Ray Charles Hits the Road 

Thursday, Jun 24 2004

Ray Charles did not seem happy to be dead. Mouth closed, of course, no big teeth flashing out, he looked waxy and diminished, not (as people think corpses should) natural and restful. The unease had something to do with the wraparound sunglasses they put on him — he probably never wore them sleeping.

But he always wore them in public, and in public he lay, entertaining the people horizontally at the Convention Center last Thursday. “We are hoping for a big turnout,” a publicist had said, and yes, over the red carpet and past the flowers and pictures and casket, Charles drew a pretty good stream.

Accompanied by many living celebrities the next day at the First AME Church on South Harvard Street, however, Charles was a bigger attraction. More coverage, more cops, more choppers.

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Funerals are for the living, if not in this case for Charles’ family, who didn’t get to hear words of praise for the man as a community member, father of 12 and mensch. Friday’s media-op was a stage for different agendas.

One priority was the tacit acknowledgment of what this particular entertainer, an orphan who came from nothing, represented. The preponderance of black faces both days bore witness to a deep recognition: Without this blind/colorblind musician’s bridge building — from gospel to R&B to jazz to pop and even to country — during the crucial period of the ’50s and ’60s civil rights movement, American integration would have been an even tougher slog. Stevie Wonder got murmurs of approval when he said, “Ray was not able to outlive hate and injustice”; Wonder’s unfettered vocal skyrocketing on “I Won’t Complain” had everybody’s eyes misting. Even Clint Eastwood’s stiff tribute — to Charles the entertainer, Charles the teacher and Charles the worker — resonated with real substance.

But there was stranger stuff going on, too; the funeral felt like a platform for penitence and forgiveness. The Rev. Jesse Jackson couldn’t preach “The corruptible shall put on incorruption” without raising images of his own extramarital paternity. The reading of a missive from Bill Clinton (whom Jackson counseled during the Lewinsky mess) smelled like free publicity for a confessional new book. And when multiple felon Glen Campbell strapped on his guitar to stir a clapping throng with “Where Could I Go but to the Lord?” — well, he had all of our synapses firing with that one.

Music’s original sin was miscegenating the devil’s music with the Lord’s. Ray Charles represented both, and damn the consequences. Busted in 1964 for heroin, he did his rehab and went back to work; his next hit wasn’t “Amazing Grace,” it was “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

Well, he’s high now. In our esteem. Willie Nelson, warbling uncertainly through “Georgia on My Mind,” must’ve been glad to pay tribute to someone else; with all the genuflections that’ve been lately aimed at his old red head, he’s got to feel already embalmed. Only one person wept onstage: B.B. King, apologizing for his inability to stand up and wailing, “If you should die before I go, I’d end my life to be with you.”

There was dense, soul-shattering harmony from the Crenshaw Choir. David “Fathead” Newman’s sax throbbed “Drown in My Own Tears.” There was a jaunty toot on “Down by the Riverside” from Wynton Marsalis. There were more Ray Charles song quotations, blind jokes and blind metaphors than you could shake a cane at. It was a complicated thing that will never die, and they call it show business.

3,100 Feet From the Genius

I never met Ray Charles in person, but I did ski down the longest run in North America at breakneck speed for a chance to talk to him.

It was the winter of 1991, and I was living in Vail, Colorado, and freelancing in the arts section of a weekly newspaper (The Vail Trail — “Vail’s Greatest Newspaper Since 1965”). Ray Charles was coming to town to play Vail’s Dobson Ice Arena, where the Pittsburgh Penguins sometimes did high-altitude training in the early ’90s — capacity about 3,000. There were rumors that Mr. Charles would make himself available for an interview to promote the engagement. The arts editor told me to be ready. Since my day job was selling hot dogs at “the world’s highest hot dog stand,” located on the deck of the ski-patrol headquarters at the top of Vail Mountain (altitude 11,250 feet), being ready meant having a good wax on my skis and edges sharpened. This, I did.

Of course, I was ecstatic about the potential for interviewing “The Genius.” Some of my fondest family memories were Sunday brunches with my folks blasting “What I’d Say” and “Hit the Road Jack.” These songs — sexy, ballsy, groovy — were a big part of my introduction to rock & roll.

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