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.

You wonder what other segregations make less sense to those who can't see them. Almost as soon as he hit the big time, critics complained that he'd sold out—when he left Atlantic Records, when he got a string section, sang country, went Hollywood, did show tunes. But isn't a lot of that prejudice to do with the externals—the orchestra's tuxedos, the Nashville cowboy getups, a suburban concert hall filled with middle-class white folks? If you can't see any of that, all you can hear, as Ray Charles heard growing up, is the music. "Take Artie Shaw," he said. "I didn't even know he was white. "

In those early days with the trio in Seattle, Charles was trying to sound like Nat Cole, and it didn't work. But other than that, whatever he did sounded like Ray Charles. On "Makin' Whoopee," Dinah Washington's blues inflections and harmonic variations seem unconnected to the material; Charles dropped it several socioeconomic notches below Eddie Cantor, did it low-down and confessional, and wrung every last drop of rueful comic juice from it. On "Eleanor Rigby" the queasy Tony Bennett was so intimidated by the mournful formality of the Beatles original that he declaimed it like a poem he'd been forced to learn for school; Charles's version is tough and personal, up closer to the characters than the Fab Four got. He understood how to find his sound in the most familiar song. The obvious example is "Georgia," which he'd sung for ages in the back of his car to and from gigs until his driver prevailed on him to record it. Hoagy Carmichael and his college roommate, Stu Gorrell, had written it thirty years earlier, and Mildred Bailey did a lovely, warm, sweet record of it. But Charles changed the song. All that soul and all that ache—"The road leads back to yooooooo" at the end of the bridge, and then that falsetto back into the final eight. After Ray Charles you couldn't glide through it the way thirties crooners used to.

He was cool in all genres, and funny in most of them too. He appropriated the music of faith and deployed it in the service of romance: "Talkin' 'Bout Jesus" became "Talkin' 'Bout You"; "This Little Light of Mine" became "This Little Girl of Mine. " "He took the Lord's music and the devil's words and made this amalgam they call soul music," said Jerry Wexler, his producer at Atlantic Records. He added strings to soul, and then did a country album in it.

Was he a nice fellow? Well, you hear the usual stories about stars, and the only difference was that Ray told some of them himself. For his girl group he ran a well-worn casting couch. "You can't be a Raelette unless you let Ray," he'd say with a chuckle. For the first two decades of his career he was a heroin addict, and because he was blind, he required others to shoot him up—a small operational detail that somehow magnifies the self-degradation. For the last two decades the genius coasted on way too many celebrity duets and on synth-pop boilerplate. "I don't mind the women," a colleague of his said to me. "But he's cheating on the music. "

He made two great jazz albums: one instrumental (Charles on Hammond organ with Basie sidemen) and one vocal, with Betty Carter. The second was an instant classic, and promptly went out of print. I had a Japanese LP of it that I used to play all the time in my disc-jockey days. The engineer saw "Alone Together" on the running order late one night and groaned, "God, I hate that song. " I played Ray and Betty's version—two idiosyncratic voices matched perfectly, close-miked, slow and conversational, intense and intimate, the opposite of that raw abandon Charles has on most of his big hits. It's as if they're sprawled on the rug in the dark at the end of a long evening. "Wow," the engineer said at the end. "Now I get it. "

Most of us get Ray Charles at some point in our lives. "'What'd I Say' didn't feel like a big deal at the time," said Tom Dowd, his engineer at Atlantic. "Ray, the gals, and the band live in the small studio, no overdubs. Next!" In pop there's always something next. You move on, and yesterday's hot groove is stone-cold. But forty years on, the party-crowd call-and-response can still "make you feel so good right now. " My favorite Ray Charles album cover is his obligatory Christmas record. It's a big snowbound field in the middle of the woods, with one horse and an open sleigh and, standing on the sleigh holding the reins, a grinning blind man in a slick striped tux, blue shirt, and big bow tie, ready to go dashing through the snow on the wildest ride of all. That's the man in a single image: stick him in the middle of anything, and he still comes up Ray Charles.