Ray Charles 1930-2004
The official cause of death was liver failure, according to The Los Angeles Times. Charles had undergone successful hip replacement surgery last fall, and his liver ailment was discovered during his recovery. In April, he worked on a recording of duets with performers from a wide range of genres, and on the 30th of that month made his last public appearance at a ceremony hosted by the city of Los Angeles designating his recording studio as a historic landmark. Failing health caused him to cancel a planned summer concert tour.
He has been fully and deservedly eulogized by mainstream media throughout the world, to an extent that needn't be rehashed here. His achievements—a performing career that spanned six decades, over 60 albums, innumerable hit songs, and dozens of Grammy Awards—comprise a record that will never be equaled. It's impossible to estimate the extent of Charles's contributions to the fabric of American culture. He was rooted in gospel (as a kid, he sang in a Baptist choir) but absorbed every imaginable influence—blues, jazz, swing, rock, country—borrowing from each and enriching them all. Many music writers attribute the emergence of soul music—a catch-all term that encompasses a vast expanse of sub-genres—directly to Ray Charles.
Like all great art, his was both universal and personal. A charter inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Charles is also enshrined in the Country and Western Hall of Fame in Nashville, and was a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient from the Grammy organization. He transcended the barriers of class and color with self-deprecating tales of bad luck and irrepressible lust punctuated by infectious rhythms, his voice as wise as a grandfather's and as intimate as a lover's. Brother Ray connected to his fans both viscerally and emotionally, but the genius of his delivery was that he was always inside your mind.
His life was the epitome of triumph over adversity. Born dirt-poor in Albany, Georgia (a state that in 1979 adopted his version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia" as the state song), Charles saw his brother drown in a backyard laundry tub, and by the age of seven had lost his eyesight to glaucoma. The blindness may have been fortune in disguise, leading to his placement in the Florida State School for Deaf and Blind Children in St. Augustine, where he mastered the piano and many other instruments and learned to read music by Braille.
Orphaned at 15, Charles was living on his own in Seattle at the age of 17, playing in local jazz clubs and beginning to develop his own inimitable style. (Quincy Jones, a giant of music in his own right, was befriended by Charles in Seattle and learned from him the fundamentals of music composition and arranging.) Charles was barely of voting age when "I Got a Woman" began to climb the charts. With music coursing through his veins ("like blood," he would say) and his wagon hitched to a star, Charles's career soared in a long graceful arc that would ultimately affect hundreds of millions of music fans.
I was one of them. My family moved from Oklahoma City to Akron, Ohio in the early 1960s. Home to all the major tire makers—my dad was a mid-level executive for one of them—Akron may have been called "The Rubber Capital of the World." I don't remember. I do remember miserable winters when soot-encrusted slush the color of tepid coffee froze rock-hard for months, sweltering summers when the toxic sky would explode in end-of-the-world science-fiction sunsets, and year-round airborne dust like powdered charcoal that cast its shadow everywhere.
The entire upper Midwest—the Rust Belt—was an industrial wasteland of short horizons and stunted opportunity. Grimmer places existed, but they were hard to imagine. Only a handful of the kids in my high school harbored any hope of college. The future for most consisted of the Army or jail or both, dead-end industrial production jobs, and years of hard drinking and bar brawling. With luck and an alcoholic haze, a few digits could be sacrificed to a punch press, the short route to early retirement on disability.
Adults still firmly in the grip of Eisenhower Era conformity kept the cultural lid screwed down tight. I was a pimply misfit whose urge for something more meaningful—maybe even a way off the fast track to nowhere—led to hanging around a group of kids in a nearby university town, kids slightly older but vastly hipper than I—scruffy streetwise boys and willowy girls with exotic nicknames and the demeanor of European fashion models. They inhabited a parallel universe of foreign films, trendy art, and the latest music. I feigned panache, hoping the sophistication would rub off on me.
The ruse succeeded. One aimless evening wandering the streets of Kent, Ohio, I was invited to an upcoming Ray Charles concert. In Oklahoma, I had seen a couple of country acts from a distance at the State Fair, but apart from a school-sponsored "music appreciation day" that gave a busload of future rivet punchers a snippet of classical music from the local symphony, I'd never been to a real concert. I wasn't yet old enough to drive. My father's love of jazz vetoed my mother's misgivings about my going downtown at night with . . . that arty crowd.
One of the girls wrangled a car from her older brother. There were maybe eight of us jammed in there for the ride into the forebidding heart of darkness that was downtown Akron. We found the auditorium and tried our best to look like we belonged in the sold-out house of very adult and mostly black hipsters. I knew I had entered another world entirely when the curtain rose on Brother Ray, his sparkling suit scattering the spotlight, his big band a phalanx between him and the stunning Raelettes in their shimmering turquoise gowns. They had me from the first note, Ray grinning luridly under his blackout shades, pounding the keyboard as he leaned away, his legs flailing wildly. In that gravelly, world-weary voice, he wailed songs of longing and songs of regret as his horn section swung for the heavens, the Raelettes' angelic voices a narcotic lure of seduction and denial. Eve bit the apple and opened her eyes; Adam stood helpless before her. Moth to the flame, fly to the spider, it all may come to no good in the end. We cannot refuse the dance of love.
The Buddhists say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. That night was just another road show for Ray Charles, one of thousands. For me it was an epiphany. In three hours I learned that the force of life and the force of art are as inseparable as the sky and the sea, that joy and elegance can exist in the midst of squalor and hopelessness, that vision is bestowed not only on the sighted. We came away from the concert transformed—me, in particular, with a feeling of hope that the future might not be a closed system. Still in us, the music lifted us above the grimy streets. The borrowed car floated through Akron as if through a celestial city. We abandoned all pretensions to cool and in hoarse voices sang "Let's Go Get Stoned" all the way home. For me, Ray Charles will always be the brightest star in the firmament. Rest easy, old friend. I can't thank you enough.