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By Lauren Wise
Charles could do it all--sing, write, arrange and play a variety of instruments. He could hold his own with accomplished jazz players. (He even made fine jazz albums such as Soul Brothers, his collaboration with vibraphonist Milt Jackson.) Still, Charles always liked a direct, emotional song, no matter the style.
His scraped-raw voice unifies a catalogue of songs that would have seemed jarringly disparate before he came along. Charles' genius has been to hear through the style labels--country, jazz, blues, pop--to the emotional core of each song, and then to rearrange the songs so that they sounded like they were written for him.
"Georgia on My Mind" virtually became his theme song after he recorded it in 1960. It became his first No. 1 pop hit, and, as biographer David Ritz notes, it changed Charles' career. After that, he hardly ever wrote again, preferring to interpret other people's songs. "Georgia" also served notice that the rhythm-and-blues marketing ghetto wasn't big enough to hold his talent and that the mainstream was going to have to make room.
When, contrary to the wishes of his advisers, he decided to do an album of country tunes in 1962, he turned "I Can't Stop Loving You" into a lesson on the bond between soul and country. Modern Sounds in Country and Western is one of the must-have albums of Charles' career, and it was a groundbreaking crossover success upon its release.
Let a Buddy Rich sneer all he wanted about how bad and out of tune country music was; Charles played good music, in tune, and still remained faithful to country's dirt-under-the-fingernails sentiments.
And just as John Coltrane transformed "My Favorite Things" from a cute Sound of Music ditty into a vehicle for profound musical contemplation, Ray Charles brought complexity to "America the Beautiful." Recorded in 1972, a year when racial strife and antiwar fervor made the American landscape look anything but beautiful, Charles' version cried out for a brotherhood that still hasn't materialized.
"If you travel around the world, you know that we have our faults," Charles once said, "but when you break it down, it's still the best country in the world. That's why people will die to get here."
Charles' early poverty helped make him fond of making money, and his love for America is at least partly the function of having the freedom to make riches his mother could only dream of. The part of him that hates hype will remind you that he's in show business, and that he's playing a role.
His shows are rituals now, predictable even.
Yet Charles, who turned 67 on September 23, is a performer who can make all the calculation of show biz disappear simply by catching his throat on a memorable tune. As Lionel Richie noted during Charles' participation in the "We Are the World" sessions, pretty much anytime you put a microphone in front of the man, you seem to get a definitive performance.
Like the best actors, Charles touches an inner well of genuine feeling to get the audience to buy in, to believe that this man is being sucked into an emotional maelstrom that will end only when he sounds the final note of a song.
Then, anything but helpless, he'll start the next one. As always, you've got no choice but to get out of his way.