december 2011


The Spirit Is Willing

Doing It His Way, Ray Charles Delivers A Christmas Gem

By David McGee

Ray Charles
Concord Records
Released 1985; reissued 2009

Seems odd that Ray Charles waited until 1985 to cut his first and only Christmas album, but them’s the facts. That said, working with horns, strings, the Raeletts, Jeff Pevar and Kevin Turner on guitar, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Rudy Johnson on tenor sax, Brother Ray does Christmas pretty much as you would expect—in his own way, never predictably, and not without some surprises along the way.

For sure, among all the versions of Harry Simeone’s “Little Drummer Boy” extant, you’d be hard pressed to find one with a throbbing arrangement built on a crying steel guitar; sharp, pointed bursts of horns; keening strings; and from Ray himself, a lazy, bluesy vocal punctuated by flitting runs from his own electric piano. He puts his stamp on the song in a way other interpreters, including Frank Sinatra, simply have not done. And “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” has rarely strode across the land in such agreeable fashion as he does when Ray broadcasts the news of his arrival with a mellow, finger-snapping groove, adding his own extemporaneous asides (“Y’know, it’s supposed to be a secret, but I can’t just keep it to myself”) and interjecting a bright, burbling conversation on electric piano as the horns pump behind him in a laid-back, jazzy arrangement. As he does here so does he do on the entire album, using proven holiday classics as starting points for a larger conversation on the subject of how much they can be reimagined without losing their meaning or flavor, and adding a few lesser known items along the way. Let’s say his unerring instinct for musical fusions served him well.

Ray Charles, ‘Winter Wonderland,’ from The Spirit of Christmas. Guitar solo by Kevin Turner.

“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is served as a bumping blues ballad, with Pevar given wide latitude to add some stinging, B.B. King-like single-string discourses to the proceedings. Although both Ray (on piano) and Kevin Turner (on guitar) stand out in a sly “Winter Wonderland,” the most memorable aspect of the performance is the childlike wonder emanating from Ray’s cheery vocal—you can feel and hear the smile in his voice as he sings “we’ll frolic and play the Eskimo way/walking in the winter wonderland,” before he and then Turner follow each other with mellow, concise instrumental monologues. The true ballads elicit truly deeply felt performances in a pleasing contrast to the frolicking going on elsewhere: the string-enhanced romanticism of the Brook Benton-Cliff Owens beauty, “This Time Of The Year,” along with the Raeletts’ smooth, pop cooing buttress Ray’s thoughtful, slightly wistful toast to the Christmas season’s heartwarming delights; it’s a beautiful, sumptuous performance, with Ray alternately crooning subdued reminiscences and rising briefly to a gospel fervor in the chorus, in an arrangement Charles crafted with the great Nashville veteran Bill McElhiney, whose impressive resume included arrangements for Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, and, not least of all, Johnny Cash, for whom he arranged (with Karl Garvin) the mariachi trumpets on “Ring of Fire.” (McElhiney and Charles also co-arranged another rich, beautiful ballad on the disc, “Christmas In My Heart.”) Similarly, the warmhearted “All I Want For Christmas” lopes gently along on the strength of Ray’s mellow piano support before it breaks into a horn-infused trot, with both Hubbard (flugelhorn) and Johnson (tenor sax) taking exuberant solo flights before the pace slackens to a soothing lope again, all the while Ray singing about the simple pleasures of “people smiling/love to go all around” as topping his Christmas wish list, right up to the final, strutting verse when he makes a blatant come-on to a gal he’s been pursuing. Beautifully done, with a touch of wit, to boot.

Ray Charles and Betty Carter in their 1961 duet on ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside,’ a bonus track on the reissued The Spirit of Christmas

Showing up as a bonus track is the smoldering 1961 duet with then-rising jazz singer Betty Carter on a smoldering rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” with Carter’s high-pitched resistance to Ray’s soothing, seductive entreaties constituting a moment of high, hilarious and perfectly tuned sexual tension. Previously reissued a dozen years ago and now deserving of permanent in-print status, Brother Ray’s lone seasonal offering, while not scaling the aesthetic heights of Sinatra’s finest holiday fare, nonetheless makes a case for itself as being worthy of inclusion with the genre’s classics on the strength of its precisely nuanced performances and sensitive arrangements—the spirit is willing throughout.

Ray Charles’s The Spirit of Christmas is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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