This blog is officially "retired," but my other blog,
"The Lair of the Silver Fox," is still open for business!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

RAY CHARLES, 1930-2004, R.I.P.

I have approximately as many 45 rpm records among my personal belongings as I have videotapes -- roughly 2,000 of each -- and while most of those songs are there because they range between good and great, some are there because they're "so bad they're good," and some are there because there's something truly novel about them.

One of those "novelty" records is a scratchy, barely playable, badly-pressed single. The record's label is in the center of the disc (well, sort of) where it belongs, but when the record itself was pressed, it was somehow pressed so that the playing grooves were more than a bit off-center.

The song, appropriately enough, is entitled "Let's Go Get Stoned." It was recorded by Ray Charles.

Ray Charles.

Ray Charles died this morning at the age of 73. The stated age didn't seem right. He often seemed much younger to me, somehow, younger than I myself had ever been, or thought of being. And yet, he seemed older, too, maybe 100 or more, older than recorded music itself, someone who'd "always" been around, like Santa Claus. (Not the worst analogy, really; both have given us all some great gifts over the years... )

I was with a lady friend, eating supper in a local pizza parlor, when I heard the news. We were captive audience to the restaurant's widescreen TV, tuned to CNN. While we ordered our pizza, news about the late President Reagan went on, and on. While we waited for our pizza, news about the late President Reagan went on, and on. And while we ate our pizza, news about the late President Reagan went on, and on... At some point, I explained to my companion that while it's sad that Reagan has died, I wasn't feeling the loss personally, due to varying factors such as his advanced age and my knowledge that he'd had Alzheimer's Disease for years (which precluded the "shock" element), added to the fact that I'd always thought of the man as fairly likable, but no one I'd especially admired.

Suddenly, as the Reagan coverage paused for a commercial break, Wolf Blitzer mentioned something I barely caught about playing something-or-other in tribute to... Ray Charles. "Did Ray Charles die?" I asked.

Yeah. Ray Charles died. Shit. Another celebrity whom I'd loved, admired, respected... He was "always" there. He was one of the few whom I could see performing his music on a TV commercial (for Diet Pepsi, remember?) without screaming "You f**king sell-out!" His was my absolute favorite bit part in "The Blues Brothers."

And once again, this usually wordy writer is grasping for words.

Unlike my off-kilter pressing of "Let's Go Get Stoned," Ray Charles defied labeling. He was -- and yet, somehow, he wasn't -- a blues artist, exactly. He was -- and yet wasn't -- a country artist, either, exactly. He was/wasn't a jazz artist, a pop artist, an R&B artist, a soul artist... Hell, the man was a musician, pure and simple. Yet there was nothing pure and simple about Ray Charles' style itself, except its deceptive appearance. And by "deceptive appearance," I mean that the man was so good, and so natural, that he made it all look and sound as easy as falling off the proverbial log. And maybe it was, for him. There was more life experience behind each syllable that he sang than most of us encounter in a decade.

(By the way, if you're wondering why I keep referring to him as "Ray Charles," it's because 1) I felt that I knew the man just by hearing him perform (better than I could by reading any biography), yet calling him "Ray" would still seem overly familiar and disrespectful, but 2) calling him "Mr. Charles" would seem stuffy and pretentious. Even for me.)

More than twenty-five years ago, the National Lampoon published an article called "Mel Brooks is God." I've been saying "Ray Charles is God" for almost that long, and I was only being somewhat facetious. For if there is a God, and if, as the Bible states, Man was created in His image... Well, at least one of us hairless bipeds has to have been a mighty close avatar to the original model.... and what better choice is there than Ray Charles?

Thanks for your time.

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