Today I pay my respects to one of the most towering figures in American history. This man broke down a great wall, united people, inspired millions, and lifted spirits all over the globe. He was a leader like no other. Yes, he was sui generis. Brave, eloquent, charismatic, yet simple in a profound way; accessible, as we say in Hollywood. The man I write about is, of course, the one and only… Ray Charles.
(Anyone who thinks I’d write a tribute to that right wing Chauncy Gardner, aka Ronald Reagan, just doesn’t know me very well. Reagan, properly described as, “an amiable dunce,” supervised the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, eviscerated the middle class—the glue that holds America together, ushered in a stable of racist right wing nuts, bankrupted the country, and was the creator of the modern Republican Party—a festival of intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and religious fanaticism.)
Mr. Ray Charles created, by knocking down the wall between gospel and blues, a brand new art form that would change America: Rhythm and Blues. Yes, it’s true. Ask anyone in music who is the true architect of the musical form that brought races together. It was Ray. No greater American musical artist ever lived.
Up until the early 50ties, music, like America was separated. Even within black music, this separation existed. There was the unexpurgated joy of gospel music, rythmic, “jumping” gospel that would make people stomp in the aisles of colored churches. And then there was blues… music that spoke to pain and loss. This deep, heavily bassed music was so profound that, as one bluesman pronounced, “the more you sing, the sadder you get.”
Ray Charles came out the church, but he brought these two worlds together: The rhythmic joy of gospel and the deep, soulful pain of the blues. And when he put them together, he created rhythm and blues. Just listen to “What I say.”
Ray was the music of my youth. My old man used to wake up at 5 a.m. and put Ray on. For much of my youth, I thought Ray was the voice of God. I hated him. And like everything else, as you get older, you realize how wise your folks are/were.
“You Don’t Know Me,” “Born To Lose,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine” “Unchain My Heart.” His songs were/are emblems. Anyone wishing to know what it is to be black in America has only to listen to a few of his songs and then you’ll know.
So, tonight, I play Ray into the night and think about how lucky I am to have actually seen him perform and take my lessons from his magical sermons.