A Pillar of Soul
From the vantage point of 50 years into the future, it is perhaps incomprehensible for folk to truly understand the revolution that was Ray Charles Robinson. In a black world defined by talented-tenths and black-belt denizens, Ray Charles cut through the divide -- his third eye intact -- intuitively understanding that the Saturday night sinner was all too often the Sunday morning saved. Indeed the very foundations of Soul -- and every form of American music that has sprung from it -- were laid the moment Charles opened his mouth to sing the first note of "I Got a Woman" (1954). What Charles did was not unprecedented -- a fellow named Georgia Tom worked the reverse route, bringing those melodies that he so lovingly played behind Ma Rainey to church with him, in the process becoming Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of Gospel music. And the cats who were up in the juke-joint the night before would coyly smile, all the while praising the "lawd." But when Uncle Ray flowed the opposite way, using those same melodies and rhythms to "church" the secular world, no doubt more than a few upstanding Negroes thought it was blasphemy.
That first breakthrough, "I Got a Woman," was in fact based on "Let's Talk About Jesus," a 1951 hit for the Bells of Joy, so imagine the surprise when folks turned on their radio to find out their "Sweet Jesus" was now sweet Sally. A year later Charles took it a step further with "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (1955). Both recordings were major hits among black audiences and very quickly made Charles the best known Rhythm and Blues artists of his era (there really wasn't even the language to call this Soul music yet). For Charles the idea of "church" had nothing to do with organized religion, per se, but everything to do with tapping into the well of black spirituality. Charles understood that black spirituality had real-world connotations, even as it was being informed by other-worldly desires. When Charles finally broke through to white audiences in 1959 with "What I'd Say" he had proved that mainstream America was ready to be "churched" and folk like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls and so many others who came up "church" took notice. American music has not been the same since -- a fact that was acknowledged when Charles was included among the inaugural inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And just as so many others would come to benefit from the foundation he laid -- most notably Ms. Aretha -- Charles switched up mid-stride, changing record labels (from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount) and venturing into undiscovered Country (literally) and ultimately conquering the terrain, then known as C&W (Country and Western music). And of course some would say that Brother Ray had sold out, but you have to sit down and hear those songs. First it was Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) -- a song that sentimentally aches for the "Old South" just as Civil Rights marchers were trying to rip the South a new one, and damn if it's not like listening to the Soul of black folk. Twenty years later, the state of Georgia named Charles' version the official state song. Two years later Charles is singing songs like "I Can't Stop Loving You" (his first song to top the pop and R&B charts) and "You Don't Know Me" (both from an album called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), making it apparent that Brother Ray wasn't selling out, but selling Soul -- humanizing a nation that had for so long dehumanized black folk. By the time Charles records his version of the Southern favorite "You Are My Sunshine" (for volume two of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music) it is clear that this is a black musical artist who had crossed-over in a way that was unprecedented.
But Charles remained rooted to the music that birthed him throughout his career. It's a sound heard clearly on tracks like "Let's Go Get Stoned" (one of the first writing credits for Ashford and Simpson), "In the Heat of the Night" (from the movie soundtrack produced by his old running partner Quincy Jones) or the funky "Booty Butt" (1970). A perfect example is his surprise appearance on stage with Aretha Franklin during her career-defining recording Live at the Filmore West. Midway through their rendition of "Spirit in the Dark" Franklin turns to Charles and offers her seat at the piano -- "Why don't you sit right here and take this from me"-- and as Charles does his thing on the electric piano, Ms. Aretha chimes "It's funky up in here" as the crowd pushes towards frenzy. It is one of those singular moments in the history of black music -- like when Coltrane and Duke went to the studio to record "In a Sentimental Mood" (1963) or when Marley and Stevie stood on stage together at Madison Square Garden in 1979 or when James Brown and Fela Kuti broke down Diasporic Funk when JB was in Nigeria in 1973 or every-time Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews and Shirley Caesar walked on-stage as the Caravans. When you realize that Franklin and Charles had a bunch of Haight-Ashbury hippies doing the soul clap, indeed it was a metaphor for the Soul that saved a nation.
And it was in singing about this nation -- "America the Beautiful" -- that Charles perhaps made his most important artistic and political statement. Charles' version of "America the Beautiful," like Marvin's "Star Spangled Banner," was never about simply celebrating the opportunities afforded to the progeny of the formerly enslaved, but about taking ownership of the ideals of American Democracy -- "Heroes proved in liberating strife" as Charles sings in that first verse -- and consistently striving to be the moral conscience of this nation (please take a bow, Rep. Barbara Lee). Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful" represents a symbolic moment for African Americans -- a moment when African Americans took control of this nation's spirit, much the same way Charles himself took ownership of our most beautiful patriotic anthem.