Soul's everyman

RAY CHARLES first came to many over the AM airwaves from a world that has almost vanished, the highly segregated 1950s black South. Black people had little contact with or interference from whites. Charles inhabited that world, and he celebrated it as had few before him.

Wherever we were while listening on scratchy radios, before we ever actually saw him in person, we knew where his congregations found him -- in roadhouses and honky-tonks. We knew him, the places where he sang, and the people he sang to and about.

His audiences were indeed congregations. He was known then as the Bishop of Atlanta, the Right Reverend Ray Charles, because he dared take church songs and secularize them. His music was more sophisticated than that usually heard at Atlanta's Royal Peacock or Washington's Howard Theatre or New York's Apollo.

Before he discovered strings and gave country music soul, in '50s hipster language and rural colloquial speech he described a world eager to take his women and his money. He was poor and lonely -- his songs tell us he had to pawn his clothes just to pay his rent. Other men sported fine chicks, and when he attracted one by flashing cash, she abandoned him, taking his greenbacks with her. A man with both money and "a new '56" car wanted his woman. He played blackjack, but he had a losing hand.

Ray Charles described the pain and longing felt by every disappointed lover -- teenager or grown-up -- when love went wrong and a lover went away. "When I lost my money, she put me down," he cried. "I came home and found you gone." One "done your Daddy dirty." "You got a man way cross town."

And he described loss. "Did you ever wake up in the morning, just about the break of day, reach over and touch your pillow, where your baby used to lay?" he asked us, and even those too young to have ever shared a lover's bed knew what that heartbreak was. It didn't matter -- "I'm a fool for you" anyway. She could "Come back home and do me wrong one more 'gin."

But not all women were faithless; some were true. One "never grumbles or fusses, always treats me right." Another "tells me `Daddy, everything's all right.' "

His mother was a constant subject too. "If my mother hadn't a died and left this poor child all alone." And "before she passed away, my mother told me, `Son, don't forget to pray, there'll be hard times, there'll be hard times, who knows better than I.' "

If the characters were standard and the sentiments sometimes cliched, the voice made all the difference. No one sang like that. No one made the cliche singular and personal. No one made you feel as bad -- as if his sad song had happened to you alone.

Ray Charles seduced with his voice. He once wished in song he "could holler like a mountain jack," and holler he did. In cries and wails, screams and moans, punctuated by church chords, throbbing from the gutter on Saturday nights, he was everyman.

We all knew he was blind, and despite his denial that it ever made any difference in his life, he insisted in his chitlin circuit days on being paid in $1 bills, the better to keep from being cheated in a notoriously treacherous world. Orphaned early, he made his way in that world alone.

As he broadened his appeal in the middle '50s, as the rest of the world discovered what the black world had already learned, as his musical choices widened, he became a crossover success.

No one "owned" "America the Beautiful" until he sang it, and no one else will now. He joined heartbreak and patriotism just as he married country music with soulful pathos, and the result will always be Ray Charles music.

Like many of his generation, the economics and realities of show business precluded much active participation in the early civil rights movement, but when it counted he was there; appearing at a 1963 benefit concert in Birmingham for the March on Washington, finally refusing to appear before segregated audiences at considerable career risk, and as he grew older and wealthier, becoming a major donor to black higher education.

In the 20 years I served in the Georgia General Assembly, no one cried until Ray Charles appeared and sang "Georgia on my Mind." People all over the world are crying now.

Julian Bond is a professor at American University and the University of Virginia and chairman of the NAACP. 

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company