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Hallelujah, I Loved Him So

Rest in peace, Brother Ray.

Ray Charles may have been blind, but he could see through more bullshit than any American musician who ever lived. Early on in his career, there were those within his own race who told him that his use of black gospel music to back secular, often blatantly sexual lyrics was a sacrilege. Thank God Brother Ray had the good sense to ignore them, for had he not, we would be without "I Got a Woman," "Hallelujah I Love Her So" and "What'd I Say." Later on, he came under attack from both blacks and whites for releasing the two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Thank God Brother Ray ignored them, too, else we might have missed the definitive versions of "Born to Lose," "Take These Chains From My Heart" and "Making Believe," among others.

"At the time [1963], he was the coolest thing going -- he had 'I Got A Woman,' 'What'd I Say' and 'Hit the Road Jack.' And then he goes and releases a country album with an orchestra?" wonders John Lomax III, a 32-year Nashville music-business pro who happens to be this writer's father. Lomax remembers the time as a dreary one on the American hit parade. Rock was apparently dead -- Elvis was in the Army and the Beatles had yet to break -- and so Lomax, then a teenager in Houston, was listening to a lot of Charles and James Brown on Houston's KCOH and KNUZ. "He did twelve songs and defined every one of them," Lomax says. "Sometimes somebody will come along with one cover that redefines a song, but to do it twelve times on one album is just unbelievable. He made country cool for a whole generation."

Charles had the rare ability to make every song he sang -- no matter how familiar -- not just his own, but also the quintessential version. Take "America the Beautiful." Outside of "Happy Birthday" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and maybe "Amazing Grace," few songs are more familiar, and yet to hear Charles sing it is to hear it for the first time -- and the last, for no other versions can touch it. There are the rarely sung lines he included to suit the times: "Oh beautiful, for heroes proved/In liberating strife/Who more than self, our country loved/And mercy more than life," and "America, America, may God thy gold refine/'Til all success be nobleness/And every gain divine."

Next he introduces the lyrics we are all more familiar with -- the "amber waves of grain" part -- by saying, "And you know when I was in school, we used to sing it something like this, listen here." He concludes by strongly hinting at what a bunch of over-poetic crap that is. Who cares about natural beauty when we can't get along? "But, now, wait a minute, I'm talking about America, sweet America, you know, God done shed his grace on thee/He crowned thy good, yes he did, in brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."

Just listen to him emote and improvise. This is a man who has chosen to be a patriot in spite of having every reason not to be. Growing up in this country in the '30s and '40s, Ray had three strikes against him: He was black, blind and an orphan. And yet later he sang these lines: "You know, I wish I had somebody to help me sing this...America, I love you, America, you see/My God, he done shed his grace on thee/And you oughta love him for it/Cause he, he, he, he crowned thy good/He told me he would, with brotherhood..."

That stammered "he" and the "he told me he would" say it all. He's convincing himself to love his country in spite of its unfulfilled promise. The America he loves ain't there yet, he's saying, but there's no good reason for it not to get there someday. After we get out of Vietnam, perhaps, or that still-to-come day when the Reverend Martin Luther King's dream comes true. In the meantime, all we can do is love our country the way a parent loves a wayward child. And try to change it.

There's only been one occasion I can think of when Ray Charles's version of a standard had some competition, and that's with "Georgia on My Mind." Though wildly different, Willie Nelson's version sometimes suits me just as well as Brother Ray's. The two icons have a huge amount in common. In spite of Ray being called the father of soul (erroneously, I think -- Guitar Slim owns that honor) and Willie being known as a country musician, to me, I have always seen the two of them as being jazzmen at heart. Both have instantly recognizable voices that convey tremendous soul and emotion, and both can phrase so well that neither have ever sung the same song the same way twice. Ray's piano style -- a great warm flood of notes and chords best described in the album title Volcanic Action of My Soul -- is as instantly recognizable as Willie's staccato, offbeat guitar method.

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