Ray Charles was always on the radio when I was growing up, so at first it was easy to take him for granted. By the time I was old enough to appreciate what Charles was doing his hits weren’t “I Got A Woman,” but “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” At some point somewhere around the end of my teenage years, I acquired a copy of one of his earliest albums, I Got A Woman on Atlantic.
That was it. I can’t remember whether it was “Mess Around,” “A Fool For You” or “Drown In My Own Tears,” but whatever it was clicked in and I realized that Charles was perhaps the greatest singer I’d ever heard – a realization that never changed.
As I found myself increasingly immersed in music, whether rhythm and blues, country, or rock and roll, I realized what a huge part Charles played. What we know as Soul Music wouldn’t have happened without him. While there were many others who played a part, he was the guy who took swing, blues and gospel and put it all together. And on top of it, he was an amazing piano player. The word genius that appeared on many of his album covers truly applied.
As a singer, Ray Charles had that indefinable magic that came from somewhere else. Only a few have it, and he had it to spare. Just take his version of “America The Beautiful.” It’ll never be topped. And while there have been many great versions of “Georgia On My Mind,” that song will always belong to Charles period – and every singer who’s covered it since he recorded it knows it.
I first saw Ray Charles in ’72 or ’73 at the Latin Casino just across the river from Philly in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The Latin was the kind of nightclub that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. At the time, only the biggest stars such as Sinatra played there. You were served dinner and then saw a show. Due to making reservations under the family name of my roommate at the time, we were accorded a stage-side table, directly in front of where Charles would sit at the piano.
Bobby Blue Bland opened the show, and this was long before his attempt at shouting turned into the weird throat-clearing noise of the ’80s. Bland at his best is way up there as far as I’m concerned, but when Ray Charles came out it was something else entirely. Here was a true master, who was everything you imagined and wanted him to be – that famous way he rocked back and forth at the keyboards. His orchestra was faultless, and there are only a few other bands I’ve seen that matched them in precision, tightness and still being soulful at the same time. He did a few songs before bringing out the Raeletts, and once they appeared the show rocked and rocked hard. The show was all hits of course, but every part was amazing. And the thing was you knew he’d been doing this exact same show for years and it was still amazing. I saw him a couple of times after that, once from a distance at a street festival in downtown Wilmington, and it was still incredible. But it was that first show that’s the memory I’ll cherish. For year’s after, in fact until this sad afternoon, whenever someone would ask me, “Should I go see Ray Charles,” my answer was always an unqualified “Yes!”
Ray Charles was the kind of entertainer – and as much as he was a beyond brilliant musician, he was an entertainer who always put out. I don’t think the thought occurred to him not to deliver. It would have gone against everything that he was.
The last time I saw Charles was a year ago (maybe to the day) on TV, when he inducted Van Morrison into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. I knew Van Morrison a long time ago, and I knew that for him, there could be no higher honor than that, let alone being on a stage with the man who was his chief inspiration.
Today, as the United States is in some absurdist dream state of mourning, I can’t help feeling that the flags should be at half-staff for someone else. Someone who truly contributed. It’s one of the oldest clichés around, but Ray Charles really could have sung the phone book, and I would’ve listened.