Ray Charles was my civics teacher

Authored by Patrick O’Hannigan

Shortly after Ray Charles died in 2004, Billboard magazine editor Gail Mitchell kick-started a movement to have his likeness replace the portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. A big-budget biopic of “Brother Ray” had been released to rave reviews that same year, giving the pioneering singer name recognition even among people previously unacquainted with his musical legacy. Several thousand signatures were gathered on a petition to the U.S. Treasury Department, which eventually decided to leave the $10 bill alone, except for adding unobtrusive features that made it harder to counterfeit.

Although Ray Charles fans never wrangled significant Congressional support for adding him to our currency, that’s probably for the best. If the “influence on public policy” standard depended solely on popularity, we would by now have seen similar petitions for Tom Petty and Jimmy Buffett. Instead, the only change in U.S. currency to anticipate will be when abolitionist Harriet Tubman replaces President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill in 2030. That revision has more going for it than “Put Ray Charles on a greenback” did, but even that might not have been approved if historian Bradley J. Birzer’s 2018 book “In Defense of Andrew Jackson” had made a bigger splash among readers in the District of Columbia.

Monetary policy aside, Brother Ray has much to teach us, and not just about how to bring gospel-style call-and-response to songs that nobody forgets. Born in Georgia, raised in Florida, and first making a name for himself in Seattle, Charles never let blindness define him. That’s not to say the man was a model of rectitude. He wrestled with drug addiction and with his own libido. He called his backup singers The Raelettes, and word around town was that “You couldn’t be a Raelette unless you let Ray.”

Despite sometimes yielding to self-sabotage, Charles also managed to live the American Dream. If you define that oft-cited ideal as the belief that anyone can attain their own version of success in a society where hard work makes upward mobility possible, then you can stroll farther down the same road and ask whether particular traits help realize that dream. Let me suggest that forgiveness, independence, resilience, and cultural appropriation are legs on the finely-crafted furniture that the Founding Fathers hoped to encourage by writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Charles made himself an expert in those things.


Ray Charles was instrumental in getting Augusta, Georgia’s Bell Auditorium to desegregate in 1962. He had been sued for breach of contract by that venue the year before, when he canceled a scheduled performance to show solidarity with black fans who as a matter of policy could only buy tickets for balcony seats. Auditorium managers eventually realized the error of their ways. One generation later, Ray Charles accepted an invitation from the Georgia State Legislature to sing “Georgia on My Mind” in the state house.


When black musicians in the early 20th century got any formal training, it was usually on guitar. Knowing that, Charles decided early on that he wanted to study piano instead. After going blind at around 7, he learned Braille but made a point of not using a cane or a guide dog. He scuffed his shoes more than a lot of other people would have and preserved his sense of personal autonomy. Well into his career as a performer, he negotiated for the ownership of his own master recordings, and founded two music publishing companies, building studios for them in Los Angeles. 


Whether unscrupulous club owners took advantage of Ray Charles early in his career I don’t know, but they paid talent in cash. Knowing that he couldn’t see the denominations on any money slapped into his palm after a set, Ray insisted on being paid in $1 bills so that they could be counted out to him aloud. Setbacks in life would slow him down, but not stop him.

Cultural appropriation

Some progressive academics still insist that borrowing from a culture you didn’t grow up in must be bad, allegedly because it dilutes the sweetness of authenticity in well water that belongs to other people. Fortunately, Charles had no time for nonsense like that. He released the seminal “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” album in 1962 because he knew he had something to contribute to that genre, and didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a soul singer or rhythm and blues guy. Then he upped the appropriation game by collaborating with other artists. 

Charles understood that cultural appropriation always pays homage to localism. If you’ve ever sung along with “Seven Spanish Angels” on oldies radio, then you know that Ray could make even a gunfighter ballad sound sublime. Neither he nor Willie Nelson, his duet partner in that song, had any ethnic claim to south-of-the-border material, but it didn’t and doesn’t matter. Similarly, one of the funniest scenes in the 1987 comedy “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” shows affable Canadian actor John Candy pantomiming saxophone and keyboard riffs from Ray Charles’ 1957 hit, “Mess Around” while he drives recklessly down a dark highway.

Brother Ray’s profoundly American success story was made possible in part because he grew up in an era when this country was more confident than it is now. He even told us so, in his idiosyncratic but stirring version of “America the Beautiful.” Have you noticed that Ray starts with a middle verse rather than the first verse? Snare drums and trumpets introduce the song, but then his Hammond B-3 organ sounds like a puppy in the grass. Ray warms up with church arpeggios like the “Baptist piano roll” that Paul Simon lifted for “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and swings warmly into the vocal line for “Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife…” 

He knows that verse is little-known and even less often sung, so afterward he drops into conversational mode without losing the beat, and says “You know when I was in school, we used to sing it something like this. Listen here:” Then he makes good (no, great) on the spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Point being, he used to sing America the Beautiful” in school. How many people today can say that? It’s the kind of education that would help to bind our country’s wounds. And if it provides a formative memory for another musical genius or two, that would be icing on the proverbial cake.

Patrick O’Hannigan is a contributor to American Habits, a father of two, and a technical writer and editor. He resides in Morrisville, North Carolina. 

Authored by:Patrick O’Hannigan


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