What can one say about the great Ray Charles that a thousand music critics and bloggers haven’t already said? That’s one of the reasons I haven’t blogged about his death yesterday. But then I thought about issues which most commentators haven’t addressed: race, handicap and his enormous courage and inventiveness in the face of adversity. Having myself been the victim of child abuse and knowing the impact trauma can have on one’s life, I thought perhaps I could add something to the discussion.
Charles’ personal story is an amazing one of triumph over the most serious and insurmountable obstacles one can find in life. What greater barriers to success and achievement can one find than race and physical handicap?
He was born dirt poor in Albany, Georgia in 1930 and moved to rural Florida at age 5. At age 7, he became blind. Remember, this was about as far into the Jim Crow South as you could go. From the disenfranchisement suffered by African-American voters in the Florida 2000 presidential election, we know how much racial discrimination exists to this day. So we can imagine what the young Ray Charles faced being both Black and blind in such an environment.
As a teenager, he moved to Seattle (where I now live) in 1948, where he lived for the next 20 years. It was here he met and formed a lifelong friendship with Quincy Jones (a Seattle native). It was also here that he developed a heroin habit that afflicted him for many years. So now we add yet another tremendous impediment to the ones he already faced.
As many of you probably know, racism and disability inflict trauma on their victims which are never fully overcome. The best you can hope is to confront them and still make a significant contribution with one’s life. How gloriously Charles did that!
He is an American original, an American icon. Of course, he is a pure epitome of African-American musical heritage and culture. But he is so much more. I won’t say that he transcends race because without his ethnic heritage, he could not have been the creative genius that he was. But in his Blackness he represents a transcendental American cultural value.
He was to R&B and soul what Louis Armstrong was to jazz. They both represented enormous American spirits. The treasure that is their musical legacy can never be exhausted.
For me the quintessential representation is Charles’ rendition of America the Beautiful (listen to it here–and purchase it on Anthology linked at right). He takes a song that every American knows and loves; a song which we all know so well we can’t imagine any other way of singing or performing it. And he turns the song into something gloriously new in a rendition which opens the song’s meaning to entirely new areas of experience. Charles singing of the song does NOT represent the “Pilgrim’s Pride,” but rather all that is profound and soulful about African-American culture and musical style. How can every American, Black or white, not be grateful for such a treasure? Or as Al Sharpton said to the Democratic National Convention:
I recall a few days after the September 11 terrorist attacks I was in a radio station that played “America the Beautiful,” sung by Ray Charles.
We lost Ray several weeks ago, but I can still hear him singing: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain.” We must leave here committed to making Ray Charles’ song a reality and to making America beautiful for everyone.
Another hallmark of Charles’ career (and a completely American quality) was his willingness to take daring musical chances by embracing styles and genres never approached by African-American artists. His landmark 1962 country album, Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music (see accompanying Amazon link), might have seemed an insane musical choice for Charles in 1962. Today, it looks like sheer genius. The interconnectedness of country music and gospel is taken for granted by followers of both traditions. Then, it probably made sense to one person, Ray Charles. But that was enough and the rest is history.
I was listening to KUOW-FM’s The Conversation (audio link), when a caller told a moving story about a Johnny Carson Tonight Show interview of Charles. Carson asked him: “What’s the fonedest Christmas memory you have?” Charles thought for a moment and said:
When I was growing up we had nothing. One Christmas we didn’t have presents, a stocking, a tree–we didn’t even have a Christmas dinner. My mother was so sorry. She kept saying: “I’m so sorry. I’ll try to make it up to you somehow.” Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. When we opened it it was the neighbors who’d brought us presents, a tree and a wonderful Christmas dinner.
At this Carson was in tears (and listeners to his show remember very few episodes in which he shed any tears) and couldn’t continue the show. Charles was terribly apologetic and said he was sorry for bringing everybody down. The caller then added: “Imagine, Ray Charles having to apologize for such suffering.”
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