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Farewell Befits a Legend

Stars' heartfelt tributes to Ray Charles honor both the man and his music

June 19, 2004|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

In the end, to say goodbye, they brought soulman Ray Charles to a place he knew well -- the spot right between the pulpit and the people. On Friday at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the funeral service for the man they called Brother Ray echoed the singer's career -- it was a blend of the heavenly and the earthy, laced with laughter and big enough for gospel, the blues, jazz and country music.

In a ceremony punctuated by cheers and sobbing, performers Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis and others offered testimonials and tribute performances to Charles, who died June 10 at the age of 73 after half a century of recordings that placed him among the all-time greats of American popular music.

No speaker was more affecting than the Rev. Robert Robinson Sr., one of the singer's sons, who urged the crowd to remember that his father's life demanded a service that was equal parts Sunday morning solemn and Saturday night shimmy.

"It may be 'Crying Time,' " Robinson said in a reference to one of his father's signature hits from the 1960s, "but clap your hands, stamp your feet, stand and give God praise! Thank God for giving us Ray Charles."

The audience inside the church as well as the overflow crowd outside cheered with revival-hall enthusiasm. The service was one that hailed the 12-time Grammy winner as often for his charisma, social conscience and bravery as it did for his songbook. His soulful vocal stylings on hit recordings including "Unchain My Heart" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" became a model for such acclaimed singers as Aretha Franklin and Al Green.

The flowers and messages that poured in for the event came not just from the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Ice Cube and the Oak Ridge Boys, but also from Rosa Parks and former President Bill Clinton.

Actress Cicely Tyson, a friend of the late singer and one of the first speakers, said one of the simple strengths of Charles was to see the value of life without the benefit of eyesight. "There will never be another. Through his darkness, he enlightened and brightened our life."

Blues guitarist King struggled to complete his comments about his longtime friend, especially when he spoke of the singer's devotion to family. Not only did the singer's relatives fill the front pews, the outer aisles of the church were lined by crimson and white floral arrangements in the shape of treble clefs that each bore the name of one of the singer's 12 children.

King asked the audience for forgiveness as his emotions overwhelmed him. Calls of "Take your time B.B." and "We're with you, Mr. King" helped, and the blues hero's voice was strong and clear when he began singing "Please Accept My Love."

The joyful grin of Charles was probably as famous as his voice, and many of the speakers touched on his humor and buoyant nature. Nelson, who sang "Georgia on My Mind," noted that he and Charles shared an affection for chess but that after Charles handed the country star too many defeats, Nelson had a plea: "Ray, next time can we turn on the lights?" King likewise reminisced about the pitfalls of letting a blind man deal poker when the deck is a Braille one.

Charles lost his sight at age 7 from undiagnosed glaucoma but was undeterred from his dream to fashion a career like that of his idol, Nat King Cole. In 1949, Charles began his recording career and the music seemed to jump off the vinyl with its mix of secular energy and images and gospel inflections. "I Got a Woman," his landmark 1955 single, is largely credited as the first to spin this new mix, which became known as soul music.

He became one of the most recognizable figures in American music by touring for more than five decades and by presenting a pop culture persona that was endearing and broad enough to land him roles in fare as diverse as "The Blues Brothers" and "Blue's Clues." When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was created in 1986, Charles, along with Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, was on the select list of the first inductees.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that Charles would surely be joining a heavenly music scene that already boasts names such as Basie and Ellington.

"God gives so much to make us happy. God must also spend some joy on the heavenly host," Jackson told the First AME crowd. "So it is that heaven now has a maestro.... Ray, when you first get there, before you meet Count and before you meet the Duke, before you meet friends and loved ones -- there's a man over there across the river who gives sight to the blind, there's a man over there who gives hope to the spare, there's a man over there that gives joy without end. There's a man across the river. We commend you to him."

Jackson finished his address by paraphrasing the famous Charles hit: "Ray, we can't stop loving you."

Other performers included Glen Campbell singing "Where Could I Go but to the Lord?" and Wonder performing "I Won't Complain," a song of spiritual fortitude that brought the audience to its feet.

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