The genius hits the road

Remembering Ray Charles as a man who sang to the soul of America, played the piano like it was a woman, and got us all to joyously shake our thing.

Topics: Music,

Ray Charles, 1930-2004

He starts with the second verse, the one most people don’t even know. Ray Charles’ 1972 version of “America the Beautiful” begins with these words:

O beautiful for heroes proved
in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life

America, America
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine

Think about what that reordering does, what it means to hear those words before the familiar “O beautiful, for spacious skies …” Beginning with images of sacrifice and death, then moving on to a prayer that asks — with no guarantee of being answered — that those sacrifices not be in vain, Ray Charles implies that America must earn the verse that follows.

“And you know when I was in school we used to sing it something like this,” he says before beginning the words everybody knows. And so the purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plains are introduced as a legend we hear as children. They are not, in this version, God’s bounty there for our taking, but the reward of a collective dream, a dream all the sweeter, all the more worth working toward because it will never fully be realized. God may or may not reward that striving, but as Charles sings it, the striving is where the concrete beauty of the country lies.

“America the Beautiful” is the least boastful of patriotic songs, and even so, Ray Charles’ version teaches it a new humility. That Charles died — yesterday, at 73, of complications of liver disease — in the same week that saw the death of Ronald Reagan reminds you that Charles performed that song at the Republican Convention that nominated Reagan for a second term in 1984. And so what? That performance didn’t make the song a lie. In some ways it was the best test the song could have. Could it be sung at that time in that place and not be co-opted, could it stand for something bigger than the circumstances, bigger even than the man who sang it?

Ray Charles was a gargantuan figure in American music, one of its essential voices, a small group that also includes Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, George Jones and Bob Dylan. And yet the meaning of his career was that it stood for something bigger than he was. Along with Elvis (an artist for whom he had little respect), Ray Charles was motivated by a titanic appetite to encompass nearly every form of American music, which is why his career, like Elvis’, is democracy in action. The story of his life — born Ray Charles Robinson, a name he later dropped in deference to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, into poverty in Georgia; blind, probably from glaucoma, from the age of 6 after seeing his brother drown; orphaned and on his own from age 15; a star at 24 and a heroin addict for some years after that (he kicked the habit after an arrest in the ’60s) — is an American story of making your own destiny. The story of his career is the story of the simultaneous and contradictory American desire to assimilate and to stand out. Ray Charles blended every form of music he could get his hands on — and still made each sound like Ray Charles music.

The recombination of genres that would define Ray Charles’ career began with a scandal. After some early recordings in which he emulated the smoothness of Nat King Cole, he released “I’ve Got a Woman” on Atlantic in 1954, a song that melded the blues with the fervid call-and-response of gospel. In his essay on Charles in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll,” Peter Guralnick quotes the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy as saying, “He’s crying, sanctified. He’s mixing the blues with the spirituals. He should be singing in a church.”

In 1959 came “What’d I Say.” The numbers tell part of the story: The song lasts six and a half minutes; it made No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 6 on the pop charts; it was a million-seller. An unrecorded figure — the number of radio stations that banned it — tells the rest. What lyrics the song contained were mere shards — “Tell your mama/ Tell your pa/ I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas” — that momentarily halted the relentlessness of Charles’ electric piano, on which he played a line that sounded like the most carnal prowling imaginable. But even that and throwaway lyrics like “Baby shake that thing” seemed like kid stuff by the time Charles and his backup singers, the Raelets (about whom was coined the notorious line, “In order to be a Raelet, you had to let Ray”), went into a call-and-response of the most openly sexual grunts, groans and purrs. Drawn out as long as they could manage, the moans eventually give way to the prolonged orgasm of the chorus.

Just as there are people for whom Elvis never fulfilled the promise of the Sun Sessions, there are those who consider nearly everything that followed “What’d I Say” a sellout. In 1959 Charles left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount and a series of albums that abjured hard R&B for sugary choirs of backup singers, show tunes and strings. And it was then, I’d argue, that he began to show the breadth of his genius (and to prove why purists have no place in popular music).

Greil Marcus answered the charge that Charles had compromised to reach a broader audience by noting that “reaching the broadest possible audience is what Charles’ career has been all about.” From the first ABC album, 1960′s “The Genius Hits the Road,” which featured the No. 1 single “Georgia on My Mind” (No. 3 on the R&B charts), you’d need to be almost totally lacking in imagination to believe this was a compromise. This was an ascent of Everest. The sheer variety of music Charles recorded at ABC, and the sheer confidence of his work there, was an epic undertaking, not all of it successful, but all of it an attempt to put his mark on as vast a swath of music as he could manage. The music may have been sweetened, but the string arrangements (most often by Marty Paich or Sid Feller), the impossibly white backup singers, gave Charles both something to work against and provided the perfect accompaniment to the heartache or joy in his performances.

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It was a testament to Charles’ instinct that the most successful album of the 14 years he’d spend at ABC was also his most visionary, 1962′s “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” The proof of the wide audience Charles was reaching was that the album’s hit single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” hit No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts. The brilliance of the gambit was that where most people would think of R&B versions of C&W as a contradiction, Charles heard a consonance. Country, he realized, was white soul music. It shared soul’s earthiness and literalism, it had the same sob in its voice, it had soul’s simultaneous consciousness of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Charles kept faith with country throughout his career. There was an indelible version of Buck Owens’ “Crying Time” (on the album of the same name) in 1966 and, in 1984, one of his greatest moments, the title track of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” on which he sounds battered and majestic, weary and ageless. Now, when country is known largely as airbrushed pop and real country stars like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton are kept off the radio, when it’s still hip to speak of country and western as hick music and the people who make it or listen to it as hayseeds, Ray Charles’ instinctive embrace of country seems more than ever a statement of belief in the inclusiveness of America.

If Ray Charles often seemed taken for granted from the mid-’60s on, it was, I think, because he had become a figure in American life who we assumed would always be there. He was forever turning up on some TV variety show or talk show, even if his records didn’t make as big an impact on the charts or the public consciousness. That’s why the riches to be found in those years still need to be heard (and most are still awaiting release on CD), offering as they do further proof of his achievement. Among the highlights are the 1966 single “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” a hard-swinging return to R&B that gives the Atlantic sides a run for their money; the version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” on the 1967 “Ray Charles Invites You to Listen,” the last half sung in a falsetto that eerily evokes Billie Holiday’s version; the brilliant 1977 album that marked his brief return to Atlantic, “True to Life” on which he covered “Let it Be,” “I Can See Clearly Now” and — best of all and most improbably — “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” in some ways the hardest test he ever set himself. Who could ever have heard that song and imagined it would some day have soul?

It would be folly to pick one song to sum up a career like Charles’. But often when I think of Charles, the song that comes to mind is his version of “That Lucky Old Sun” from “Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul.” The irony is that it’s a song I can barely bring myself to listen to. Everyone has songs like that, ones that affect you so powerfully you don’t always feel like you have the strength to hear them. For me, those are Frank Sinatra’s “Cottage for Sale,” Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose,” Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover” — and “That Lucky Old Sun.”

The song took on unintended poignance when it was released in November 1963, the same month President Kennedy was assassinated. You don’t have to know that to be destroyed by it. The song is a workingman’s lament (“Up in the morning/ out on the job/ I work like the devil for my pay”) that aches for a deliverance that will only come from death (“Show me that river/ why don’t you take me across/ and wash all my troubles away/ I know that lucky old sun/ he’s nothing to do/ but just roll around heaven all day”). The mixture of longing and acceptance in Charles’ voice is devastating, the sound of someone both heartened and taunted by the glimpse of a paradise he can see but not yet attain. But Charles’ voice, that of a man tied to this world, provided its own kind of deliverance. Just as he gave soul to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” he gave the proof to one of its lyrics — in his hands the sounds of the earth are like music.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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