Long before I knew we had so much in common, I knew him as a man and a voice that touched my heart. His voice made me feel like I wanted to love deeper, to care more and reach out and touch the world.________Stevie Wonder
When Ray Charles passed away last week at the age of 73, I felt amiss at not noding a tribute, but inept at granting the praise he so highly deserved. You see Ray Charles meant the world to me; he introduced me to "the feeling" that music everywhere generates. The way music has evolved in the last 50 years has been magnanimous and for me it began with the music of Ray Charles.
The youth of today hardly recognizes that back in the fifties, the sound of rock was just being developed. Before that it was mostly big band, jazz, or the incredible melodic serenading by voices that belonged to Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett (nothing wrong with that). The earliest piece of what would become rock may have been kicked out by Bill Haley and the Comets, but in the fifties in the south, black music took on a whole new taste; and we began to be moved by a different beat, one filled with soul that touched one in the intermost parts of the psyche. Groups like The Drifters, The Coasters, The Pretenders and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were already filling the air waves with music that moved. Then a young fellow raised on the same music, music filled with the guitar twang of the blues, music imbibed with an electrical sensual take that absolutey moved you in a way never experienced before; that's when Elvis arrived and put new notes and moves in a here-to-before unknown path.
I think it was a year or two after that, that one of the most sensational voices to ever vocalize hit the air waves. In Atlanta, where I grew up, a black radio station(WAOK) hosted by an albino African American by the name of Piano Red began playing music by Ray Charles. To use a more recent term, my buddies and myself were blown away. We were enraptured by this groovy rendition that we came to know as soul.
Then came the night none of us would ever forget, May 28, 1959. Mr. Charles was in town for a live concert, to be held in what would come to be known as the hood. In a naturally segregated town at that time, Ray would be playing at a high school football stadium, Herndon, I believe was the name, and on that fatefull night my friends and I attended, we had no problem blending in with a predominately black crowd. We spent many nights at a downtown club called The Royal Peacock to listen to the likes of Ike and Tina Turner. And tonight it was Ray Charles, live and in person and recording said concert for what would become one of his earliest albums entitled Ray Charles in Person, an album I would come to believe on which if you listened hard enough you could hear me scream somewhere during the playing of What'd I Say. Needless to say, we were mesmerized and tranfixed on this blind young man at the piano filling the night air with a most dynamic vioce unlike any others before or since.
Once again, Piano Red and station WAOK were there recording with one microphone a hundred feet in front of center stage, recording for prosperity. Accompanied by the screaming voice of Ms. Marjorie Hendricks backing Ray on such tunes as The Night Time is the Right Time, and certainly that night it was, but it was just the beginning for Ray, just the beginning.
Throughout the next 46 years, Ray Charles touched every variation of musical roots conceivable. When he tackled country, we were a little taken aback, but soon realized, that old voice could make anything sound good, and he did.
From patriotic to jazz to soul to the blues, whatever Ray touched turned to gold and kept his blind eyes shining none-the-less. In the course of those travels and musical variations, Ray taught me to appreciate the beauty of all music. I could never thank him enough, but at least here I can say thanks for allowing me to appreciate Tool as well as Lucinda Williams and Sting and Tupac and Lenny Kravitz and whoever has the courage and the talent to pay it forward and share it with us all, just as you did Ray. Thanks. R.I.P.
Stevie Wonder quote from:http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/19/arts/19charles.html