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Into EachLife a Little Ray Must Fall

It was the day my Ray Charles Genius & Soul: 50th Anniversary Collection five-CD box set arrived in the mail from Rhino Records and I was telling this friend of mine about it over the phone. It's great, I told him, tremendous.

He said something about a green chicken.
I figured that wasn't right. "I'm having trouble hearing you," I said, covering my other ear. My five-year-old son had discovered "Booty Butt" on CD number four and he was making his toy dinosaurs fight to the beat, really loud.

My two-week-old son cried raucously in the living room, but my wife couldn't hear him because she was loading the dishwasher. I made my way over various obstacles (diaper bag, monstrous toy castle, the cat) en route to picking up the baby. "What did you say?"

The conversation didn't proceed much further, but the last thing my friend said, the last thing I actually heard him say, was this: "Grab yourself a six-pack, lie down with your head between the speakers, and listen to the whole set straight through."

"Right," I shouted. "I will." I was dancing the baby around the room at breakneck speed to keep his mind off breast-feeding. "Okay, goodbye," I said, but the phone had already fallen from my shoulder and crashed to the hardwood floor, sending little plastic pieces skittering into the heat vent.

"I Can Make It Thru the Days (But Oh Those Lonely Nights)" was tearing the heart out of the speakers by then, and I sang it to the baby, who stared at me bug-eyed and wondering. Outside it was pouring rain. A drab, gray day, perfect for lying down with a six-pack and listening to my new five-CD Ray Charles box set. But my wife told me it was time to take out the garbage and showed me that it was overflowing. My five-year-old urged me to read to him from The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs. The baby kept on crying.

It was then I realized that I would not at any point in the foreseeable future lie down on the floor with a six-pack and listen to my five-CD Ray Charles box set straight through.

My earliest musical memories center around three albums my mom used to play on the old RCA console stereo.

The first was by Glen Campbell. I don't recall the name, but it must have been a compilation, because it contained all of Glen's finest moments (I say this with something resembling a straight face). "Gentle on My Mind," "Galveston," Wichita Lineman."

When a song played over the radio, I used to think that meant the performer was actually singing at the radio station, and I remember crying in the car one time during "Galveston" because my mother refused to take me to the radio station to meet Glen Campbell.

The second was Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison. I loved "Folsom Prison Blues." I loved the whole idea of Folsom Prison, as expressed by Johnny Cash. I wanted to end up there some day.

The third was Ray Charles's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. "I Can't Stop Loving You" has echoed in my head for almost 30 years. I remember listening to it seated on a parquet floor; sunlight streamed through the windows as I studied the red album cover with the black bold print and the black man with the ivory white teeth and square black glasses. That was in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1969.

In Starkville, Mississippi, in 1969, there was no such thing as multiculturalism. My mother didn't own a Ray Charles album because she thought she needed to be politically correct or to expand her musical horizons. She owned a Ray Charles album because she loved Ray Charles.

I loved him too. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music made a deep impression on my six-year-old brain. "I Can't Stop Loving You," "It Makes No Difference Now," "Careless Love" -- these were my favorites. I loved the songs for their easy tunefulness, and for the man's voice, recognizable even to a six-year-old as the greatest voice on God's green Earth.

Of course, I didn't recognize it then for the groundbreaking album it was. I didn't realize that Ray Charles had achieved the impossible, the unthinkable: a fusion of country and soul. In the hands of Ray Charles, oil and water did mix, it turns out, producing something like silk.

That's what makes him such a singular figure in the music of our time: his ability to draw on unexpected influences, like country, and meld them with blues, jazz, gospel, and then make these new sounds entirely his own.

By doing so, he crossed more borders than the Pope. Who else sold jazz and blues (1961's Genius + Soul = Jazz) to mainstream white audiences in the era before civil rights? Who else was able to sell country music to black audiences the very next year with the release of Modern Sounds?

The Rhino anthology manages to track Charles, now age 66, through all of his numerous musical peregrinations. Organized chronologically, the collection allows the listener to take in his music as a sort of extended work in progress. Starting with his late Forties recording "Confession Blues," the initial songs are a mix of blues and proto-rock, reminiscent at times of more mainstream artists like Little Richard. The voice on these tracks is not Charles's own, either -- Jack Lauderdale, who produced these early recordings for his Down Beat/Swing Time record label, wanted Ray Charles to sound more like Nat "King" Cole. Imagine.

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