It takes a special kind of genius to lead off his first album after a sensational heroin bust and a year-long musical layoff with a single called, “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” But that’s exactly what Ray Charles did in 1966 with his watershed classic, Crying Time. These days the album is famous for a couple of reasons, mostly tinged with ominous hues: It was Charles’ last album to chart in Top 40; it yielded the Grammy-winning reworking of Buck Owens’ country standard, “Crying Time,” which referred back to Charles own smash Country and Western albums of ’62-’63.
With its conscious acknowledgement in the liner notes, Crying Time comes across as a final nod back to Charles’ R&B glory days of the late ‘50s before his jazzier Pop crossover attempts—a straight, heartfelt focus on piano, organ, soulful guitar grooves and gospel-soaked vocals. In light of his memorable drug bust and his finally breaking the habit, the album has acquired a “back to the woodshed” flavor that is not entirely deserved. The sound of a many making a review and reckoning, coming back to the sound and soul that modified his inner vision. An attempt by a restless master to dance with the girl that brung him.
Other critics view Crying Time as the tombstone marking the official Ray Charles monument, the threshold between the immaculate American legend and the hammy publicity machine (Diet Pepsi? Really?) of the Seventies and Eighties. In this respect, Crying Time is the perfect record to close the biopic. I’ve never seen Hackford’s celebrated movie, Ray, but I’d bet a grip of two-dollar bills it ends with stirring images of Jamie Foxx in stir, drying out, with a montage of him sitting at the piano belting out “Crying Time,” culminating in a triumphant return to the Grammys—clean, sober, reconditioned and ready for his close-up.
But the truth is Crying Time is just a classic, kick-ass little soul soufflé, its ingredients so lovingly and finely simmered in the mix it's difficult to pick them out separately from the delicious, creamy, satisfying whole. Country ("Crying Time"), blues ("Drifting Blues"), gothic ballads ("Going Down Slow"), elegant, emotional jazz torch songs ("Tears," "Don’t You Think I Ought to Know") and swinging mid-60’s pop rockers ("You’re Just About to Lose Your Clown") all blend easily with a rich base of Southern gospel soul on cuts like “No Use Crying,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” and one of my personal favorites, “You’re in for a Big Surprise,” a quietly vitriolic tale of threatened comeuppance, which could either be one poor man’s story of a rich oppressor or an unexpected anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, capped off by some of Ray’s finest falsetto growls and howls.
When I listen, I imagine sitting inside a brightly painted wooden house somewhere in the Tennessee countryside of my youth, the heat and humidity so bad there’s no relief but to sit perfectly still for hours at a stretch without moving a muscle. In my mind’s eye I’m sitting on a back porch in a rusty metal rocking chair that belonged to my grandfather with a tall, cold glass of sweet tea vodka and lemonade—like an Arnold Palmer, half and half—with a lime or orange. An old dog is barking or fussing somewhere nearby, pulling at the tired rope someone’s got around its neck for a chain, trying to chase a cardinal. The sun lumbers lazy but heavy coming down, and my eyes are fixed at a dense wall of azaleas that line the dark passage into tick-filled woods.
I’m not sure what cool monsters lurk beneath those lonesome trees. But I’m content to sit here doing nothing until they make themselves known.
RAY CHARLES CRYING TIME, 1966, ABC/Paramount