Today is the first anniversary of the birth of Ray Charles since his death this past June. The following is adapted from the tribute to him that I wrote on the occasion of his birthday last year.
It is exceedingly difficult to pay Ray Charles the kind of tribute he truly deserves. As a relatively young man, he virtually invented soul music — the secularized gospel music that exploded into the mainstream of American popular music within a decade of Charles’s initial efforts. When Atlantic got around to issuing a three-disc boxed set of the highlights of Charles’s 1950’s recordings on the label, they accurately called it “The Birth of Soul.”
In a brief autobiographical account on his Web site, Charles explained the source of his passion:
As long as I can remember, music has always been something extraordinary in my life. It’s always been something that completely captured my attention — from the time I was three, when Mr. [Wylie] Pitman [the man who first encouraged his interest in the piano] was showing me these little melodies. My first love was the music I heard in the community: blues, church gospel music, and country and western. That’s why I love country and western today, because I heard a lot of it when I was a kid. My mom would let me stay up to listen to the Grand Old Opry on Saturday night. That’s the only time I got to stay up late. I heard the blues played by Muddy Waters and Blind Boy Phillips and Tampa Red and Big Boy Crudup. And of course every night if you listened to the right station, you might pick up a little Duke Ellington or Count Basie. But the bulk of what I heard of blues in those days was called “race music,” which became rhythm and blues, and rhythm and blues later was called soul music.
Charles first broke the boundaries of “race music” and crossed over to a popular audience with “Georgia On My Mind,” his 1960 version of the old Hoagy Carmichael song that sounds as fresh today as the day it was released. Two years later he sought an even wider audience with his version of the country song “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” His pioneering album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” continued his explorations in that vein. As with few other popular artists, you can hear every strand of American music in his work. His ambition knew no limits; he wanted his voice to move everyone capable of hearing it.
For me, the song that brings it all home is his version of “America the Beautiful.” Is there a more beautiful rendition of an American patriotic song? Charles’s version of the song is incredibly moving and powerful. The singing itself distills the essence of American popular music in Charles’s patented style. And in order to overcome the familiarity that prevents us from hearing the words of such songs, Charles begins with the song’s relatively unknown third verse on martial sacrifice:
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self the country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success
And every gain divine!
By this time, of course, he has our attention. After the chorus, Charles sings the song’s true first verse, but prefaces it by saying playfully, “You know when I was in school we used to sing it something like this…” He begins to sing it a little like a precocious choirboy, but then sings the second half of the verse with a lover’s uninhibited passion. As he returns to the chorus he testifies in gospel style: “America! I love you America!”