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Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Genius Hits the Road (Jack)
There are icons, and then there are icons: Ray Charles died this afternoon at age 73. It won't do to underestimate his impact on American music--more than 50 years ago, he was the first to add a gospel sensibility to rhythm and blues, and people were absolutely scandalized--and mesmerized--by it. His 1960 hit, "What'd I Say," rocks as hard as anything he (or anybody) ever recorded, and 44 years later it still sounds so fresh that it could have been recorded last week. Shortly thereafter, Ray tackled country music--his version of "I Can't Stop Loving You" from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is still a standard, as is "Georgia on My Mind" from about the same period.

The hits were fewer after the mid 1960s, and by the 1980s, Ray was the George Foreman of his generation--a ubiquitous, affable celebrity whose days of maximum cultural importance were behind him. His most famous work since the '60s might be his Diet Pepsi commercials: "You've got the right one baby, uh huh." Two years ago, The Mrs. and I saw Ray perform at Summerfest in Milwaukee. He went on late and moved slowly on stage, but could still get it on. His performances of "What'd I Say" and "Georgia on My Mind" that night have to rank with Paul McCartney singing "Yesterday" and Steve Winwood singing "Gimme Some Lovin'" on my list of all-time greatest live rock-and-roll moments.

But the song I'm linking to this afternoon is Ray's version of "America the Beautiful" from 1972. This was already going to be in heavy rotation this week as part of Ronald Reagan's funeral observances, but now it's even more meaningful. When I was on the radio, I played "America the Beautiful" whenever I could on patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and July 4 and it would blow out the phones. It starts with a martial snare drum and horns, and you think it's not going to be a very big deal (indeed, the album it came from is full of mostly average renditions of other patriotic songs), but then that gospel-flavored organ kicks in and Ray begins to testify, and before he's done, you feel so much love for your country--and for Ray himself--that your heart can barely hold it all.

So long, Brother Ray. You mattered, and you always will.

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