I just heard on the radio that Ray Charles died. Damn — damn — damn! Ronnie and Ray in the same week.
Of course, Ronnie did a lot more for the country, but Ray was a great communicator in his own way. Ronnie could tell a story or a joke or deliver a speech like no one before or since. And Ray could make a song his own. They were both great stylists. Both had phrasing that was like no one else’s. Both understood America — both had oceans of soul.
There were plenty of times the Old Cowpoke brought a lump to our throats in his speeches. And Ray could do the same with one of the songs he owned — “America the Beautiful.” I remember seeing Ray on the tube once at some open air concert in a large, antiseptic stadium during the daytime. I can’t remember what the event was, but it was hardly a venue for working up much in the way of emotion. But then Ray cut lose with “America.” When he was done there wasn’t a dry eye in the place and probably not many out in TV land either. God indeed shed a lot of grace on Ray.
I’ve been a Ray Charles fan since high school days — those innocent days when Ike was snoozing in the White house and all our parents had to worry about was whether we were somewhere dancing to “What’d I Say.” How much of a ripple could, “She knows how to shake that thing” cause now? The Brownies are probably singing racier stuff.
Ray was great on R&B and gospel and soul and jazz — “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Busted.” But he could also soar on ballads like “Ruby,” or Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” (which Ray co-owned with Willie Nelson), or even country. In the early sixties he did two great albums of country classics: “Your Cheating Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Take These Chains From My Heart,” “You Don’t Know Me.” And then there was the occasional triumph that was its own category, like “Seven Spanish Angels.” Name it, and Ray could sing it and make your believe it and feel it.
Ray couldn’t see with his eyes. But he could surely see into our hearts. He’ll be missed, but he can’t be replaced. I sure hope Willie Nelson and Stan Musial are feeling OK. America has a lot of originals, but I don’t want us to lose all of them this month.