Ray Charles, who died yesterday, was never president of the U.S. of A. No state funeral for him. He was a different kind of president — “The Genius,” as many called him. For me, he was the unforgettable President of Soul.
I still remember a show he did one snowy winter night in 1963 in a dingy old movie palace in downtown Syracuse, N.Y. The audience was sparse. Bitter cold had kept people away. But the great Ray Charles didn’t seem to care. He sang his heart out. Turned that hall into the warmest place for miles around.
Nineteen years later, in the spring of 1982, I reviewed a show he did in Chicago at the posh Drury Lane Theater. The place was jammed. “Give me Ray Charles any time, even when he’s 52 and going gray,” I wrote. The show opened with a driving 17-piece band blasting out a medly of upbeat swing and bop. Tunes like “Road Rat” and “Woody And Boo.” There were 13 horns. They hit some gorgeous Miles Davis notes on “Spain” and then left it to the man.
Ray Charles came out in a plaid tuxedo, black patent leather shoes and the black, wrap-around sunglasses he always wore, greeting the crowd with that million-watt, wrap-around smile. Then he was led to a white grand piano, its top off. He beganwith “Busted” and “Georgia on My Mind,” “Be Mine” and “You Don’t Know Me.” It almost didn’t matter what he sang. His direct emotional appeal was that overpowering.
You could hear the blues-shout style of the South, which was the deepest part of him. He knew city bebop as well, and country rhythms. He even put spice into a whitebread tune like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” He mixed the foot-stompers with the ballads: “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” “Don’t Change on Me.” He even did a yodel or two.
Ray Charles sang 14 songs. He was gorgeous to watch. He never stopped enjoying himself. His feet never stopped moving. And his cracked voice stirred something beautiful in all of us that night. “Soul music,” he once told Ralph Gleason, “is like a cross between church music and modern jazz with a flavor of rhythm ‘n’ blues mixed in. That’s all.” That was enough.
Listen to him. (Scroll to “Photos, Audio” and click.)