Jun 21, 2004
Ray Charles, one of the most influential artists in the history of American music, has died.
Blinded by an unknown disease at age 7, Charles studied music at a school for the deaf and blind. From an early age, he learned to play many styles of music including classical, jazz, gospel, and blues, soaking up whatever he could from boogie-woogie piano players, blues musicians and the Baptist church.
He helped to invent soul music, turning gospel music into more secular songs, recording huge hits like "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," and "Unchain My Heart."
In a society deeply divided by racism, including in the music industry, Ray Charles fought against the divisions. In 1962, he recorded an album of country songs, "Modern Sounds In Country Music," including another of his hits, "I Can't Stop Loving You." He made his own unique version of "Georgia On My Mind."
Near the end of his life, Charles finally began to receive some of the recognition that he was due. There had been times when the music industry had pushed him aside, having made what money they could off of him.
Since his death, the media have used his memory to drum up patriotism. They have played up his performance of "America the Beautiful," without mentioning that when he first sang it during the Vietnam War, he used it to protest that war.
They also conveniently leave out Charles' participation in the civil rights movement, performing at rallies and contributing money. Charles spoke out when a music promoter demanded that he play to a segregated audience with the white people downstairs and the black people upstairs. Charles told the promoter he didn't mind the segregation, so long as black people were downstairs, closer to him!
The media also neglect to mention that Charles participated in a 1963 concert to integrate entertainment in Birmingham, Alabama. Bull Connor and the other bosses of the city organized a media blackout and refused the participants food and lodging, but the concert went on. When they left, the entertainers faced bomb threats against their airplanes.
Ray Charles will be sorely missed. He left his mark on many who came after him. He should be remembered not only for his music – which touched so many people – but for what he really stood for.