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19 April 2010

Ray Charles & Sara Jordan Powell Starring In Christmas In Ettal - A Black Ceremony (1976)

Ray Charles performed in the Christmas gospel show Christmas In Ettal - A Black Ceremony with singer Sara Jordan Powell at The Monastery Of Ettal in Germany, (most probably) in 1976, on Christmas Eve.
Painfully little can be found on the Web about this TV concert.
I've watched a seemingly integral video, which carries an amateurish title card with "NOEL AVEC RAY CHARLES" in the beginning, but has filmed titles in the end, naming the show Christmas In Ettal - A Black Ceremony (the wordplay with "black" could be a reminiscence to the Black Requiem of 1971). This copy can probably be associated with a French, partial broadcast of the show on 24 December 1980 by France 2 (also titled Noël Avec Ray Charles; source: INA, ID CPB90014647; also cf. this post). A French VHS release (see illustration) adds to the confusion by using the title Ray Charles - Live.

French VHS cover,
year unknown.
Every source I've found places the concert in 1979, but a trustworthy (eye)witness remembers that the show actually took place on Christmas eve of 1976. Ray performed or co-performed:
  1. Go Tell It On The Mountain (with SJP, DL, RA, JB, JW, CW and the Choir) 
  2. Angels Keep Watching [a.k.a. All Night, All Day] (with SJP)
  3. There'll Be No Peace Without All Men As One (Ray solo, piano only) 
  4. Merry Christmas, Baby [the VHS and the video copy have "Santa Claus Blues"]
  5. Heaven Help Us All (with SJP, DL, RA)
  6. Amen (as 1.)
The editor (of the French TV program or of the video versions) has clearly interfered in the setlist order; e.g. #1 originally clearly came just before #6).  The Amazing Grace version by Sarah (see clip below) didn't make it to the French TV screens; the tunes in my viewing copy didn't have the filmed title sequences that can still be watched in the Amazing Grace clip presented below. It's feasible that (much) more was left out (e.g. solos by the other gospel stars?).
The tunes #1, #4 and #6 are unique recordings in Ray's repertoire. There'll Be No Peace Without All Men As One (#3) is the only known live version of this tune, which was later released on the 1978 album Message To The People.

Seeing the whole program, confirmed a few impressions that I already got from seeing incidental clips on Youtube. The (Roman Catholic) Ettal Monastery offered a glorious ambiance for a (baptist) gospel show. Sarah Jordan Powell was adequate, but not magnificent, in the duets. The musicians (see credits below) were excellent. The Munich Gospel Choir added to the production value, but had very little to do. The group of veteran gospel singers (listed below) clearly suffered from the fact that obviously nothing had been rehearsed (in one of the tunes even Sarah had to read the lyrics from a piece of paper; in Amen Ray even had to apologize when he unexpectedly changed the key).

The director of the TV program clearly did not have a grip on all events. The show started with an odd scene where you can see Ray and Sarah arriving outside the church, being welcomed by a group of priests, entering the chapel like a wedding couple who just had a fight (but still in their winter coats), and then being led to the 'stage' by a couple of sweet but clumsy Saint Lucia girls (who later turned out to be from Holland and Sweden, wishing the audience a Happy Christmas in their own language). After that Ray is being led from and to his piano a few more times (suggesting that at these points in the show - possibly Sarah, maybe also the other gospel stars - sang their  solos). In the end (after Amen) the girls pick up Ray to make a bizar little round through the church, then dropping him - with a litlle bang when he lands in his chair - at the first audience row.

In a later interview Sara Jordan Powell revealed: "When James Cleveland was producing my albums, we used Ray Charles' studio one night to record. A tape of my singing was accidentally left there one night and Ray Charles came across it the next day and listened to it. He wanted to know who the singer on the tape was, and he was told that it was Sara Jordan Powell. A few years later, Ray Charles was to play and sing at a Christmas Concert in Germany. Originally, Aretha Franklin was to accompany him, but she was not available. An agent overheard and suggested me, and Ray Charles agreed since he'd heard me via that tape which was left in his office years ago."

Sal Nistico - tenor saxophone; Carmell Jones, Benny Baily - trumpet; Slide Hampton - trombone; Jimmy Jackson - Hammond; Carl Preacher - piano; John C. Marshall - guitar; Bert Thompson - bass; George Green - drums; Lamont Hampton - percussion; the München Gospel Choir; Donna Lynton, Rick Abao, Joe Bourne, John Waddel, Charles Williams - vo.
* Details taken from comments to a Youtube clip, the video copy, information provided by Joël Dufour, and (i.c. Preacher:) Sarah's Facebook page.

The show was released on VHS in France, by Cinéthèque (VCV 402), but I do not know in which year. The program was aired several times in Europe (I've found air dates in Germany and France in the early 1980s). It also aired in Holland, on 24 December 1982. A Dutch newspaper's TV page had a few additional details. The TV show was directed by Rainer Ficklscherrer.

Angels Keep Watching:

Merry Christmas, Baby:

Heaven Help Us All; Amen:

Amazing Grace (Sara Jordan Powell, solo):

The Sara & Ray story becomes a bit peculiar with this article, revealing what happened between them after the German TV adventure. I quote:
Having left Savoy Records, Sara signed with New Orleans-based label Power House Records. With considerable presumption Sara asked Ray Charles to produce her Power House album. Amazingly, the soul superstar agreed. Sara recounted, "When Carl Preacher and I went out to Los Angeles, Ray said that he would have total control [...].
At the planning session, Charles asked Powell what she wanted to record. She and Preacher played their rendition of America The Beautiful. She recalled, "He said, 'Nah, we're not gonna put that on there.' Well, later he used it himself! He got all of the notoriety. I sang that song for him and he loved it. He said, 'That's a beautiful song. I like the way you did it.' That was my arrangement and he didn't want me to put that on there and I asked why. He said, 'Just let me handle this,' so I did." The resulting LP, Affectionately Sara, was a mix of traditional church numbers and soulful mid-tempo songs. Considering that Powell was a hot commodity on the gospel market and that Charles was a recording legend, Affectionately Sara met with surprisingly poor sales.
All of this strikes me as nonsense. Ray's first documented rendition of America The Beautiful was in December 1970, in Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour show. I have never seen the footage, but this performance was probably already following Quincy Jones' famous arrangement. Anyhow, Ray cut that chart for his album A Message From The People (released in April 1972).
Furthermore, it's highly improbable that Charles has ever produced any records for anyone a) without involving his own production and publishing companies, b) working with or for a minor label like Power House.* An other telling detail is that this whole strange anecdote is not known from any other source.

From Billboard, 7 November 1981.
* I stand corrected. Having opinions is a dangerous thing when describing a corpus of work like Ray Charles's. Only the facts count. No one knows better than my friend Joël Dufour, who surprised me with a copy of Sara Jordan Powel's album Affectionately, Sara, released in 1982 by the Texan record company Powerhouse (PH-1002). It was produced by... Ray Charles, and recorded at... RPM Studios in LA (and a studio in Houston  (the album's liner notes don't reveal more detail than this on Ray's role).
I still don't understand what The Genius heard in Sarah's voice, but a few of the slower tunes are pleasant enough, and her rendition of Why Me[, Lord] is round-out remarkable in the light of the duet version of Ray (produced in 1981), as it emerged only last year from the Johnny Cash vaults.


  1. Bob Stumpel ears dont work if he doesn't hear anything special in Mrs. Jordan Powell's voice. May God be with him and his ears.

    1. Sorry, It's just my perception, and thus totally subjective.

  2. I know what he heard, one of the most outstanding soprano gospel singer. Sara Jordan Powell's work and music stands for itself. The Albums recorded on Savoy are stellar. The songs are still sang by soloist in the gospel circle. She is not only know for her high range, but her strength and control holding her notes, which to this day has not been duplicated. In my book she is The Queen of gospel music.