Post Mortem September 2004

The Lord’s Music and the Devil’s Words

Ray Charles (1930-2004)

Somewhere along the way in his vast autobiography, among all the name- checking, wonkery, and self-exculpation, Bill Clinton remarks, "I had loved Ray Charles since I heard his great line from 'What'd I Say': 'Tell your mama, tell your pa, I'm gonna send you back to Arkansas. '"

It is a great line. Like Hoagy Carmichael, the composer of "Georgia on My Mind," Ray Charles had a natural affinity for the lie of the land: his voice could embrace the purple-mountained uplift of "America the Beautiful" and ramble slyly through back roads and shantytowns, too. At sixteen he was singing with an all-white hillbilly band called the Florida Playboys. At eighteen he decided he'd gone as far as he could in the Sunshine State, unrolled a map of the country, pinpointed the town that was kitty-corner to Tampa, and then got on a bus to Seattle, where he formed his own Nat Cole—style trio.

Likewise, wherever you are on the musical map, he's there too. He was, said Frank Sinatra, "the only genius in our business," and Ray wasn't minded to disagree, putting it right up there in the LP title: The Genius of Ray Charles. At the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, in Memphis, he explains in the introductory video to the official tour that soul is what happens when church, blues, and country are "all intertwined some kind of way. " On album covers he spelled out the relevant formula more mathematically: Genius + Soul = Jazz. Plus he was a little bit country, he was a little bit rock-and-roll. He was a rare literal rocker, rocking back and forth at the piano as he sang Lennon & McCartney. But he rocked to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, too. From Stephen Foster to Stevie Wonder, he claimed a century of American commercial song as his personal archive, and then added hymns and spirituals. He did Hee Haw and Porgy and Bess, and acquitted himself well on both. And in the ultimate act of boundary-breaking, he did jingles for both Coke and Pepsi.

There are many category enforcers in the complicated apartheid of popular music who don't care for the above: like the stock clerk at Coconuts, a lot of critics want to know which bin to file you in. And when it's not that simple, they doubt your motives: Genius + Orchestra = Sellout. But the doubters have a point. There's a name for this kind of behavior, and Ray Charles used it when he started his own record label, in the 1970s: Crossover. "Crossover" used to refer to when a fellow in a specialist genre ("race records") crossed over to the main Top 40; then it somehow got stood on its head to mean a great artist's condescending to a vernacular genre: José Carreras strangulating the vowels and mangling the consonants of "As Time Goes By"—"de worl weel ohlwez welcomm loafers" rendered with all the passion of a sales exec addressing a footwear convention.

But even when it's not that bad, it's not that good. In the 1950s, on "If I Were a Bell" (from Guys and Dolls) and a hundred others, Dinah Washington managed to signal through all the orchestral bounce that she'd still rather be singing the blues. A decade later, when Columbia leaned on him to do an album called Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today, Tony Bennett was so disgusted with himself for doing a lot of lame soft-rock covers that he was physically sick before the session: Tony Bennett pukes the great songs of today. Even if the stuff doesn't make you vomit, a guy who does everything comes over like an opportunist (Ray Charles, old buddy Quincy Jones) or a poseur (Elvis Costello, who, after avant-garde string quartets and Burt Bacharach, now seems to be doing to the career of his wife, Diana Krall, what he did to his own).

In considering Ray Charles, Sinatra's advice to Tony Bennett seems more germane: "You can only be yourself. But you're good at that. " Ray was sixteen when he cut his first songs, on a friend's wire recorder, and he was already good at being himself. The trio is in conventional style for the late 1940s, but the sixteen-year-old voice is moaning the blues like a sixty-year-old.

By then young Ray had gone through more in his brief life than most of us would want to bear in our threescore and ten. He was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, the same year "Georgia on My Mind" was published. His father was gone, and his mother eventually moved her children across the state line to Florida. One day the five-year-old Ray was playing outside in the washtub with his little brother when the younger boy's clothes got waterlogged and he went under. Instead of running inside immediately and getting his mom, Ray struggled to pull his brother out; by the time he realized he couldn't and went for help, it was too late. At seven he went blind. When he was fourteen, his mother, barely thirty herself, died suddenly in her sleep. She had raised her children in poverty so extreme that "even the blacks looked down on us," as Charles once told me. "Going down the ladder, you had rich whites, poor blacks, then us. And there weren't nothing between us and the bottom. "

On the other hand, even singing hillbilly with the Florida Playboys, the teenage Ray Charles already seemed like a man who transcended the facts of his life. When he'd lost his sight, his mother had sent him to the state school for the blind in Saint Augustine. It had a white section and a colored section, and even at the time Ray thought it "kinda weird" that white kids and colored kids who couldn't see which was which nevertheless had to be segregated on that basis. "Ain't that a bitch," he said.

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Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications.

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