The Real Genius of Ray Charles

It was a fitting moment in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan honored Ray Charles at Washington's Kennedy Center as one of the top performing artists in America. Reagan and Charles -- the background of two American icons could not have been more dissimilar. Charles: black, blinded at an early age, fatherless, a high school drop out, Deep South born, battled and overcame a drug addiction, and Reagan: white, Northern born, middle class, rose to Hollywood stardom and the presidency, and battled Alzheimer's disease. The two were linked in memory when Charles died the day before Reagan's state funeral. The link was forged even earlier when Charles sang "America the Beautiful" at the Republican National Convention in 1984. At the convention, Reagan got the bid for a second presidential run.

But there was an even more important link. Charles smashed musical and racial barriers, and Reagan smashed political and ideological barriers that changed the shape of present day America.

The man with the two first names stretched across the seemingly impregnable racial fault line in the 1950s to entertain, touch and inspire whites. Reagan may have even hummed a Charles tune or two at one time. Charles became a living symbol of the sheer power of innovative music to expose and overcome the ugly racial bigotry of those days. I saw firsthand how Charles cut through the racial barrier of the times. There were only a handful of blacks at the high school I attended on Chicago's South Side in the early 1960's. Many of the white students there were hostile, some violently hostile, or indifferent to the black students. Yet on more than one occasion, I can remember a student humming one of the then popular Ray Charles tunes, "Hit The Road Jack," or "Busted." The times in later years I saw Charles in concert, there were always as many, if not more, whites and non-blacks, than blacks in the audience. The rapture they felt for Charles and their deep appreciation of his music pulsated through the concert halls.

The list of white artists that recorded Charles' standards or paid homage to him as the musician who had a profound influence on them reads like a who's who of popular music from Elvis Presley to Elton John. In the 1950s, Charles' crossover hits "I've Got a Woman," "A Fool for You," and "What'd I Say," virtually relegated to the scrp heap the patronizing and silly notion that whites wouldn't listen to or buy music by black artists unless spruced up, sanitized, and whitened by an Elvis or a Buddy Holly. Charles opened the door that made it respectable, even obligatory, for top white artists to record popular, or even long forgotten standards by a long procession of black Blues and R&B artists. These were the men and women, shamelessly exploited by white record companies, shyster agents and promoters, and who wound up broke, down and out and forgotten. A few got a final bounce in the 1960s and 1970s, when they appeared on concert tours with popular white groups, or as in the case of Charles, recorded duets with popular white artists.

Charles also smashed musical and racial barriers in 1963 with his wildly successful, and pioneering album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album featured a small orchestra and it chalked up four top 10 hits. Before Charles cracked that barrier, the country music scene was seen and regarded by many blacks and whites as the exclusive preserve of white, rural Southern singers. Black C&W singers are no longer rarities on the country music circuit.

During his life, Charles was showered with mountains of musical awards and honors, but the honor that he often said meant as much if not more to him than the others was the Georgia state legislature's adoption of "Georgia On My Mind" as the official state song. That was more than racial symbolism. It typified the deep social and racial transformation that the South and America had undergone in the decades since Charles' birth in Georgia in 1930. A transformation that Charles had much to do with.

While America owes a colossal debt to Charles for helping change the social and musical tapestry of the nation, Charles recognized that he in turn owed a debt to America for recognizing his artistry and its importance. The rendition of "America The Beautiful" that he sang at the 1984 Republican Convention became an impassioned hymn of praise of America's freedoms and a fervent plea to America to fulfill its pledge of justice and equality for all. That a poor, blind, black kid from the segregated Deep South could do so much to shape, mold, and change America was and always will be the real and enduring genius of Ray Charles.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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