Now they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder,
And that tears are only rain to make love grow,
Well my love for you could never grow no stronger
If I lived to be a hundred years old.
- Ray Charles, Crying Time, 1966
It's crying time again.
With Ray Charles' death Thursday at age 73, a world still deep in mourning over the loss of political giant Ronald Reagan now carries the sad burden of mourning a musical giant.
Music, said author Leo Tolstoy, is the shorthand of emotion. Who knew better than Ray Charles how to deftly convey emotion through his songs, particularly the soaring joy of true love (I Got A Woman), the shyness of a hidden crush (You Don't Know Me) and the heartache of unrequited love (Unchain My Heart).
But the song Georgians most closely identify with is his version of Georgia On My Mind, which became his first No. 1 hit in 1960, accounted for two of his 12 Grammy Awards and became Georgia's state song in 1979. While other state songs are superficially peppy and upbeat, Mr. Charles' version of Georgia - with its rich orchestration and the soulful ease of the vocals - is truly beautiful. Performing it the right way can bring tears to people's eyes - and Mr. Charles always performed it the right way.
That song perhaps is Mr. Charles' strongest tie to Georgia. But Mr. Charles' strongest tie to Augusta, while bittersweet, was a turning point in his life.
In March 1961, Mr. Charles was scheduled to perform at Bell Auditorium, but canceled the show after learning he would be playing to a segregated audience. At the time, The Augusta Chronicle reported that Paine College students tipped off Mr. Charles about the dance floor being whites-only, "with Negroes allowed only as spectators 'in an opposite auditorium.' "
Here's how Mr. Charles remembered it: "A promoter insisted that a date we were about to play be segregated: the blacks upstairs and the whites downstairs. I told the promoter that I didn't mind segregation, except that he had it backwards. After all, I was black, and it only made sense to have the black folks close to me ... . Let him sue. I wasn't going to play. And I didn't. And he sued. And I lost."
Mr. Charles credited the Augusta incident for launching him into the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Without his significant financial support of Dr. King, the 1960s could have unfolded very differently.
Mr. Charles' rise to fame seems downright impossible when you look at his background. He was black in the segregationist South, poor, blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15. Any one of those circumstances would be difficult for a person to overcome, but the man who was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Ga., not only overcame them all, he rose to a level of celebrity few have exceeded.
His songs have become part of America's musical culture - What I'd Say; Hit the Road, Jack; I Can't Stop Loving You; Busted. While musicians often are remembered for their expertise in a certain genre of music, what genre didn't Mr. Charles touch with his genius? Blues, jazz, rock, gospel, country, R&B, soul - even the big-band sound, with his stylish rendition of Let the Good Times Roll. If there was a type of music out there, he augmented it with his special signature.
"As long as I can remember," Mr. Charles said, "music has always been something extraordinary in my life."
Thanks to him, he made music something extraordinary for millions of listeners.
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