Ray Charles: 1930-2004


June 11, 2004


There was always a wonderful moment of sheer joy and pure attitude in Ray Charles' best songs, a seemingly parenthetical aside when the devilishly playful life force of this American treasure could be glimpsed in full effect.

I last basked in its glow in December 2002, when the legendary musician played a short but sweet set to a sadly half-empty house at the UIC Pavilion.

The quintessential Ray Charles moment came at the end of one of his best-known standards, a song by Hoagy Carmichael that the then-72-year-old singer must have performed a thousand times during his career, but which he invested with as much passion as if he'd just discovered it and claimed it as his own.

"Georgia's . . . on . . . my . . . mind," Charles crooned in the final verse of the last chorus, dramatically and seductively drawing out each syllable. Then came that million-watt grin and the unforgettable toss-off.

"Ain't she!" he cracked.

Resplendent as always in a neatly pressed tux and his ever-present black Ray-Bans, Charles was well aware of his iconic status across the wide breadth of the American musical landscape. He did nothing to discourage the acolytes who hailed him as "the Genius," nor should he have.

The Georgia native began his career emulating the smooth jazz of Nat "King" Cole in the late 1940s. He came into his own pursuing two different paths in the '50s, singing about the joys of heaven in his gospel recordings and the pains of life on earth in his traditional blues. He was hailed for releasing two volumes of his "Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music" in the mid-'60s, while in between, he took time off for detours into instrumental jazz.

But Charles was at his best when he was merging all of these diverse sounds at once, and it was with rollicking, piano-driven, genre-blurring eruptions such as the 1959 single "What'd I Say" that he helped give birth to rock 'n' roll.

"He created rock 'n' roll as much as Chuck Berry or Little Richard or anybody," the late rock critic Lester Bangs wrote. "He practically drew up the blueprints for an entire era of gritty Stax R&B, and nobody ever wrenched their way deeper into the soaring terror of the blues."

Having evolved in concert from the call-and-response between Charles and his female backup singers, the Raeletts, "What'd I Say" was derided at the time of its release for its raw sexuality, and dismissed by one prominent jazz critic as "tasteless vulgarity." But it became Charles' first Top 10 pop hit, as well as a No. 1 hit on the R&B charts. And from the perspective of this rock fan, it stands as his finest moment.

Charles' recording career was never the same after he was busted for heroin in the mid-'60s. From that point on, his shows became more Las Vegas, and his music veered toward the middle of the road. He didn't play "What'd I Say" the last time I saw him, but there was another classic Ray Charles moment, and it sheds light on the other great aspect of his legacy.

It's no exaggeration to say that the artist did as much as his friend Martin Luther King Jr. to foster understanding and bring people of different races together in this country.

If the current generation of young Americans knows Charles primarily for his appearance in a Pepsi commercial, the last remembers him for dueting with Kermit the Frog. He performed "It Ain't Easy Being Green" at the UIC Pavilion, and that night, this children's ditty about pride in one's individuality became something much deeper and more powerful -- a comment on race, understanding and acceptance.

"I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow, or gold," he sang. Then came that smile again. "Or something much more colorful like that."

His meaning was crystal clear, and the appreciative crowd roared its approval.