Sunday, April 19, 2015

The "Other" Ray Charles

In my previous post, I wrote about Milton DeLugg, who died on April 6th, at age 96.  On the same day Mr. DeLugg died, I was sad to learn, Ray Charles died.  He was also 96.

Mr. Charles--often referred to as "the other Ray Charles"--was remarkably talented.  He was a vocal arranger, composer, conductor, writer of special musical material, and singer;  he was, notably, the leader of the vocal/choral group The Ray Charles Singers, well-known for its long association with Perry Como.  

Mr. Charles's voice is no doubt most widely known because of a television theme song he sang (with Julia Rinker Miller): the theme to the 1970s and '80s TV show Three's Company ("Come and Knock on Our Door").   

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was affiliated with such programs as The Muppets, and Sha-Na-Na.  A brief tune he wrote for Perry Como's TV show--"Letters, We Get Letters"--was later used, for years, on David Letterman's program.  For three decades, beginning in the early 1980s, he served as a musical consultant to the Kennedy Center Honors programs.

In addition to appearing for many years with Perry Como--on Mr. Como's TV shows, and on his records--The Ray Charles Singers accompanied countless other vocalists, on records.  There were also many Ray Charles Singers albums, over the years, and a song recorded by the group, "Love Me with All Your Heart," was a big hit in 1964. 

As I wrote in my book:

The Ray Charles Singers was not a fixed entity, but an umbrella name for a group which changed according to musical circumstances. A particular group of singers might be hired for Perry Como’s TV show (Charles himself was not one of the singers on Como’s TV program), while other singers—perhaps including Charles himself—might be used for recording dates.

For much of the 1950s, Mr. Charles was the vocal arranger on TV's Your Hit Parade; he worked on the program at the same time that he was a part of Perry Como's TV show. On the Hit Parade, he created vocal arrangements for both the show's featured singers, and for the program's vocal/choral group, The Hit Paraders.  In addition to writing the Hit Paraders' vocal arrangements, Mr. Charles hired the singers in the group, and oversaw their work.

During her years in New York, my mother worked with Mr. Charles in a few capacities: in 1951 and 1952, when she was a vocalist on Your Hit Parade; in 1949 (as noted recently, in this space), as one of his Ray Charles Singers, on the CBS-TV variety show Inside USA with Chevrolet; and as one of The Ray Charles Singers in a handful of recording sessions.

I first interviewed Mr. Charles in 1979, in Warwick, Rhode Island.  He and a group of his singers were touring with Perry Como, who was appearing at the Warwick Musical Theatre; at the time I lived nearby, in Providence.  Mr. Como's opening act, at the time, was comedian Jay Leno, who was twenty-nine years old.  

I interviewed Mr. Charles again in 2005, two years before my book came out.  The interviews he gave me added a great deal, I believe, to the book.  I am very thankful for the time he gave me, and for the insights, and memories, that he shared with me.

He joined the Hit Parade TV show, as vocal arranger, in 1950, the year the program came to television.  The following is from my book: 

“The camaraderie on the Hit Parade was quite incredible,” he told me. “It was really a family, because there were no stars. Dorothy [Collins] was new, Snooky [Lanson] was new. In the beginning, the first year or two, I can’t remember, Eileen Wilson was the other lady singer. . . Then Russell [Arms] and Sue [Bennett] did commercials, then they started crossing over into doing productions, the songs. And really, for about, I would say at least three years, it really was a marvelous family. And then, I don’t know, it kind of—it happens, I suppose, where the closeness goes. . . . But it was a constant party the first three years. After every show we would go to somebody’s house, somebody would have a party . . . ”  Each week, he said, “we would watch a kinescope of the previous week’s show. And it was like a picnic, you’d yell and scream. This was a new medium to everybody, and they wanted to watch and see what they were doing, if they were doing it right, how they could improve, and we were all very interested . . . . But it was fun, because we would applaud and talk and laugh. It was home movies, really, is what it was.”

Here is a link to a previous post, about a photograph (either from 1950 or 1951) of the cast of Your Hit Parade.  The show's Hit Paraders, at the time, are identified, including singers Artie Malvin, Gene Lowell, Hubie Hendrie, Geri Beitzel, and Rae Whitney. 

Here too, is a very enjoyable video of Perry Como and The Ray Charles Singers--singing "Papa Loves Mambo"--from a 1954 Perry Como program.  This is followed by the link to a prior post I wrote about the video.

The YouTube link that follows is of Mr. Charles and Julia Rinker Miller singing the theme to Three's Company:

Lastly, here is the link to a Facebook page about The Ray Charles Singers;  I borrowed the photo of Mr. Charles, above, from the Facebook page.