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Friday, June 11, 2004

Our Loss --- Ray Charles, Living Legend
 

The Southern Music Network family, its affiliates, audience and sponsors, gather together to mourn the inimitable genius of soul, blues and rock & roll who held us together for decades:  Ray Charles – the man, the music and the voice.

It seems like he has been with us forever and, for most of us, he has.  But his 30-year old rendition of “America the Beautiful” was recirculated into popular culture after The Terrible Day, causing him to declaim passionately, “those terrorists got us on our knees?  Where’s that at?”  A man who had many crosses to bear, many burdens to carry, did it all with hope and cheerfulness for all the decades of his life, including those for which we remember his hits.  His graciousness was one quality he never lost – the joy he demonstrated whether soloing on stage or in the studio, or dueting with vocalists and musicians new or old, true or fake, here today or here back when.

The spirit of Ray Charles lives on in his tremendous and prolific body of work, from “Stella by Starlight” to “Ruby” to explorations into Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, dueting with that classy Cleo Laine on “Summertime.”  Another find by Atlantic Record’s Ahmet Ertegun! We take note that even having won just about every award worth collecting over his long career, earning a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and appearing all over the world, Ray maintained his ever-fresh exhilaration in setting free the harmony, thrill and oneness that wonderful music can bring to an audience, uniting its members in thrall of unique artistry.

And let us not forget who comprised his audience:  not just hip us, but young and old, black, white, Latino, Asian, Aussies, Kiwis and Brits, country and bluegrass peeps, rock and rollers, rappers, blues aficionados, keyboard scholars and jest plain folks.  He was a born performer, and damn mo’scoscious at it.  Middle-class viewers of Lifetime TV got to hear him wail and croon every week when they watched “Designing Women,” didn’t they?  Sure, because “Georgia on My Mind,” as big a hit as “Hit the Road Jack” and “What’d I Say,” was the theme song for that show about “southern wimmen who get to talkin’ in a room.”  Viewers who doubtless didn’t remember Ray Charles and the Raylettes from the mid-60s, when he broke our vulnerable hearts with mega-hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or got us dancing with “I Got a Woman” (“ooheeee, way ‘cross town, she crazee for me).”  Viewers who might not have felt the wolf at the door howlin’ as ferociously as Brother Ray did when he sang “Busted.”

Ray Charles was an artist who could give Little Richard a run for his money in the “originator” of rock & roll category (“Mess Around” -- complete with barrelhouse piano), though he was also a torch singer on the rarified, aint-many-in-a-century level of Judy Garland and Roy Orbison -- check out “Born to Lose,” my peeps.

A musician’s musician – and as surely as our days are numbered, these musicians do grow rarer every month -- Ray Charles died Thursday, June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California.  He put Georgia on our minds, kept it on the map, and we will miss him.
 

“.. to live in memories of a lonesome ….”
Time and Love, everybody,

Jumpsturdy Klieger
New York City


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Ray Charles was born in Albany, Georgia, September 23, 1930. When Ray was six months old, his father, a carpenter, moved the family of three to Greensfield, Florida. "It was a town no bigger than this room. I guess." Asked about the handicap of being blind, he said, "Let's look at it right. If you lost your sight as an adult, you would be a total wreck. But I grew up blind and learned to live with it."

As a young child, Ray's vision was normal. At the age of six. he came down with mumps or measles—he doesn't remember exactly what it was. But, for lack of proper medical attention, complications set in . . . and suddenly, for the six-year-old, the world was all darkness.

His parents put him into a school for the blind at St. Augustine and that was where his musical education began. He learned piano and saxophone. It wasn't easy. Music was written in braille. He would memorize the score, then go back to the instrument and learn to play it.

"I guess I ought to tell you what it was like at home then." he said. "The neighbors would all scold my mother because of the way she treated me. She was kind of scorned for the things she made a blind boy do." She made him wash clothes, scrub, make up beds, iron, even cook.

"Anything that was normal to do, she put me to do," he explained. "She would tell the neighbors. 'One of these days, I won't be with him to help him.' She would tell me, 'You lost your sight, son, but you haven't lost your mind.' She taught me independence. She didn't let me pity myself."

At school, he got a solid foundation in music. The accent was on classical compositions, but Ray listened to popular music on radio. "Sometimes I would put aside my lessons and play for my comfort, my own joy. I'd put the braille aside and try some boogie-woogie or something I'd heard Nat Cole do."

With this natural love of music came the desire to be a musician. It made sense to Ray, but not to others. "The kids called me 'Roc' for my initials. They would say. 'Roc, you're supposed to learn to make brooms, mops and chairs. You can't sing and play the piano. Why don't you just make up your mind to do what other blind kids do?'"

Ray recalled, "I would go off and cry, but I came back more determined than ever. Partly because of my mother. I trusted her. She kept telling me that, if you had a strong enough belief, you could accomplish anything."

At fifteen, Ray Charles lost his mother and then, within the same year, his father. He was alone, with no relatives. "I went out looking for work as a musician. The first band I got into, there was a regular pianist but they would let me sit in near the end of the night."

He worked when he could as a pianist or saxophonist. "Of course, no one had braille arrangements. I would get one of the guys to read off the music and I would write it down in braille, then go back to my room and memorize it. It was a lot of work, but it strengthened my memory, taught me to remember."

Living wasn't easy. He got seven or eight dollars a night—and it was a "helluva good week" if he worked two nights. "The strange thing is that people can learn to live with less. When I had parents, there was all I wanted to eat. But I learned that man can go from day to day on a can of sardines and a few crackers. You just have to remember to save that can until you really need it."

At seventeen, Ray decided to do something on his own and organized his first trio. "I admired Charles Brown and Nat Cole. I imitated them. We began to travel and got as far as Seattle, Washington." There they won a job on a television station, and the trio was the first Negro act to be sponsored in the Northwest.

But then Ray began to have mixed feelings about his music. He wanted to develop a style of his own and he gave it much thought. "It seemed to me a person must play from deep within himself. You do that, and you don't have to worry about originality—because then you are doing what no other man can do, and that is being yourself. They call my music 'soulful' and that's what I think it is. I sing from the soul."

Many music critics have spoken of the spiritual feeling in his style. Some have written that he got his early training in spirituals. "That's not at all true," he told me. "I never sang in choirs. I didn't have time. I was too busy trying to make a dollar to eat. But I'm basically a very religious man and love gospel music and, if you love something, it's bound to rub off."

His wife Delia was singing in a gospel group in Houston, Texas, when he met her. He speaks of her and his family with feeling. Their home is in Los Angeles and he has three sons, the eldest six years. "I've got very definite ideas on how children should be raised," he said. "I'm of the old school and believe they should at all times be respectful. But, most important, I believe the best thing for kids is their parents. We have no maid to help out with the boys, although Delia might get a baby-sitter once in a while. She never goes on the road with me, for I think no outsider—not even an aunt or grandmother—can take the place of a parent."

His blindness hasn't bothered his relationship with his kids. "They like to go to the beach or have a picnic. I like that, too." His hobby at home is working with his intricate audio equipment and he handles all the complicated switches and knobs and buttons himself. And he listens to music, all kinds. "I love to hear certain operas, and I'm only sorry that they aren't in English so that I could get fuller enjoyment from them."

He has had memorable experiences. The first night he played in Carnegie Hall, he brought down the house. He got a sensational welcome at the Hollywood Palladium recently. He remembers Paris with love. "It was almost too much in France. We were scheduled to do only four concerts, but so many turned out that we had to do two more."

He talked about what his career is like these days, behind the ovations and hurrahs. "It never gets easier. It's a struggle when you're trying to get to the top. and with me it wasn't overnight. It was step by step, all the way. And when you get up there, you've got to work even harder to maintain the position. There's always someone else trying to knock you over. I don't regret that part of it. There's always room for improvement in a man. Competition keeps a man from getting lazy."

Ray has refused to compromise the inner feeling about what his music should be. Recently, a movie company gave him a song and offered him $15,000 to record it on a movie track. Ray took the song home —and, the next day, returned the music with his apologies. "I'll tell you what happened. I worked on that song all night. I tried it every different way—as blues, a tango, a waltz, everything—but I couldn't get any feeling out of it. And, believe me, it didn't make me happy to turn down fifteen grand! I'm just not in the position to turn down that kind of money."

He has a reputation for demanding the best from his band—in fact, of being tough; though his sidemen, without exception, are loyal. Yet, away from the bandstand, he is soft-spoken. At no time during our interview was there the slightest trace of self-pity when he spoke of handicaps and hardships. Evident was the dignity instilled by his mother . . . pride in music . . . purposeful integrity. There was no sign of weakness in the man.

Martin Cohen
TV Radio Mirror
February 1962

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