“The Genius” sang a song about greenbacks, but he doesn’t belong on one. Those who want a portrait of Ray Charles where Alexander Hamilton is now (almost 4,000 people have signed a digital petition to that effect) haven’t thought enough about what a change like that would entail. You can almost reconstruct their thought process: “Let’s honor a founding father of uniquely American music,” somebody said, just after Ray had the timing enough to die during post-production of a hit movie reminding everyone how great he was.
Then the pickle: denominations associated with Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin don’t circulate widely enough to be used daily by the working class. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln seem untouchable; Jackson cantankerous even from beyond the grave. That leaves only Hamilton, one of the original “best and brightest,” as a candidate for replacement. Sure, he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, but who outside the faculty lounge remembers 1804 anymore? He’s not a dead president. He must have seemed like low-hanging fruit.
But Hamilton’s thought is still influential. Walter Russell Mead and others call it one of the four main streams of American foreign policy. (Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Woodrow Wilson bestowed their names on the other three streams. Jackson and Jefferson already adorn U.S. currency, and Mr. League of Nations Wilson was such an idealist that he’s probably relieved not be on something so pedestrian as a greenback.)
Another pickle: If you change the portrait on a denomination of paper currency, the back of the bill would have to change, also. On the money that most of us see, Washington and Jefferson are special cases, but Lincoln is paired with his own memorial, Hamilton with the Treasury Building, and Jackson with the White House. Ulysses S. Grant ($50) is backed by the Capitol Building, and Ben Franklin ($100) by Independence Hall.
What building do we associate most with Ray Charles? None, because a piano is not a building.
We tried Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony on coinage: both were flops. Even granting that paper currency is more popular than coinage, if their examples are anything to go by, putting Ray Charles on paper money wouldn’t do his legacy any favors.
Moreover, you don’t get to pick and choose from within a legacy while giving lifetime achievement awards. If we put him on the ten (presumably for “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Unchain My Heart,” and “America the Beautiful,” rather than for “Making Whoopee” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”), we ought by rights to put Stephen Foster on the five, Bill Monroe on the twenty, and Elvis Aaron Presley on the fifty.
Were that to happen, fans of Sam Cooke and Maybelle Carter would wonder why those pioneering artists missed the cut. A small but fierce John Phillip Sousa contingent would decry pro-vocal bias at the U.S. Mint. From there, it’s a short step to vanity pressings of “novelty money” honoring non-politicians like cartooning legends Chuck Jones and Charles Schulz.
Won’t happen — and shouldn’t.
Ray’s place in American music doesn’t need official reinforcement. In my mind, he’s linked, however idiosyncratically, with the late, great comic actor John Candy.
Remember the 1987 movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, with John Candy and Steve Martin playing odd-couple salesmen trying to get home for Thanksgiving? One of the best scenes in that uproariously funny film is John Candy gettin’ down with his bad self as he sings and pantomimes playing a saxophone while driving. The reason he’s having such a good time is (1) he’s John Candy; (2) Dell Griffith, “shower curtain ring salesman,” is a lot like John Candy; (3) A Ray Charles hit called “Mess Around” is playing on the car radio (it’s a movie, so radio stations play better music than they do in real life). We get most of “Mess Around” in that scene, and come away knowing that nobody did jump blues any better than Ray Charles. Nobody did gospel or soul or country any better, either.
This doesn’t mean that talent gives Ray or his fans license to demote a Founding Father about whom elementary schools already teach too little. In fact, it’s an overstatement if not a marker of cultural decline to say (as Flip Wilson used to) that Columbus discovered America to bring the world Ray Charles.
John Candy’s movie character had a better approach to Ray’s legacy: Like the unkempt but good-hearted “Dell Griffith” proved just by bopping along with the radio in a rental car, Ray Charles lives on through our minds and our ears, quite independently of whatever else he’s doing in the hereafter.
The Genius doesn’t belong in our billfolds — unless we tuck postage stamps with his likeness on them next to a stray “Hamilton” or two.