WBGO Champions of Jazz 2018 - May 01

Newark Public Radio

 our honorees remember ray charles 

Exit the Genius

Excerpt from Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen, reprinted with permission of the author


Our next subject is entitled to his customary introduction: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Genius…the Genius of Ray Charles!


When Ray Charles died in 2004, we came to the end of American culture as we had known it. By alchemically combining elements of the sacred and the secular – basic country blues, club blues, country-and-western music, black gospel, the bebop of Charlie Parker and the canon of American standards – Brother Ray, musically speaking, solved the mind-body problem.


Ray’s first models were the slick, popular trios of Nat Cole and, especially, Charles Brown. After a brief period of mimicry, he shook off Brown’s twee, club-style delivery and found his own confident physicality that combined the Chicago cool of Cole with the passion of the black Baptist church. In other words, he decided to be Ray Charles. This could not have been that obvious a move for an ambitious black entertainer in 1952. Ray brought soul out of the closet.


At a recording session on November 18, 1954, Ray famously hijacked a gospel tune and, as he used to put it, “replaced God with a woman.” The result, “I Got a Woman” – followed by “Drown in My Own Tears,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “What I Say” and so many others – rescued a generation from the deadly, neurotic suppression of feeling that had afflicted the nation after World War II. Two years later, “I Got a Woman” appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album. Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.


The Ray Charles Effect was not limited to popular music. Ray’s big and small bands (Ray did the arrangements, singing each man his part) had a huge influence on the direction jazz was to take in the fifties, a movement the unimpressed French critic Andre Hodier used to call the “funky hard-bop regression.” Horace Silver, Count Basie’s “atomic” band, Charles Mingus, every funky artist on Blue Note – they all owed Ray Charles. Quincy Jones was a Seattle teenager when Ray moved to that city in 1948:


Ray showed up, and he was around sixteen years old [actually, Ray was at least eighteen by then] and… he was like God, you know! He had an apartment, he had a record player, he had a girlfriend, two or three suits. When I first met him, you know, he would invite me over to his place. I couldn’t believe it. He was fixing his record player. He would shock himself because there were glass tunes in the back of the record player then, and the radio. And I used to just sit around and say, “I can’t believe you’re sixteen. You’ve got all this stuff going.” Because he was like… a brilliant old dude, you know. He knew how to arrange and everything. And he… taught me how to arrange in braille, and the notes. He taught me what the notes were, because he understood.


Ray’s soul revolution ran parallel to, and interacted with, the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. In the more militant seventies, the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone took over to provide a more obvious soundtrack. Ray’s attempts to jump on the funkwagon were halfhearted. The new black sound was colder and right up in your face, based, in fact, on a smaller division of the beat. James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Barry White seemed less interested in pleasing a woman than in collecting body parts. In contrast, Ray’s sage interpretation of “America the Beautiful” (1972) was at once a taunt, a healing gesture and a blind man’s dream of the Promised Land. Perhaps a eulogy as well. Ray’s work, even in decline, was always wiser and subtler than that of the new breed. It was music for adults.


For me, though, and a generation of suburban boomers, Ray was the Professor of Desire, and “Georgia on My Mind” – square-ass backup singers and all – just may have been the most beautiful three minutes and thirty-nine seconds in all of twentieth-century music.

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