I hope something like this happened to you, too. At least once. With me, it was at a long-gone Chinese restaurant in the west end of town--the Golden Mandarin Peking Dragon Palace something'r'other--and I went there with the girl I was minutes away from going gaga over. Judy. In the early '60s, it was about the only place in Boise you could get fed at 1 a.m. and Judy was always hungry. While we goofed around waiting for our chow mein, she says, "Give me a quarter, Bill. We need music."
She pushed the buttons, and then leaned there against the machine, grinning back at me like she was playing a joke. I grinned too, thinking how pretty she was and expecting her normal taste in hang-dawg Loretta Lynn or George Jones. But the back-up singers opened up like a shot of morning sun through heavy clouds ... "I! Can't! Stop! Luh-ving yooooou ..." and then Ray came in. "I've made up my mind ...". I listened, of course. It was impossible not to listen to Ray when he sang.
Once, twice, all three selections--my whole quarter had gone to playing "I Can't Stop Loving You," and by the time the juke went silent again, I had gone totally gaga over Judy, and incidentally, fallen deeply in love with Ray Charles.
Judy and I didn't last long, but I stayed with Ray. All the other music from that time became old and tiresome and a constant reminder of how fast we age. But not Ray's. I could listen to "Georgia on my Mind" or "What'd I Say" every day for the rest of my life, and never stop hearing something vibrant and alive. His recording of "Old Man River," alone, earned him a place in heaven, and I never loved my country more than when he sang "America the Beautiful."
No, I'm wrong. He didn't just sing "America." He opened up like a geyser. The notes and words erupted out of every cell in his wriggly body. I resent it when they try to put him or his music into a category. He didn't belong in a category. He was more than just soul or R&B or pop. He was even more than just music. I think if our land had a voice and could talk, it would sound like him.
The flag inside me is at half-mast. This last week, while others mourned somebody else, I mourned Ray. I don't apologize for that. The other man was important, that's for sure, and he left a profound footprint on the earth. And yes, the other man represented something fundamental and powerful about America.
But Ray Charles represented something entirely different about America that was every bit as fundamental and powerful, and something that gave the rest of the world a reason to put up with us.