As all poetry aspires to the condition of hiphop lyrics, all American musicians aspire to the condition of Ray Charles. That ability of his to speak the nation’s vernacular truths as if he’d invented them. Echoing Whitman more than any other of our Tiresian crooners—so that when Ray Charles sings of America he’s singing of himself, no matter what the RNC thought, then or now. God bless my Black American ass muckafuthas, how about that? Sangin’ like you’d expect an African American blind man with a pistol and a lion’s heart of gold to sing, sangin’ about all that good warm light holed up in the darkness.
See, only in Black America could a blind man seem less handicapped and more agile in spirit than his sighted brothers. Blindness, in black and in blue, has been good to American music—Blind Tom, the Blind Willies Johnson and McTell, Art Tatum, Brother Ray, Stevie. Making a body wonder if Ellison’s Invisible cat wasn’t pursuing a vision in his hole but trying to understand the blindness of his countrymen—their inability to see nothing but black when faced with the sight of a negro in broad daylight. Brother Ray avoided the common negro malady of seeing yourself as the others saw you—as a thing not really there and all too present all too real at the same time. A figment of their fascination. The eyed and the unseen element in the room. The black world of Ray Charles was different from yours and mine. Certainly a world far less of a spectacle and therefore less prey to the interminable negro anxiety of being seen as a racial spectacle, of Being While Black. But I digress.
About Brother Ray’s swansong album, Genius Loves Company, know that an album of duets with Ray Charles must be a moment of self-revelation for the other singers involved. The weight of their souls being thrown into question by his mere shadow in the room. Because even knocking on death’s door, Ray remains Ray, as you must remain whoever you are. Ray remaining Ray in spite of losing the Pepsi challenge and becoming a product of the product, a subspecies of branded and canned Americana in the bargain, but hey, we’re all slaves to commerce one way or another and we all got to sell something for somebody. So these duets beg we ask, “In going head-to-head-toe-to-toe with Brother Ray, who are you, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Johnny Mathis, and Gladys Knight? Who are you, Elton John, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, and Bonnie Raitt?” (B.B. King and Van Morrison excepted. Them we been knowing.) Some of their answers will surprise you.
Surprise you even though now is perhaps also the time to properly lament the death of the American popular song, the death of rhythm and blues, the rise and fall of soul, the disappearance of conscious lyrics. Since the singalong campfire classics of this generation are hiphop lyrics, no singer other than Martina Topley-Bird in my reckoning has been able to interpret them as if they were classic examples of the songwriter’s art without risking self-parody. It’s possible that Prince, Sade, or Bob Marley is the last great popular songwriter in the American tradition (yes, transplanted extensions count too), a writer with a body of work in English the whole world loves to sing along with. But it’s certain that today there are more remarkable singers than unforgettable songs.
Brother Ray was of course one of our most sublime interpreters of such songs, of their music and lyrics alike, and in this he showed the way for legions of cats Black, pink, and British, for how much one can modernize, vernacularize, and funkatize songs and not come off mad corny. Brother Ray was more like Miles and Trane in that regard than Sinatra, who à la Louis and Billie could make any song seem noteworthy as long as he was singing it. But Ray had the jazz gene, the jazz genie too, that urge to pull stuff out of a song’s crevices stuff the builder barely knew was there. So that when Ray and Willie Nelson take on Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” you realize how spectacularly Ray could make a moment out of lyrics that were just a stepping stone to the big chorus bangout for every other singer in the world. Likewise on “Fever,” because while Natalie Cole is playing her Sapphire-coquette role as cast, Ray is out and out moving the center of the thing from “Fever all through the night” to “Fever isn’t such a new thing, fever started long ago.” Meaning that from that moment on the song is not about hot It girls and unscratchable rashes and stuff, but about Ray’s blood ties to boogie history. (For the record, let’s recognize that these duets were done live in Ray’s studio and not hotmailed in, with a band featuring Billy Preston and the human-touched orchestrations of Phil Ramone and Concord’s John Burk.) When Willie Nelson sings of being 17 and 35 and good years for blue-blooded girls of independent means, you envision Willie in his own Elvis movie, hellion rockabilly gatecrashing and all. But when Ray sings of being 21 and her perfumed hair coming undone, the thing becomes literature, you’ve arrived on the stage of a memory theater more epic for being so personal, one all the strings, harps, and oboes in the world couldn’t overwhelm, squashed down like a black hole. At the same time Ray’s voice could effortlessly turn a romantic lyric into a cry for his people. Genius Loves Company contains so many moments where you hear him render Civil Rights Movement pride, wrath, and hurt, they can’t help but seem calculated, self-conscious and affected and still no less effective. He and B.B. on “Sinner’s Prayer” is almost an overdose of How I Got Over-ism, but I ain’t mad.
Part of Ray’s power lay in how cunningly he could slip Black pathos into Tin Pan Alley sentiment, a routine that hasn’t gotten old, since we’re not out of the woods yet per George Clinton’s declaration that he who is truly free is free from the need to be free per James Brown’s money won’t change you but time will still take you out, bling be damned. You also get to witness Brother Ray’s grace in collaboration on Genius Loves Company. He lets Elton John and Michael McDonald sing themselves silly on “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and “Hey Girl,” saving his gusto for the word “hardest” on the John tune and not even bothering to come alive until he pimpishly drops a spoken “Come here” on the fade of “Hey Girl.” With his women guests he of course becomes the paternal sidearm, Big Daddy on the husky, melodic prowl but leaving a girl plenty of breathing room. The Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, and Norah Jones songs wouldn’t sound wrong on their own recent albums, though Jones shows there’s more Dinah Washington in her bones than we ever knew. (That’s the power of the Ray, Yo. Let you stand next to his fire. All kinds of Dinah might start breaking out on you too.)
What you’re not ready for is Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis. Everybody knows there are only two versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Judy’s and Patti’s. Up until now that is, because Johnny and Ray serve a whole other blend of yearning. Neither lost innocence nor the Metropolitan Opera were ever priorities in their worlds. Those in need of subtext get to imagine all kinds of monkeys and loves that dare not speak or be spoken of, all kinds of Harlem shooting galleries and Hollyweirded closets, all kinds of needs and thangs and thangs and needs best kept out of sight because no way they can be kept out of mind, being so dug in under the flesh, the popped skin, where Babylon gets surveillance webcast eyes poked out and only the wings of song can be heard lightly tripping the air via these two deep-thrusting golden-throated songbird brothers of yore, coming together for the first time to form their own kind of Black Millennium centaur, the billygoat’s gruff of androgyne. Yeah yeah yeah, that staple of nigra harmonizing, the abject sublime, one more time Mr. Jafa and one more again and peace be upon you Brother Ray and Brother Rick while we’re at it and get well quick Brother Ronald they’re still holding that date for us at NJPAC, yeah, no matter what a drag, flat on your back and damn near the last real soul man left standing.