Friday, June 18, 2004

U.S.: Ray Charles sang "America the beautiful" like no one else could

Requiescat in pacem, Ray Charles. Rest in peace.

The singer, pianist and American original died [last week] Thursday at the age of 73.
Born in rural Georgia, he was diagnosed with glaucoma at the age of 3 and was completely blind by age 7. At a Florida state school for the deaf and blind, he learned Braille and mastered multiple musical instruments. With both parents dead by the age of 15, he began his music career in far-away Seattle.

Refusing to accept any boundaries placed upon him by handicap or society, the young blind black man would go on to blend gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues and country to create original works that defied categorization, including classics such as, "Hit the Road, Jack," "What'd I Say," and "Georgia On My Mind."

In 1962, his "Modern Sounds in Country & Western" married big-band jazz to country standards and produced his biggest hit, "I Can't Stop Loving You."

A decade later, Charles recorded what many feel is the definitive version of "America the Beautiful." Single-handedly, he provided the most powerful argument for those who believe it should become the national anthem.

Charles would perform the song multiple times over the ensuing years, including a notably rousing rendition at the closing moments of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Perhaps fittingly, the two quintessentially American characters from that moment — Charles and Ronald Reagan — departed within days of one another.

Ray Charles can rest content to know that his example and his talent will always remain on the mind of America the beautiful.
Ray Charles and his music was very much a part of my childhood experience growing up in TT. Who didn't know his anthem "I Can't Stop Loving You"? We all knew it and sang it, and we all tried to emulate the depth of passion that Ray Charles poured into that song. He spoke to a generation of people with that song, and his name will always be remembered by us with pleasure and affection.

However, how I felt when I heard Ray sing "I Can't Stop Loving You" is nothing to the first time I heard his rendition of "America the Beautiful" nor to when I heard it sung after 9/11. Then, Ray Charles's rendition sent and still sends chills up my spine. In Charles's rough, gravelly voice, I hear the wind blowing through the fields of grain all across the fruited plane; I see the wide and star-filled skies with which God has graced America and thank Him that for His hand in shaping this country and its Constitution, the shining city on a hill; I feel the beneficence of a country which welcomes foreigners of all races and creeds and leaves them free to be, to do, to live the American dream. And, I am reminded that God has indeed blessed America and shed His grace on her.

Just as he blessed and gave grace unto Ray Charles so that he could rise above his infirmity and reach a pinnacle in this country, something he may never have been able to do elsewhere.

I'll always treasure Ray Charles for the years of listening pleasure he provided -- especially for "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."

America has lost a national treasure, but he has left behind a national treasury of his music.

Ray Charles, thank you. May eternal light shine upon you; may our Heavenly Father receive you into His rest and grant you peace.


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