Windows of the Mind). I had a chance to speak to him during my first session and I told him, ……I hoped there was no animosity. Ray basically said,…. look man, that’s in the past and it was business and had nothing to do with music;…….. that was it.

The last time I communicated with Brother Ray was around 1989—I sent him a cassette copy of a song he had given me permission to record during a performance called ‘Yours’, on a two track stereo cassette machine I use to take on the road. Several weeks later, I received a postcard with a RPM Studios return address simply saying: Thanks Man (typed).

As I complete what has been fun and a bit of a task, I’ll say this; I am not a journalist, professional blogger nor do I claim to be proficient in grammatical and linguistic precision. Just a former band member sharing memories. Stay tuned; from time to time, I will update as new information and memory allows. Also, photos and links will follow. Hope you enjoyed it, as I went.

Sanifu Al Hall, Jr.

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About Sanifu Al Hall, Jr.

Musician, arranger, composer, producer and radio commentator based in Jacksonville FL.
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2 Responses to My times with the Ray Charles Orchestra

  1. verger says:

    Je vous remercie beaucoup pour ce blog .JPverger

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