June 10, 2004

My world is quieter today. It has an unfamiliar stillness, a strange silence. The cacophony of burying Ronald Reagan, of electing a president, of killing “us and them” in Iraq, and the great panoply of G-8 Summit blather have all receded into the sound of muffled drums.

Ray Charles is dead.

For years I’ve wondered how silent the world would fall for his passing. What it might be like to know he is no longer with us. Never again to see in person this great Black man bobbing like a cork in a storm on his piano bench, swaying and smiling and crying behind his sunglasses, transforming the Deep South Negro sounds of sorrow into his joyful noise. Infusing our music with its pulse-beat, its soul. Today I know.

I know how my own folks must have felt when Frank Sinatra died. “Old Blue Eyes” leavened their lives, made the War Years bearable for them, helped fertilize the dreams for post-war home and job and family that sustained so many of The Greatest Generation. I never liked Sinatra. But today I understand how those who grew up with him must have felt when he died.

Ray Charles died today.

For me, Ray Charles was the musical pole star of my life. I grew up with him. I loved his music, revelled in the wonderful instrument that was his voice. There were more nuances and tonal shavings in that voice than in all the words of all the Jesuits of the world, put together.

From my middle grammar school days I knew this man was special. I bought his records, learned every note, every syncopation. I played his songs on piano and guitar for my own pleasure and in rock ‘n’ roll bands whose earnings put me through high school. But I never tried to imitate that voice. It was his unique instrument. No one will ever be able to duplicate it, and that includes Chinese and Japanese anthills churning out pianos and guitars today.

I saw Ray Charles in person twice, once in 1963, again in 1983. In the years before, between and since he remained a part of my life of music the way monuments anchor us to our lives. We need to have the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Eiffel Tower, the Lincoln Memorial to help tell us who we are, who we’ve been, whence we came.

But Ray Charles was more than a mere anchor. He was more like the comforting knowledge that somewhere in the world, despite all its modernity, there are still some wild places where animals roam and rivers flow untamed by man. We all need to know that such places still exist in order to remain truly human. And I needed to know that Ray Charles was still with us, giving musical continuity to my own life, in order to most fully enjoy it.

A litany of his songs here would be pointless. We all know them: “What’d I Say,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Born To Lose,” “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.” His “Eleanor Rigby” is a heartbreak to hear as it talks about — admits to and asks: “… All the lonely people, where DO they all come from?

Today the wings of silence have closer enfolded the world and we’re all a bit more lonely for it. I know I am.

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