DVD Review: Ray Charles “Live in France 1961”

By Devon Wendell

1961 was a pivotal year for Ray Charles. “Brother Ray” had switched from Atlantic records to ABC, was about to venture into the realms of country music, and was making some band changes.  Live in France 1961 consists of film footage from that prime period, newly discovered by director David Peck.  Included on the DVD are two out of the four performances by Charles at the 1961 Antibes Jazz Festival — the first on July 18th, and the second on July 22nd — as well as bonus footage from the July 19th and July 21st shows.   The original 16 millimeter film has been brilliantly restored by Peck and the producers and archivists for Reelin’ In The Years Productions (the world’s largest library of music footage) — Tom Gullotta, Phil Galloway, and Steve Scoville.

The DVD presents an hour and forty five minutes of “lost” footage. Charles crosses jazz with blues, gospel, and country, and his eight piece orchestra features the brilliant saxophone work of Hank Crawford (alto) and David “Fathead” Newman (tenor).

Charles and the band kick off the July 18th show with a few powerful up-tempo jazz numbers: “The Story,” “Doodlin’,” and the only known live rendition of “One Mint Julip.” It’s a rare treat to see Charles show off his jazz chops on piano with definite nods to Count Basie and Art Tatum. It’s on these numbers that the band seems the most relaxed and confident.  Crawford and Newman’s solos are heavily steeped in bebop and post bop stylings, which were huge influences on Charles.

The opening instrumental from the July 22nd show, “Hornful Soul,” has Charles playing some Thelonious Monk-inspired piano phrases, giving the French jazz purists what they initially came for at Antibes.  There are wonderful slow shots of Charles’s fingers gliding effortlessly across the piano.

On the Louis Jordan classic “Let The Good Times Roll,” Ray’s vocals come in with a sense of the ease, confidence, and humor, which earned him the title “The Father Of Soul.”

The versions of “Georgia” from both shows have David “Fathead” Newman playing flute. Newman carefully laces Charles pained and melancholic vocals with soft and melodically tasteful flute flourishes.

The Raelettes are brought out prior to “Sticks And Stones.”  Unfortunately, their vocals are too loud and flat at times, which distracts from the concentrated dynamics of Charles and his band. Their punctuation of the choruses also goes on too long on “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “What’d I Say” (from the first show). and “I Believe To My Soul,” and “Tell The Truth” from the second show, all of which are practically ruined by their overpowering volume. The Bonus footage from the July 19th  show featuring versions of “The Story,” “Sticks And Stones,” “Yes Indeed,” “I Believe To My Soul, and “What’d I Say” may leave viewers wanting a more intimate Charles minus the Raelettes.

But it is fascinating to see Charles at an upright piano, performing songs he had originally recorded while he was playing an electric Wurlitzer piano, most notably “What’d I Say.”  (Another  highlight of the DVD is footage of the French audience, dancing in rhythm, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, and obviously enjoying the music and showing the respect it deserves, which wasn’t always the case back home in the States.)

Also, on “With You On My Mind,” from the July 22nd performance, it’s very clear the influence country music had on Charles, a year before he recorded the classic 1962 Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music and it’s sequel Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music Volume 2 (both on ABC-Paramount Records).

Though the set lists of the July 18th and the July 22nd shows are similar, the performances on the later date are far more powerful.   Charles’ version of  “Ruby” is one of the greatest vocal performances captured on film in American music history. He puts every ounce of joy, sorrow, and energy into every phrase. And that same energy is evident on “I Wonder,” which is relentlessly soulful.

At times, the band looks tired or forlorn. It might be possible that they’re homesick or experiencing culture shock during what was their first time in France.  Both sets close with “What’d I Say,” and the DVD includes bonus footage from the July 21st show with another fantastic performance of “I Wonder,” which is even more exhilarating than that of the version from the following night.

Ray Charles Live In France 1961 is one of the most important musical films ever  released. Musicologists and teachers will be playing this DVD for decades, so that their students can see one of the fathers of American music at his best.

To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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