The true giants of American music are going fast these days, and the loss of Ray Charles is the latest example. We cannot stay in any previous period, artistic or historical. We can be bitter about the inevitable or we can recognize that this is a fact, as real as the fact of cold death.
One of my favorite Ray Charles moments occurred during an interview with Dick Cavett, about 35 years ago. On that particular evening, I and everyone watching saw something special. The two men sat in their chairs and spoke in that measured tone that can soon become boring in television unless something happens to lend an extra dimension to the conversation. Cavett, with all of his liberal certainty, was consistently shocked by Charles’ answers to his questions. As the interview went on, one could see Cavett realize he had made some miscalculations. He’d assumed that because Charles was both black and blind, the interview would be given over to whining and crying about how hard it was for a Negro with a handicap in a country that was as racist as it was disdainful of the crippled, the blind, and the deaf.
But Charles surprised us all, black or white. He spoke of his self-determination, his independence, and how he had been well prepared to live his life as a sightless Negro by his mother. Charles told Cavett that his mother had never allowed him to escape any household duties or chores because of his blindness. His mother, he said, made sure that he made up his bed, cleaned up his room, washed dishes, and did whatever the other children were required to do. Her son was going to be prepared to live in the world, and she had no time for debilitating self-pity. She told him that there were always at least two ways things could be done: the way everyone else did them, and the way he would have to discover for himself.
Charles continued, telling Cavett how much he enjoyed riding on motorcycles and how much pleasure he drew from flying. Cavett, by then, had become cautious; he realized that he was in the presence of a black man who did not fit any of the clichés of the day and who had decided not to play a part that would make everyone happy by arousing their pity—always the problem of the handicapped genius. Charles said to him that if he were in a plane and something happened to the pilot, he had no doubt that he could safely land the plane in if he had a good ground crew guiding him. He might get banged up, but he would not be killed, Charles said with absolute confidence.
It was that kind of confidence that gave a charismatic clarity to Ray Charles’ music and that allowed him to last much longer than any of the trends that brought him to public attention. Charles maintained his position in our pantheon of the rightly honored because his importance did not depend on audience whims. While he may have benefited from a couple of trends in his long career, his talent allowed him to transcend the high tide of momentary public fixation that dooms so many careers in popular entertainment. He was one of the invincibles—there were always plenty of people in America, and the world over, who wanted to hear his distinct sound.
His sound was his own, even though he had begun as a Nat Cole imitator. (It is always stunning to realize that an original artist had to build his or her own style along the way.) Charles could raise the heat on the bandstand and in the audience by the nature of his beat and by his extreme tempo control, which he made clear with his version of “Drown in My Own Tears,” so slow that every drop of skill in his fellow musicians had to be brought forward to keep from either dragging it down or rushing it out of frustration. In his classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the incomparable Betty Carter, he created one of the finest examples of romantic give-and-take between man and woman that we have in American music. Then there were his versions of Tin Pan Alley standards that always simmered with his special kind of soul. He conquered country-and-western music, and he sang “America the Beautiful” as it had never been sung before, with power and irony. We don’t even need to talk about rhythm and blues or the blues or his love of jazz. He had a full house of talent.
But perhaps what Ray Charles did with all of his authority was help make the country and the world as blind as he was. Charles was one of those special few who expands the democratic experience by proving that neither color nor a handicap mean that one is less a man or less a woman. We couldn’t ask more of a person in 73 years. He used every second.