Ray Charles, July 04 | Ronnie, Ray, Elvin & Ziggy Stardust


I WAS PLANNING TO WRITE about David Bowie this month. But thenRay Charles passed on right in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s final curtaincall, and Elvin Jones also left the building, God rest their souls, so I thoughtgroup eulogy, uh-huh.

Ray Charles may not have been an elected official but he was a true statesman.The gifted blind singer/songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist/genre-jumpingessence of cool was a major influence on popular music. By intertwininggospel and soul, the secular and the divine, church music and rhythm & blues,he helped unleash a force that turned the field of musical entertainmenton its ear.

Around the globe, and particularly in Europe, traditional American musicis embraced with a fervor rarely seen on this side of Atlantic—especiallyjazz, blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, and R&B. Don’t forget theBeatles were basically trying to duplicate the sound of early black performerslike the Isleys and Little Richard. Clapton drew succor from Delta bluesmenlike Robert Johnson.

Ray Charles, born dirt poor in Georgia, lost his eyesight as a childfrom untreated glaucoma, took to music early and struck out on his ownat 15. He played in touring bands for years, eventually scoring his ownrecord deals. In 1964, following a drug bust, he kicked a 20-year addictionto heroin cold turkey in 96 hours. The man with the black coffee, cream,and sugar voice would perform until the last year of his life, when liverdisease finally slowed him down.

You may remember Ray as the “Uh-Huh” guy in the Pepsi ads,or in a cameo from the Blues Brother movie, or his version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgiaon My Mind,” which became Georgia’s official state song. Hewon 12 Grammy Awards, four alone in 1960. His musical tastes ran the gamutfrom blues to country to jazz to pure pop. His first million-selling hit “What’dI Say” was a raucous romp covered by Elvis Presley.

It was that fluid growl, gravel, and groan that so set his voice apart.Whether saccharine sweet (he started his career as a dead ringer forthe velvety Nat “King” Cole) or squealing in ecstasy, hewas comfortable in any musical genre, imbuing it with the honesty ofhis open soul.

“Look, let’s face it, good music is good music,” hetold The Washington Post in 1983. “Meaning good is always good—Idon’t care if it’s Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff or oneof those cylinders that was made almost 100 years ago.”

I saw him perform at an outdoor festival in Indianapolis in the summerof 2000. Front row. It was evening and a bit chilly. He seemed fragilecoming out. Had a big band, a bevy of Raelettes (female back-up singersanswering his calls), and a beautiful piano center stage. (As a youngman he had studied with such jazz-piano giants as Art Tatum and Bud Powell.)

Behind the dapper suit and trademark sunglasses, his voice was froggysounding, barely reaching pitch. Freaked me out actually. But by thethird number he was cooking and swaying and sailing. It was a delightfulnight, his piano-playing alone, priceless. Six decades of workingaudiences was apparent in every gesture and improvisational flickeror yelp. That smile, those teeth, blues-a-plenty, sweet ballads, anda way with melodic flow and timing that even Frank Sinatra, MisterPhrase-Master himself, used to marvel at.

Hit the road, Jack. It’s crying time again. Let the good timesroll.
The same day I saw Ray Charles, I caught legendary jazz drummer ElvinJones. Front row center. Liquid chops. The epitome of bliss.

ELVIN RAY 1927-2004

Indianapolis, summer, jazz fest 2000,
Jones in his 70s, hot day, me hugging the stage.
A frail cat with a million-dollar smile
climbs behind the trap set
like an African king ascending the throne.
He’s playing with young cats.
It’s afternoon, picnic-style seating.
He seems too old to wail,
but wail he does. Such syncopation!
Rolling fills, offbeat staccato, behind the beat,
around the beat, under it, through it,
defying gravity, toying with tempo,
crackle sway roll cymbal crash!
Smile bursting but struggling, too.
At one point, an old foot cramps up,
stops playing bass drum altogether,
arms soldiering on.
It is a thing of beauty watching him.
A lifetime spent in the driver’s seat,
doing time behind Coltrane and Miles,
Parker and Ellington and Mingus.
I saw Buddy Rich in his prime back in the
late 60s,
a powerhouse display of mesmerizing mastery
and explosive command.
But Elvin, he just dishes it out like an
ice cream vendor,
having fun, working it, but working, too.
You can feel his joy, his pain, his intensity,
his smack-dab outta time in-time thwackery.
Cadence pulse stroke pound splash!
Skeletal elemental elegance.
Life Magazine called him
“the world’s greatest rhythmic drummer.”
“He’s happy. No more suffering,”
said Keiko Jones, wife of 38 years.
“He’s been fighting for so long.”
Ah, the sweet darshan sitting so close
to one so close to God’s heartbeat,
so loose, so superfluid,
the looser, the tighter, even for a brief
afternoon set,
even so late in the game.
Rest well, elastic innovator of the
golden wrists.
Swing low, sweet chariot—
Saint Peter’s truly in heaven now.

Ronald Reagan I saw in Washington, DC, at the White House during hissecond term. I was attending school and my pregnant sister was visitingme from Kansas City. A really nice black Secret Service guy told us tocome back at a certain time, the President would be heading out to thehelicopter. He said he would escort us to the gardens to wave goodbye.We did and sure enough the President strolled out, turned around, andwaved to the small group of us there. He had such a nice air about him,so calm, reassuring, and down to earth. (I won’t review policy issues.)

The only other President I’d seen was John Fitzgerald Kennedy inMadison, Wisconsin, when he was running for President. I was a wee ladand Catholic, like JFK, so it was all very exciting when his open cardrove by and he smiled and waved at us. (He would be the last Presidentto ride in open cars.)

So what about Bowie?

Let’s just say the show in St. Louis at the Mark was death-defying.Bowie is a true artist, an innovator, timeless, classy beyond classy.He’s like an Andy Warhol pop icon that transcends the bullshit.Impeccable fashion sense, married to black supermodel cum cosmetics mogulIman. His new music is au courant, on par with his best work. And hisbest work is on par with anybody’s best work.

The artistic videography behind Bowie is stunning. Three upside-downtrees with stringy branches painted white hang on either side of the stage,creating a futuristic naturalism that works perfectly for Bowie’sentire oeuvre.

His rendition of “Under Pressure” brings tears to my eyes.(Perfect theme for the GOP convention, eh?) Impossibly, the female bassplayer nails Freddie Mercury’s explosive vocals. A night of preemptiveredemption. Bowie’s encore is Ziggy Stardust:

Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah . . . Ziggy played guitar.