Amidst all the media hoopla surrounding the death of former President Ronald Wilson Reagan in recent days, an American musical treasure bid his final farewell on Thursday, June 10th when Ray Charles, one of the greatest voices of twentieth century music, died at the age of 73.
His musical legacy and influence is almost impossible to calculate. He was a man who embraced a wide variety of styles, forging a musical identity so instantly recognizable and emotionally arresting that one can't imagine what the American musical landscape would be without him.
The precise origins of rock and roll are difficult to pinpoint. In the 1950's, the form of music which became rock and roll were an amalgam of different American musical strains--blues, country, gospel and R&B--which found a collective voice as diverse as the ethnic makeup of the nation that produced it. Such music could only emerge from pluralist, democratic society and no one embodied this spirit as well as the late Ray Charles, who, over the course of his career, managed to weave these various influences into a coherent body of work while becoming a cultural icon.
Nowhere is this better represented than Ray Charles--The Birth of Soul: The Complete Rhythm and Blues Recordings (Atlantic). Released in 1991, these sides, cut for Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records between 1951 and 1960, are where Charles got his rep for being one of the most dynamic and influential musicians of our time.
The three-disc set charts the course of the man who took gospel out of the church by the roots and planted it in the juke joint, making African American sacred music part of the pop music lexicon. The hair-raising shouts, the rapturous call-and-response and the soulful zeal normally reserved for Sunday morning became a catalyst for the celebration of earthly desire, the mourning for the loss of love and a defiant, rebellious yawp from the rooftops for the oppressed with grooves so thick that you could lose your shoes as you dance across the room.
All of this was deliciously subversive in the button-down 1950's, when the alteration of sacred musical forms for Charles' purposes was considered blasphemous. From Galileo to Charlie Parker, most major historical, scientific and cultural revelations have been considered by the Powers That Be as an affront to God, social order, and decency. This stamp of disapproval has proven to be a pretty good benchmark for work worthy of consideration. Charles' Atlantic sides are never lewd or obvious. They express a wide range of human emotions with exuberance almost too big to fit in your stereo speakers.
Track-by-track analysis would be futile. Let this music wash over you. It cleanses and transcends, stirs up the humours and takes over your central nervous system the way music is supposed to. It makes you jump for joy at the richness and abundance of life and cry for sins you never committed. It transcends racial divisions and appeals to the commonality of human existence. Listen to this collection and you'll realize why the passing of Ray Charles is such a loss to the world. You'll see that Uncle Ray had a more positive effect on the world than any politician ever could.
Read NT's review of the book"Brother Ray--Ray Charles' Own Story" by Ray Charles & David Ritz.