Jools Holland: He played good, he sang good

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The Independent Online

"You play the piano good, son." No one could have swelled with pride more than I did when Ray Charles, who died last week, told me that a few years ago. His loss to music is inestimable. If you look at the music of so many greats, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, all of them, they all go back to Ray Charles. He was one of those who thought labelling types of music was daft. He was very good at all sorts of music, but acknowledged no boundaries.

"You play the piano good, son." No one could have swelled with pride more than I did when Ray Charles, who died last week, told me that a few years ago. His loss to music is inestimable. If you look at the music of so many greats, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, all of them, they all go back to Ray Charles. He was one of those who thought labelling types of music was daft. He was very good at all sorts of music, but acknowledged no boundaries.

The essence of his approach was truth. I once asked him what he would like his epitaph to be. He said: "You may like Ray Charles, or you may not like Ray Charles, you can like his songs or you can not like his songs, but you've got to know, I'm telling the truth."

He was influenced by a lot of different musicians, including Duke Ellington and Hank Williams, but whatever it was he admired, it was a song's soul and integrity that got to him, to the extent of him loving something you might not expect him to, such as something from Italian light opera when a man is singing about how much he loves his mum. If it came from the heart and was well executed and clear, he loved it: "Only play what you love and believe is true," he said.

You always knew when you'd heard a song sung by Ray Charles. If you had heard it sung by someone else, you might not have given it much thought, but he always got everything out of whatever he sang. Equally, you might think that you don't like a certain type of music, but when you heard it executed by Ray Charles, you couldn't help liking it. Whether it was innate or learnt, he had a remarkable gift for communication. The Rodgers and Hammerstein song, "You'll Never Walk Alone", which I think is marvellous, when sung by him, with that extraordinary technical accomplishment, that commitment and belief, becomes one of the most fantastic things I've ever heard. It makes me want to cry.

Not only was he a brilliant communicator of ideas in music, but he was also great at conveying simplicity, which is often the hardest thing to do. And he was much braver than many musicians, slowing the tempo down further than many would have dared.

I first became aware of him in my teens, trying to look beyond all the guitarists for a role model. He was a singer/pianist, which I wanted to be. He seemed to me like a proper man of music, and I didn't feel I wanted to hear just boys. He was completely accomplished; the result of playing a great deal. But he did regard the piano as if it was a lover or a wife. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it wasn't. He said: "Every day is a battle. I've got 10 fingers and there are 88 keys. Some days I get the better of it, some days I don't."

I later discovered that he had learnt the same lesson - and a very early one - from his uncle as I had from mine; the importance of the boogie-woogie left hand. And I always felt there was a twinge of that in whatever it was he was playing.

When he was growing up, he told me, he would play Beethoven piano sonatas "so beautiful they make you want to cry", but then he couldn't help adding his own improvisations. He was always in charge. He didn't have anything against written music, but in the age of so many live recordings, when the greats became the players as much as the writers, he really came into his own.

He was, though, a terrific writer of songs. "The Sinner's Prayer", which I learned on Friday and played at a gig that night as a tribute to him, is a wonderful number. And his "I Can Make It Through The Days", which I only came across very recently, is stunning. Eric Clapton and I did a cover version of a song of his called "What Would I Do?", which was full of simple, rich writing. It didn't have too many words and got straight to the point. "You sang the song good," he told us. That was pretty flattering, too.

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