June 21, 2004
Around noon today, Thursday, June tenth, I heard the radio in my
home office state that Ray Charles had died. As when Miles Davis died, I
thought, in a near mental SHOUT, "Ray Charles can't die! HE'S RAY
CHARLES!" To me, he has always had a superhuman power in the world,
beyond mortal men. He would go on forever, to my way of thinking.
Forever Ray, Ray Forever.
Ray Charles had as much, probably more, influence on my love of music, and my view/scope of both music and life, as any musician/composer on the planet. "What I Say" (in part one and part two on a 45) was my intro to him in 1959. I was 15. I wore that 45 out, starting with side two, much to my parents' dismay.
As American rock music rather petered out in the very late 50s and very early 60s due to jail, death, bad marriages (you fill in the names -- I know that you know), I picked up on Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. I still have those LPs. They're well worn to say the least. And I bought all the others -- "Genius Hits The Road," "Just For You" (the one with all the ladies names for titles), all the stuff with the white guys producing on that same ABC Paramount label.
Then on a trip to Stanroy's Music in downtown Santa Rosa, I found "Ray Charles -- The Atlantic Years! Volume I and II" and "Ray Charles: Greatest Hits," and took those home, forever changing my vision of music and its purpose in the world and in my life.
I was always color blind. (Hell, I wore out my Sun Records 45 of Carl Perkins doing "Honey Don't" thinking that Carl was black! And that was fine by me.) But Ray was the man who put me on to black music in its full force, way beyond guys like Fats Domino, or Huey Smith or Nat Cole. More importantly, he was also most responsible for me coming to the realization that music was serious business! No more of that pop whitebread shit. Whether Ray was getting low down with "Losing Hand," "Drown In My Own Tears," "Lonely Avenue," or just showing me that you could burn down a bar with "Mess Around" or "Don't You Know,"
Ray Charles was like comparing a shotgun to a slingshot. Nobody else could come close. Songs with real life plights made Ray my soul sociologist, teaching me the ropes of male/female relationships. Songs like "Lonely Avenue," "It Should Have Been Me," "The Outskirts Of Town," "Them That Got," "I've Got News For You," "I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town," "I Got A Woman," "This Little Girl Of Mine"... These are only the beginning of a long list of songs that were my ride into the adult world of the human condition before I'd left my teens.
And for sheer worldly terror, there was "The Danger Zone," written by one of the Mayfields, and sung so plaintively by Ray that I would lie awake at night with those ominous words about nuclear war running through my head. I can still recite the lyrics at will to this day. As my interest in Ray's music grew, I discovered 89 cents bargain bin LPs in the grocery store -- his early recordings where he sounded like a soulful Nat "King" Cole, until he got around to "I'm Goin' Down To The River (and drown myself)," a bluesy screamer with a low down horn section that introduced me to the concept of suicide.
Later in life I discovered his arranging with the Atco recordings of Guitar Slim. You didn't have to read the liner notes to know who was running the show. Pure Ray Charles.
So for me, Ray Charles was far, far more than music. Oh, the music was beyond great. Words can't say what that music was to my heart and mind. But more than that, Ray Charles taught me about life, before I got on to Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf or any of the dozens and dozens of great bluesmen.
A few weeks ago I caught him on that CMT "Crossroads" show with Travis Tritt. I thought to myself how great he looked, how he couldn't quite get to some of those notes anymore, but it didn't matter, because he had soulful music in him so deep that he just let the note go to a place he could still go, with all the power to convey the feeling. Oh, the feeling.
And I wondered how long he could go on, and I wondered what the world would be like without Ray Charles. Now I'm going to have to find out. But I still have his music. So he'll be with me, always.
He was my teacher, and I'll miss him. But he taught me well, and I have all these lessons in life I can refer back to for the rest of my days, and for that I am so very thankful.
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America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Tom Reier is a reader of and contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. This contribution was published in the June 16, 2004 edition of the weekly. It is re-published with the permission of Bruce Anderson, the AVA publisher.
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