There are very few musicians that sing on the soundtrack of my childhood. This is due to the fact that when I was a kid, my mom completely rejected radio stations and the static-filled ads that came with them. Instead, we listened to the same CDs in the car, on rotation. She would skip the same tracks, and we would duet to the same choruses. It was a sweet routine. And of all the bumps and turns our past had to offer, one thing was always a constant — music. Thus, these albums now echo flashing visions of my childhood.
One of the musicians that took up three albums worth of melodies for us was Ray Charles (1930 – 2004). Those albums were: Hallellujah I Love Her So (1957), Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961), and The Very Best of Ray Charles (2000). Today marks the anniversary of Brother Ray’s death, and so, I got him on my mind. Ray recorded 60+ albums and played more than 10,000 concerts in his lifetime. He was one of the first black artists to be able to work with a record label while maintaining full artistic control. Ray signed with Atlantic Records in 1952, and in just a short amount of time he was able to strike the music world with awe. In 1954, Ray blended gospel with rhythm and blues to create a novel style of music — soul. What a force.
Of all the things I could say, the most important is how fun and freeing it is listening to a Ray Charles song. The zing in his voice and laughs between verses call for revelry. You can’t help but let loose. To this day, when anyone says the word “well…” with a pause, Ray’s raspy starting note to “I’ve Got A Woman” sings in my mind. Apparently somewhere along the way as a kid, I stopped just listening, and the music became a part of me.
Among being a pioneer of new sounds, Ray Charles was also an activist for the Civil Rights Movement. He helped fund MLK, refused to perform in segregated venues, and thus represented the “chitlin circuit”. These political acts in addition to his music helped the effort to raise the veil concealing class struggle and racial discrimination. And while Ray didn’t write many protest songs, at second listen, I consider a lot of his popular lyrics to ring true for the topic of social justice. In light of the current Black Lives Matter protests and the opposing responses on social media, I offer you, “Sticks and Stones”:
People talkin’ tryin’ to break us up, yeah
Scandlizin’ my name
They’ll say anything just to make me feel bad
Yes anything to make me shame.
Was Ray simply talking about a relationship or camouflaging a social truth behind a bouncy big band jam? You can check out the song below and let us know your thoughts.