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Ray Charles: An American Genius

Hank Kalet

Ray Charles took nothing from no one, staking his claim to the world, thriving despite his blindness to become one of a handful of truly legendary and groundbreaking artists in the history of music. Rest in peace, Brother Ray.

When I think of Ray Charles, I think of his role in The Blues Brothers. The band -- led by "Joliet Jake" and Ellwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) -- pay a visit to Ray's Music Exchange, looking for some instruments. As the band is talking with the blind proprietor -- Ray -- about some amplifiers, a kid sneaks in and attempts to pull a guitar down from the wall. As quickly as the kid is there, Charles pulls out a handgun and blasts a hole above the kid, chasing him from the store. "Now, go on! Git!" he yells. "It breaks my heart, a boy that young goin' bad."

And there, for me, is Brother Ray in a nutshell, taking nothing from no one and staking his claim to the world, thriving despite his blindness to become one of a handful of truly legendary and groundbreaking artists in the history of music.

The New York Times, in its obituary of Charles on June 11, said that Charles recently told an interviewer that his blindness had no effect on his career. "I was going to do what I was going to do anyway," he said. "I played music since I was three. I could see then. I lost my sight when I was seven. So blindness didn't have anything to do with it. It didn't give me anything. And it didn't take nothing."

* * *

Ray Charles died June 10, 2004 of complications related to liver disease and leaves behind an amazing legacy of sound; a trailblazing collection of music that helped define much of the last 50 years. I could list the hits, but that would be fruitless. There were dozens -- everything from hard-edged blues shouters to touching, sentimental ballads, to country and western songs and seemingly everything else in between.

But that was the genius of Ray Charles. I am not engaging in hyperbole to say that Charles (along with, perhaps, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson) invented what was to become known as soul by using the intensity and vibrancy of gospel music to explore secular themes. Charles started his career by imitating the softer sounds of Nat King Cole and other black pop artists, creating a smooth, but generic sound that garnered him a couple of minor hits on what was known as the race-records charts.

Then came 1955 and the release of "I've Got a Woman," a fiery piece of rhythm and blues that signaled a new direction in black music. It quickly raced to No. 1 on the black charts. Charles managed 12 top 10 singles on the black charts -- including the rowdy "What'd I Say" at No.1 (which also hit No.6 on the pop charts). "What'd I Say" inspired one of the funniest Saturday Night Live skits I've ever seen as "The Young Caucasions" attempt to record a clean rendition of the song, leading into Ray's own rousing version of the song.

Having helped transform rhythm and blues, Charles turned himself into a musical vagabond, exploring a wide range of music and recording some groundbreaking albums -- including the genre-bending Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, on which he applied his own inimitable style to some current and classic country songs. That Charles would even attempt to bring his singularly soulful approach to country music is a testament to his individuality. Country was the province of the white working class and there was a growing divide between country music and rock and soul in the early 1960s that only widened as the decade moved on. Charles was one of the few artists -- along with Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and only a few others -- brave enough to venture away from his own safe musical haven. And the public repaid him in spades, pushing the album to No.1 and pushing its three singles -- "I Can't Stop Loving You," "You Don't Know Me" and "Your Cheating Heart" -- to the top of the adult contemporary charts.

* * *

I own probably 2,000 CDs, LPs and cassette tapes. Until the weekend after Charles' death, I did not own even one Ray Charles record. This actually surprised me. I got home from work the night he died planning to grab something by Charles only to realize that I had somehow, in 30-plus years of record and CD buying, failed to add the great soul man to my record collection.

I mentioned this in an e-mail to my friend Steve. "I think most of us are in the same predicament that you are in," he responded. "The only Ray Charles record I own is a recording of "Lucky Ole Sun" that appears on the Malcolm X movie soundtrack."

Perhaps he is right, especially for people my age or a little younger. Ray Charles had his greatest commercial success in the late 1950s and early 1960s, first with some vivid soul music and later with more sedate explorations of other genres. His success predates the Baby-boom generation and as the 1960s wore on it would have been easy to view him as nothing more than a supper-club act, something along the lines of Perry Como or Andy Williams, something one's parents might listen to.

And, yet, this doesn't quite wash. I've always loved and been moved by Ray's music, in the same way that I've been moved by Billie Holiday or Tony Bennett. So where were the records?

I spent the better part of the weekend after his death going from record store to record store looking for something, anything by Ray to play. The CD stores were sold out. The clerk at Borders told me they had several discs but they went quickly after his death was announced. I was lucky enough to find three discs at Walmart -- not the Ray we've all come to know, but the Ray Charles before he was Ray Charles, 30 songs recorded in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he was still trying to be Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole. The discs are far less satisfying than "I've Got a Woman" or "Hit the Road Jack," but it is hard not to hear the immense personality that Ray would later project buried in these songs.

* * *

"Ray Charles seduced with his voice," NAACP Chairman Julian Bond wrote in an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe on June 15, and that is the clearest, most pointed statement you will read on Ray Charles. He could be a joyful shouter or a sultry crooner, his imperfect baritone and raspy delivery taking over whatever it was that he sang and making it his own. Everything he sang was believable. Everything he sang became his.

"No one 'owned' 'America the Beautiful' until he sang it, and no one else will now," Bonds went on to say. "He joined heartbreak and patriotism just as he married country music with soulful pathos, and the result will always be Ray Charles music."

"America the Beautiful," which he recorded in 1972 and then played years later at the 1984 Republican convention, became America's soundtrack in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It is a remarkable recording. Ray's vocal captures the contradictions that came with being a patriot in 1972, the joy and the pain, the promise of freedom and the history that has always made it a promise not quite kept.

* * *

I spent the weekend after Charles' death searching the radio dial for his music. I was shocked at his absence - though his absence probably says everything you need to know about radio in the age of media consolidation. Radio stations are programmed down to the minute these days, with every song chosen for maximum advertising impact. In this kind of atmosphere, an artist with as eclectic a repertoire as Brother Ray has no place. Aside from a tribute on the Biography channel, some brief tributes on WXPN (a Philadelphia public radio station), and a couple of other stations Friday morning, Brother Ray was absent from the airwaves.

But that is, as I said, more a comment on our times than on the importance of Ray Charles.

* * *

After the initial greetings, Murph, the electric piano player for the Blues Brothers Band, asks Ray about a particular organ.

"You have a good eye, my man," Ray says. "That's the best in the city of Chicago." After haggling over the price, saying it's too high, Murph tells him "it's used, there's no action left in this keyboard."

Ray steps to the keyboard and answers, "I don't think there's anything wrong with the action on this piano," twinkling the keys and launching into a raucous version of "Shake Your Tailfeather." Nothing wrong with the action at all.

Rest in peace, Brother Ray.

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