Friday, June 11, 2004

Was Ray Charles white?

Very little of the genius of Ray Charles came through on the radio reports of his death. NPR was only slightly better than CBS. The songs they played were parts of "America" "Georgia on My Mind," and "I Can't Stop Loving You." Now these are all great performances. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is one of my personal favorites. But picking these to represent his music misses the mark. These are the Charles' songs most likely to be known to white Americans, but far from being his most important artistic or historical accomplishments. It is the same musical and historical sin as associating Louis Armstrong with "Hello Dolly" or "What a Wonderful World" rather than the epochal cadenza from "West End Blues."

All Music begins its Charles bio with these lines "Ray Charles was the musician most responsible for developing soul music. Singers like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson also did a great deal to pioneer the form, but Charles did even more to devise a new form of black pop by merging '50s R&B with gospel-powered vocals, adding plenty of flavor from contemporary jazz, blues, and (in the '60s) country."

Surely, "What'd I Say" "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hit the Road Jack" or "Unchain My Heart" would have been better selections.

NPR's All Things Considered did play a snippet of "This Little Girl of Mine," but they didn't mention that it was an adaptation of a gospel standard "This Little Light of Mine."

The booklet for the essential Charles box-set The Birth of Soul notes that in the 1950s Atlantic Records, Ray's label, was beginning to have success in crossing over black performers like LaVern Baker and Big Joe Turner to white teenagers. "At this very crucial juncture in Ray Charles' career, a very surprising thing happened. Charles refused to compromise his music with the simpler beat, more adolescent lyrics, and smoother singing that white rock and roll fans seemed to favor. He continued to write, arrange, play and sing from his soul, and his records continued to sell almost exclusively in the black community."

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