Just once, it would be nice if Ray Charles came to town and didn't play some swank, million-dollar shrine to old money. Plop him in the Meyerson Symphony Center or Bass Performance Hall, and you might as well stick him behind a glass case and let the blue-hairs gawk at Brother Ray; those beautiful places are, for pop performers, just one step away from a museum...or, for that matter, a mausoleum. God only knows what it would be like now if Charles were to step onto a dusty stage in 2000 and tap once more into that surging vein of R&B -- without a conductor standing beside him, without all those damned violins there to prop him up, without all those golden oldies blinding an audience that wants to hear "Seven Spanish Angels" and "America the Beautiful" and not, oh, "Blackjack" or even "Booty-Butt." Imagine the thrill of it: Ray Charles freed from the bonds of playing dolled-up, syrupy "soul" to the dress-up crowd. All he needs are three guys, maybe a couple of hot backup chicks, and the piano God made for Brother Ray somewhere between his travels from Louisiana to Texas -- and absolutely nothing more. No strings, no at-the-pops bullshit to stand between him and the audience; none of that What Becomes A Legend Most crap, none of that black-tie reverence that sucks the life out of what they used to call soul. Once more, with feeling -- Ray Charles raw, the man removed from all the burdens placed upon him by legend, honor, accolade. Forget, for a moment, that Kennedy medallion swinging around his neck; forget the Grammys and all those sincere, sweet words uttered by musicians who owe him a thousand lifetimes' worth of royalties. Just let the man play, let him sing, let him swing as he did back when he strolled down lonely avenue singing them confession blues.
I may well be a nostalgia rapist convinced music was better back when it could actually Mean Something, but even the most tin-eared cynic must wonder what it must have been like to have been around in 1955, back when Charles lived in South Dallas and wrangled his little big band from the local talent pool. Or what it must have been like when he played the long-gone Empire Ballroom -- to have seen, heard, felt the man before he became legend, before he became Ray Charles The Genius. Certainly, he's worthy of all those monikers; few performers are, but even a cursory pass through 1997's boxed set Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection reveals the indisputable truth -- so much so, even the soggy, sappy latter-day material needs no defenders. But such are the downfalls of being trapped inside such cardboard tombstones: A legend must forever live up to his yesterdays, even if that means sacrificing one or two brilliant tomorrows along the way. Such a fate has befallen so many great men, so many pioneers, so many creators: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and on and on. They're waxworks in sterile halls of fame now, celebrated for what they did a lifetime ago and not for what still burns inside them. Assuming, of course, their once-blazing hearts have not been replaced by dying embers.
It has been two decades since Charles released an all-new disc worth keeping, playing again and again; most recently, he's been the old man forced by know-it-all young men to play catch up, as evidenced by 1993's almost laughable My World (Ray Charles probably still thinks New Jack is something cops use to find stolen cars) and its follow-up, 1996's bad-to-banal Strong Love Affair. God forbid the man, who even now possesses a voice that sounds like a thousand heartbeats, be allowed to do what he does best without being forced to keep pace with a market he helped create; God forbid he be given the sort of control he maintained during his tenure on ABC, back when he called the shots -- and usually called them "motherfucker." Think of how astonishing it would be for Charles to release an album in the 21st century equal to his best work during the middle of the 20th. Such a thing must be possible. Isn't he a genius?
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Robert WilonskyRay Charles performs February 1 at the Bass Performance Hall.