"Drivin That Dynaflow by Verlyn Klinkenborg"
Mid-60's popular radio was a welter of youthful voices, just as it is now. But every now and then a disc jockey would work Ray Charles, who died on Thursday (6/10/04), into the rotation, and it was like hearing directly from Father Time. I could never figure it out. The voice was so adult, so yearning and playful, so self contradictory- reedy and smooth, high-pitched and grumbling at the same time. By then, a song like, "What'd I Say (Part 1)" was already an oldie, recorded in 1959 when Ray Charles was (still? already?) in his late 20's. And yet it sounded like more of a rave-up than even the early Yardbirds could muster.
The beauty of teen pop is that it believes that love belongs only to the very young. Maybe so, but with one vocal phrase Ray Charles couls make it plain that real need-the real complexity of sexual passion-comes with age. He was singing many of the same words as the bands I listened to, but he meant something entirely different. Even his piano said so. I don't know what I would have done as a kid if I'd heard a song like "Greenbacks," about the dire economy of love, or "It Should've Been Me," that ode to sexual envy. Songs like that were far too grown-up for young ears, far too full of the blues.
Ray Charles made every kind of American music his own, and he repaid every kind of American music with his keen attention. You could hear the country and the city in his songs. You could hear Los Angeles and Dallas, New York and Seattle, the dirt roads of Georgia and Florida, the rundown brick facades of a hundred neighborhoods.
Watching him play - the rigid swaying of his body, the tight stuttering percussion of his hands on the keyboard- was enough to convince you that no one would ever get to the bottom of what he knew about his art. He would never be able to explain it. He would just have to play his way through the whole catalog of American music, and we would get to listen to him reinvent it, song by song.