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.