The curious ties that united Ray Charles and The Beatles

The challenge was repeated every night. Every time the still unknown The Beatles came out on stage at the Kaiserkeller club, in the port of Hamburg, they had the obligation to entertain the clientele of sailors, gangsters and curious people who passed by to drink a beer and listen to live music. But the task was not easy.

As biographers have detailed, the young The Beatles started playing at about half past seven in the evening and lasted until at least half past two in the morning., with only three half-hour breaks to recover, take some stimulating pill and why not, taste the German beer. And although at that time they handled a repertoire of popular songs, they had to manage to fill all the time they were on stage.

The Beatles in their early days in Hamburg. Stuart Sutcliffe is the first on the right.

Therefore, they did not hesitate to lengthen the songs as long as they could. “We had to make each song last about 20 minutes and do twenty solos”John Lennon recalled years later. He was not exaggerating, those from Liverpool were looking for songs whose structure would facilitate the possibility of lengthening them without major problems. So they got to What’d I Saya song composed by Ray Charles and published in 1959. An author to whom the English listened with particular attention.

“The What’d I Say of Ray Charles, with that game of call and answers –‘Hey-he-ey’- and the exciting piano and guitar riffs that could be repeated endlessly, allowed the number to be lengthened as much as one wanted”, details Philip Norman in his fundamental biography of Lennon. That yes, in the beatlera version, who did the main voice was Paul McCartney.

Like in the early sixties the Beatles were musicians without much experience, they must have taken pains to play it satisfactorily. His drummer at the time, Pete Best, couldn’t do him full justice. Everything changed when he met Ringo Starr, who in those days was a drummer for Rory Storm & The Hurricans (another band from Liverpool hired to play in Hamburg), who sometimes accompanied them when Best did not arrive. Thus they began to notice that Ringo was more competent and more resourceful.

In 2015, when inducting Ringo into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Paul McCartney recalled the importance of that song in the group’s history. I remember the moment we started playing What’d I Say by Ray Charles. So most of the drummers couldn’t nail the drum part. It was a bit difficult to do. But Ringo made it. I remember the moment standing there and looking at John and then at George, that was ‘the moment’. So you know, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.”

Ray Charles

Like other authors linked to r&b, the Beatles admired Ray Charles. Ringo himself commented in a 2015 interview that one of the famous pianist’s songs was his all-time favorite. Ray Charles, tell the truth. I love, I love the live version. It just always blows me away.”

Over time, the Beatles even added more songs from Charles’s catalog to their own live repertoire. Some came to record them, as it happened with I got a Womanin his session for the BBC. even in compilation The Beatles Anthology there is a version of Hallelujah, I Love Her Soa 1960 Charles track, home-recorded.

But the influence of Ray Charles went beyond the covers. As authors of his own material, Lennon and McCartney paid attention to the way the man in Hit the road, JackHe created his songs. That is why on more than one occasion they wanted to imitate him.

According to McCartney, one of his most famous songs is directly inspired by Ray Charles; The long and winding road, a ballad composed for the Get Back sessions, which was eventually released on the Let it Be album. “I just sat down at my piano in Scotland, started playing and came up with that song, imagining that someone like Ray Charles would do it. I have always found inspiration in the tranquil beauty of Scotland, and again it proved to be the place where I found inspiration.”

A similar situation occurred to George Harrison at the time of composing Something, one of the most covered songs in the Beatle catalogue, original from the album abbeyroad, the last recorded by the quartet. “Actually, when I was writing that song, in my mind I was thinking of Ray Charles singing it,” the guitarist recalled.

The link with Charles had another extension in the figure of Billy Preston, the keyboardist who met the Fab Four in Hamburg, but who ended up playing with them in the sessions of Get back. This is how it looks in the documentary get-back, by Peter Jackson, when Harrison convinces the rest to invite Preston, who was part of Ray Charles’s band. “Billy plays piano with the group,” notes George. Then he has his part where he sings and dances and plays the organ by himself and then Ray Charles comes on. It’s better than Ray Charles, really… it’s too much. Because he plays the organ great. Ray Charles no longer bothers to play the organ. I’ll leave it to the kid, to Billy. It’s too much”.

Almost like a lap of the hand, Ray Charles recorded covers of the Liverpool band throughout his career. In his style, he performed classics like Yesterday, eleanor rigby, The Long and Winding Road, Let it Be and Something. He even cheered up imagineLennon’s most emblematic theme in his solo era.

The Beatles themselves liked the Ray Charles versions. In his frank style, John Lennon mentioned his favorites in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Well, the Ray Charles version of Yesterday is beautiful. Y eleanor rigby it’s a groove. He put the strings on it. Like strings from the 30s. For his part, McCartney considered that Charles “made a good Eleanor Rigby.”

Only George Harrison, who was usually honest in interviews, was not so pleased with Charles’s version for something. “As it happens, the song ended up with over 150 versions, but when Ray Charles did it, I was very disappointed, except for the middle, the bridge to it, it sings very well. But it was kind of cheesy the way he did it.”