Steve Tyrell; know'em? Well, you should because he has worked with some of the largest names in the entertainment and music industries, has written and produced music with legendary icons, won a 9 and even had his talents on display on the big screen but his latest effort, a tribute to Ray Charles called, "Shades of Ray" gives us a glimpse of Tyrell and what makes him tick.
“He’s been my biggest influence my whole life; really since high school," he began with enthusiasm. "I think the first song that I ever played live was “What’d I Say” with my band in high school and that went over well and I used to play it all of the time; I’ve just always loved Ray Charles. I’m really a product of the blues; I’ve made standards records, I’ve worked with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Dionne Warwick when I was first starting; I’m kind of a product of The Brill Building era as well. I worked for Scepter Records which was an R & B label and most of my real influences have been in rhythm and blues. I came from Houston, I loved Bobby “Blue” Bland and those were my guys. I loved Ray, Ben E. King was a big influence on my early music life and The Drifters and that was the stuff I loved. I got into singing standards by accident really; this is my thirteenth album and 12 of them have made the “Top 5” of the Billboard Jazz Charts and they all stemmed from me singing, “The Way You Look Tonight” in “Father Of The Bride.” That broke me out as an artist. I got a record deal from that and my first album deal from being in that movie and that led me to make a few standards albums, a Disney album, a Bacharach album, a Sinatra album; so, it made sense to me to finally get around to making an album of my musical biggest influence which was Ray Charles.”
Charles had so many hits in a wide range of genres and styles so, when creating a tribute album to someone you were so influenced by; was it tough to choose the material?
“It was," he said with a laugh. "I mean, I could make three Ray Charles albums or more; easily. I loved “Mess Around” which was his first record on Atlantic with Ahmet Ertegun. I’ve loved Ray Charles in every form that he ever was and when people ask me; who is your favorite singer? I without a doubt say Ray Charles because he could sing anything and did! He started out with almost gut bucket R & B songs on those early Atlantic recordings and his “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” is one of the great albums of all time. I think, to my understanding, that the record company was not in favor of him making a Country record but that is one of his and the world’s most famous records. He could sing standards and pop music, he could sing anything and it was always Ray Charles when he did it too; it was totally him. He could sing anything and still be Ray Charles from “America The Beautiful” to “Mess Around.” Whenever I sing any of these songs, I’m never trying to imitate Ray Charles; that’s just in me and when I sing the songs that’s just the way they come out. I don’t think you can point to any of my records or anything off of this album and say, he really copied Ray on that one. Some songs you’re kind of locked in like, “What’d I Say;” “See the girl with the red dress on;” I don’t how you could do that anyway but like that (laughs) but we still put some wrinkles in the arrangement; it’s an homage to Ray. It is something that went into my soul from loving his recordings and came out as me. I don’t remember saying OK, we have to do this or do that arrangement; for me, I could sing, I don’t know, a The Mamas & the Papas song and it would be influenced by Ray Charles (laughs). Everything I do has some sort of that influence; the blues and that’s why he could do so many styles so wonderfully but everything came out him and it all had a tinge of the blues in it.”
Tyrell was not only a fan of Ray's but after meeting and working with him became a friend; so, how did this come about? Apparently, Charles was lured in by Venus Flytrap.
“I used to do a lot of music for television and movies as a music producer. I did a show back in the ‘80’s or ‘90’s with Tim Reid, he was on ”WKRP In Cincinnati” and it was called “Frank’s Place;” do you remember that show? I did the music to that show and it was about a bar in New Orleans and the jukebox was one of the characters; every week, what was on the jukebox was the music and I was the music director. So, Ray Charles loved that show and he told Tim Reid how much he loved it and when Tim got his next show which was called “Snoops;” he played a Nick and Nora Charles kind of character; he and his wife were detectives and Tim asked me to write the theme for it. So, I wrote “Curiosity” and of course I had Ray in mind, just because I always have Ray in mind and when Tim said; “Who should do it?” I said; why don’t we send it to Ray Charles?” He said that he loves your work and he’s a fan, let’s see if he’ll do it. Ray had never done a television theme in his whole career, he thought that was beneath him; know what I mean? You know that Ray Charles could’ve done a million TV themes if he wanted to but he never wanted to do that. So, I said, let’s send him the tune and see if he likes it. I made a demo of that same exact arrangement that is on the record with me singing it and I sent it to Ray. He called up and said, “Hey man, I like that, I’ll do it.” So, we set up a session at my studio and Ray asked me to raise the key a half-step for him to sing it. So, I re-cut the track, raised it a half-step and in the meantime CBS had changed some of the pictures of the main title so the original lyric that we had didn’t quite work and we had to change some of the lyric to fit the pictures that they changed. So, Ray comes over to the studio and he’s ready to record and he says, “Play the track; who is that cat singin’?” I said, that’s me and he said, “Beautiful brother, beautiful” and it was one of the greatest things that I had ever heard in my life; Ray Charles complimenting me (laughs)! So, he says, “Play the tape and did you raise the key?” So, I play the tape and two or three lines go by and he says, “Hold it, hold it man; where’d them lyrics come from?” I said, I sent them to you because CBS changed some of the pictures and they didn’t match the lyrics so I had to change some of them because they didn’t make sense with the main title and he said, “I ain’t got my machine man;” he didn’t have his Braille machine. I said, you’re Ray Charles, sing any words you want; what are they gonna do fire you (laughs)? He said, “No, I’ll tell you what we’ll do; that’s you singin’ right man? You sing it to me and I’ll sing it back to you and we’ll do it together and we don’t need my machine.” So, we did the whole song with me singing to him and him singing it back to me and that’s how it became what it is. So, of course I had my recordings and I had his so I made it a bonus track as a duet with the two of us. I wrote it, he sang it, we sang it together when he was learning it but it was never released before now. That is exactly the truth too, you can’t make that kind of shit up (laughs).”
“A lot of people have been really positive about this record," he continued, "I think that if it gets heard, I’ll be proud for people to hear it. I’m proud of it, I don’t feel we copped-out in any way. I think it is an honest tribute to a person that is very, very special in my musical life; in my life period. I worked with him a few times, I produced a song with him and Diana Ross for a movie and he and I got along really well. Sometimes you meet your idol and you’re sorry you ever did because it’s not what it’s cut out to be but Ray was the opposite for me. I heard he could be tough when he wanted to but who had more of a right to be tough than Ray Charles? The guy was a true, one of a kind genius. This generation doesn’t have a Ray Charles or an Aretha, they don’t even have a Dinah Washington. Our generation had people that led the way; all the way from Barry Gordy that made American music, black music, R & B music that you’re proud of which is really the root of all music as far as I’m concerned. Today’s technology has made it so that anybody can be a songwriter, just sample the intro to something; maybe if some young person heard me they’d think I was some old fart (laughs) but learn something before you get out there. Learn some music, don’t just sample it and put a bunch of words together; what’s funny is to see a song that’s written by 12 people where somebody gets credit for the top line; I don’t know what that is (laughs) but that’s kind of where pop music has gone; I don’t think technology has done anything for the consciousness of music.”
Surely, doing an album of this personal a nature has to be gratifying and once Tyrell decided to pull the trigger and commit to it; was there anything he truly enjoyed when he looks back on the process?
“My favorite part of doing this was just being able to do it. I have thought about doing this stuff; every time I do a session over the last six, seven or eight years I do a couple of Ray tunes. I was always a little bit reluctant; thinking, as much as I want to make an album of Ray Charles songs; who the hell cares (laughs)? I would always think; who wants to hear me sing those songs when you can hear Ray sing them? After a while, I had Covid and I had a chance to finish it and everybody thought it was a good idea and it really was a labor of love. I had started this album many times and the one good thing about Covid was that it gave me a chance to finish it. There are tracks on there; Lew Soloff is playing on “Georgia” and he’s been dead for five or six years. He was in Blood, Sweat & Tears and he was in my band; he’s a pretty legendary guy and I got to put that on the album as a tribute to him. Do you know Chuck Leavell from The Allman Brothers Band? He’s a friend of mine and he played on “I Got A Woman.” We had done that two or three years ago when he was in town and we played that tune together and that’s on the album. So, some of things that are very special; I have Joe Samples playing on a couple of tunes; it was kind of a blessing that it took me a while to put the whole thing together because some of the people that I had worked with are on this album forever.”
“I’m playing in Los Angeles at the end of the year and I will be making this part of my show; I’m playing in Houston, Oklahoma City; did a private gig in Philly which was a private engagement but I was glad to have it. I haven’t played in like maybe about 18 months but everything has come back. I play a jazz cruise every year; the one thing that hasn’t come back is my residency at The Café Carlyle in New York which I’ve had for the last 18 years. I was hoping that would come back this year. I didn’t play last year but they’re not going to open it until 2022; that gig is gone until next year but what are you gonna do? I’ve got enough money to last me the rest of my life as long as I’m dead by December 1 (Laughs).”
To find out more about Steve Tyrell or "Shades of Ray," please visit www.stevetyrell.com.
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