Ray Charles 1921-2004
Ray Charles died on June 10th at age 73. One of the few truly monumental figures in American music, any summing up of his talents and accomplishments seems to diminish what he did. Blind since childhood and raised in poverty, Charles conquered the worlds of rhythm & blues, country and pop music. His songs and his ideas are heard in virtually all American music today.
But for many of us, it's like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Ray Charles' influence is so pervasive that it's hard for us to conceive of the American musical landscape before he arrived. But try imagining what "What'd I Say" sounded like in a musical universe dominated by Mitch Miller and Doris Day. Try to imagine how shocking his sobbing, despairing version of "That Lucky Old Sun" would've sounded…well, anytime. Simply put, he changed everything. And it wasn't just that he combined black music with white music, gospel and secular, Stephen Foster and barrelhouse blues, etc. He created music with all these elements and more, and it was complex without sounding complicated or fussy. It's not an overstatement to say that what Mark Twain was to American literature, Ray Charles was to American music. He was that important and his work is that indestructible.
In his heyday he was reviled by the church and shunned as a drug addict by polite society. He seemingly didn't give a damn about trends or fads in music. Like Roy Orbison, James Brown or Iggy Pop, he just went his own way, more or less oblivious to what was happening in the outside world, and when he was on-stage you knew he was the king.
But by the time we found him, he was coasting, turning up in movies and commercials, and singing "America The Beautiful" on the 4th of July. He never jumped on the rock & roll bandwagon, so he seemed like even more of an anachronism. But if you dug deeply enough, if you bought used LPs of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music or Crying Time, you discovered another world created by another sensibility. You could concentrate on the piano licks and be amazed; it wasn't just some pastiche of blues, gospel and jazz but something new that embraced all of them. You could focus on the voice that sounded like it had experienced the most brutal pain, and maybe the pain was gone now but it had left its mark forever. Or you could concentrate on the horn charts, the big band jazz of "Let The Good Times Roll" or the simple chords that punched "Busted" into R&B history. It was all there with a stately dignity that didn't throw itself at you. Because it never had to—you would find it sooner or later, even way out here at the wrong end of the telescope.
As Leonard Cohen wrote in Beautiful Losers, "The moon occupied one lens of his sunglasses, and he laid out his piano keys across a shelf of the sky…as though they were truly the row of giant fishes to feed a hungry multitude." Thanks for the loaves and fishes, Ray, and for all the other miracles.