The Pop History Dig

“Ray Sings America”
1972-2011

Ray Charles performing “America the Beautiful” prior to a Boston Red Sox baseball game, April 2003.  AP photo.
Ray Charles performing “America the Beautiful” prior to a Boston Red Sox baseball game, April 2003. AP photo.
     There is probably no more soulful a version of “America The Beautiful” than that performed by legendary bluesman Ray Charles.  Also an accomplished jazz, gospel,  and country-and-western virtuoso, Ray Charles shone through movingly whenever he performed “America The Beautiful” — as he did in many of his  performances generally.  But with this song in particular his interpretation often moved  listeners to tears and/or deep patriotic feeling.

     Charles’ version of the song, or part of it, has been heard recently in TV advertising during the 2011 World Series.  It is used as the soundtrack for a Chevrolet ad touting the car company’s 100th anniversary.  The 60-second ad, offered below, shows a sequence of hand-held family-album photos of older Chevrolet car and truck models juxtaposed against more recent American scenes and iconic moments.  With Charles providing the requisite “American” music in the ad, Chevy is trying to imbue itself and its models with a sense of American history and viewers of the ad with a patriotic feeling.  They may well succeed.  Chevrolet has a long history of trying to associate its name and products with American patriotism, and with Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” in this ad, they are certainly hitting some persuasive notes.  But this story is more about Ray’s history with this particular song than it is about Chevy’s cars and trucks.

     The Ray Charles version of  “America the Beautiful” is a much-loved song by many Americans, and is generally regarded as something of a classic.  His version of the song  dates to the early 1970s when he and friend Quincy Jones, the music producer,  first recorded it.  Since then, and over the last 40 years, Charles’ version of  “America The Beautiful” has had periods of notable popularity and political use.  During his career, Charles performed the song numerous times, and in later years, often in prime-time televised venues such as presidential conventions, 4th-of-July gatherings, the SuperBowl, World Series, and other major events.  More on the history of these performances and the Ray Charles song in a moment.  First, a brief look at “America the Beautiful’s” origin and creation.

 

1890s
“Purple Mountains…”

Professor Katherine Bates was inspired by America’s beauty.
Professor Katherine Bates was inspired by America’s beauty.
     “America the Beautiful” was first published as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895.  Bates was a professor of English Literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who in the summer of 1893 visited Pike’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  There she was struck by the views of the mountains and landscape laid before her, which helped inspire the opening lines of her poem.  Bates had traveled across the country that summer, visited the World’s Columbian exposition in Chicago, and crossed the American agricultural heartland on her way to Colorado.

Statue of Katherine Lee Bates on grounds of  Falmouth, MA library.
Statue of Katherine Lee Bates on grounds of Falmouth, MA library.
     Her poem first appeared under the name “America” in the July 4th 1895 edition of The Congregationalist, a church periodical.  The poem was later revised by Bates in 1904 and 1914.  Separately, Samuel A. Ward, a church organist and choirmaster, had earlier written some music for other purposes.  In 1910, his music and Bates’ poem were combined and published as the song “America the Beautiful.”  The song caught on with the American people and became popular.

     However, another American song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” would become the national anthem.  That song had been written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after Key had witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.  By 1889, the song was in official use by the U.S. Navy, and by 1916, the President.  It was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution in March 1931.  However, over the years, some have argued that “America the Beautiful” would serve as a better national anthem, and periodically the song has been proposed to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as National Anthem.  And for some, the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” makes a persuasive case for making that song the National Anthem.


1972
Ray’s Version

Cover art for CD of the Ray Charles album, “A Message From the People,” 1972.
Cover art for CD of the Ray Charles album, “A Message From the People,” 1972.
     Ray Charles had become a popular rhythm and blues artist by the 1960s, with a number of hit songs topping the music charts of that day.  In 1972 Charles was with the ABC recording company, and had set out to record an album of songs about America and its people, which later became, A Message From The People.  It included ten songs, among them, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” and “America The Beautiful,” all produced by Quincy Jones.  Charles sang “America the Beautiful” in a slow, rocking tempo, removing and/or reordering some verses, and emphasizing sections of the song that focus on the bravery of  American heroes.  “Then I put a little country church backbeat on it and turned it my way,” said Charles of the song in one interview.  On the 1972 album cover, shown at right, the cover art includes sketches of martyred American leaders – Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy – seen in light background.

45 rpm single of “America the Beautiful” – “arranged & adapted” by Ray Charles.
45 rpm single of “America the Beautiful” – “arranged & adapted” by Ray Charles.
     Of the album, Charles explained that he approached it with the intention of including songs “about some of the wrongs of our country” but also “wanted to show what was beautiful and great” about it.  The album was recorded on the ABC/Tangerine label (Tangerine being Charles’ label that ABC distributed).  It was released along with a single of “America the Beautiful.”  The album hit No. 52 on the Billboard albums chart in 1972, but Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” did not attract much attention at the time.  He did, however, perform the song on national TV in 1972, appearing on the The Dick Cavett Show in September that year – a performance that can be found on DVD and on YouTube.  Thereafter, and gradually over the years, Charles began performing the song more often during his concerts, depending on the audience and context.  By 1984, however, the Charles version of “America the Beautiful” received some major national exposure.


1980s
Republican Convention

1981 Inauguration.  First Lady Nancy Reagan and President Ronald Reagan with Ray Charles after his performance.
1981 Inauguration. First Lady Nancy Reagan and President Ronald Reagan with Ray Charles after his performance.
     A victim of racial prejudice during his life and musical career, Ray Charles had supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s and also provided financial support to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King.  But Ray Charles was also his own man politically and often hard to pigeonhole.  At times he called himself a Hubert Humphrey Democrat (moderate-centrist), but he also became involved with the Republicans.  In the early 1970s, he appeared in performance at Richard Nixon’s White House.  In 1981, he played at President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural festivities.  And as a spokesman for disability issues during the early 1980s, he worked with Reagan who signed a proclamation on behalf of the disabled.  Reagan helped launch the National Organization On Disability’s Ad Council campaign which featured Ray Charles in its ads.  The Reagans also appeared briefly with Charles after he performed at some Country Music Association events in 1983, one of which was held at the White House.

President and Nancy Reagan with Ray Charles after President Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Dallas, Texas. August 23, 1984.
President and Nancy Reagan with Ray Charles after President Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Dallas, Texas. August 23, 1984.
     By August 1984, as President Reagan and vice president, George H.W. Bush ran for their second term, Ray Charles appeared and performed at the Republican Party National Convention in Dallas, Texas.  Charles appeared at least a couple of times performing.  He sang “God Bless America” at one point, and during the week of the convention, NBC-TV also did a special focus piece, with interview, on his music and career.  At the convention, Charles also appeared arm-in-arm with the President Regan and First Lady Nancy Reagan on August 23rd after Regan had made his acceptance speech.  But the high point of Charles’ involvement at the 1984 conven- tion came on August 24th when he sang “America the Beautiful” to close convention in a rousing, emotional finale that was seen by millions on television. The high point of Charles’ involvement at the 1984 convention came on Aug. 24th when he sang “America the Beautiful” to close convention in a rousing, emotional finale seen by millions on TV. An extensive NBC clip of that performance, introduced by NBC anchorman at the time, Tom Brokaw, shows delegates in the audience waving flags and placards.  During the segment, there are camera shots of President and Nancy Reagan and Vice President Bush and wife Barbara, on stage admiring Charles’ performance, and occasionally singing along as he played his piano.  As Charles sings his song, the camera cuts back-and-forth between Charles, the president’s party on stage, and delegates in the audience, with close-up shots of various people in the audience – of groups of convention attendees swaying back and forth, of a man in a cowboy hat waving an American flag, of the President’s daughter Maureen Reagan, and others.  At the end of the performance, President Reagan and Vice President Bush shake hands with Charles.  After his convention appearance in 1984 convention, Charles also played at Reagan’s Inaugural Ball in January 1985, and would visit Reagan a couple of times that year at the White House related to work involving the Red Cross and/or disability issues.  In 1986, the Reagans attended a Kennedy Center national awards ceremony which featured Charles as one of the honored artists that year.  Meanwhile, at the Democrat’s National Convention in 1988, a Jesse Jackson video concluded with the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful.”


Ray Charles shown on CD cover for 2005 album featuring “America the Beautiful” and other songs for Madacy Records.
Ray Charles shown on CD cover for 2005 album featuring “America the Beautiful” and other songs for Madacy Records.
Popular Appeal

     Regardless of politics, the Ray Charles version of  “America the Beautiful” has grown on people over the years, with many finding it especially moving.  On the web, for example, one blogger writes: “Hearing his rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’ never fails to move me to tears.”  That kind of comment is not unusual.  In fact, some regard the Charles version as the singular version, and in class all its own. 

     Ed Bradley, the late 60 Minutes correspondent, called it “the definitive version…an American anthem – a classic, just as the man who sang it.”  Others have suggested that Congress should “retire” the song in Charles’ honor.  Another writes that Charles’ performance of the song “is an awesome, noteworthy, modern, musical achievement” for which Charles should be “forever honored.”

     Still others have gone somewhat deeper into how Charles sings the song – namely how he would often lead his performance with the less-well known second verse:

O beautiful for heroes proved
in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life

America, America
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine

Cover of CD for 2002 album, “Ray Charles Sings For America,” Rhino/Wea.
Cover of CD for 2002 album, “Ray Charles Sings For America,” Rhino/Wea.
     According to some accounts, the poem’s original author, Katherine Bates, was making some pointed critique in this verse of the materialistic and self-serving robber barons of the 1890s, and was urging America to live up to its more nobler self and ideals.  She was also honoring the memory of those who died for their country.  Charles too, in his selection of the second verse as lead, is making this emphasis as well and more, as Newark Star-Ledger columnist Charles Taylor explains in a 2004 article for Salon.com:

“…Think about what that reordering does, what it means to hear those words before the familiar ‘O beautiful, for spacious skies…’  Beginning with images of sacrifice and death, then moving on to a prayer that asks — with no guarantee of being answered — that those sacrifices not be in vain, Ray Charles implies that America must earn the verse that follows.”

     In his performances, Charles would often get to the first verse of the poem somewhat later, explaining to his audience as he went:  “…And you know when I was in school we used to sing it something like this…,” then singing the familiar verse.Charles’ version of the song “teaches… a new humility.”
                           – C. Taylor, Salon.com
.  Charles Taylor, in Salon.com, continues making his point:

“…So the purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plains are introduced as a legend we hear as children.  They are not, in this [Ray Charles] version, God’s bounty there for our taking, but the reward of a collective dream, a dream all the sweeter, all the more worth working toward because it will never fully be realized.  God may or may not reward that striving, but as Charles sings it, the striving is where the concrete beauty of the country lies.”

“‘America the Beautiful’ is the least boastful of patriotic songs, and even so, Ray Charles’ version teaches it a new humility. ….”

After 9/11

“America The Beautiful” poster showing the fourth and final verse of the song.
“America The Beautiful” poster showing the fourth and final verse of the song.
     Charles’ performance of the song struck a special resonance with many across America after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  One observer commenting at SongFacts.com– “Jay from New York city” – explains his reaction upon hearing the song shortly after 9/11:

“On September 13, 2001, the radio station I listened to went back to playing music after nearly two days of news reports.  This was the first song I heard that morning after getting into my car, and it almost moved me to tears. Charles begins with what is traditionally the third verse:  ‘Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.’  Given the events of two days earlier, it was incredibly powerful and almost eerily poignant. I have only rarely heard this song — it is not the type of song that is typically played on the radio — but I feel that Charles’ rendition is the definitive version of the song, and it provided for me a musical memory I will never forget.”

“Music really and truly is my bloodstream you know  — my breathing, my respi- ratory system. And as long as the public is willing to listen to me, there ain’t no retiring until the day when they put me away.”
                        -Ray Charles

     In Sept 2002, Charles produced another “American songs”  album – Ray Charles Sings For America, by Rhino records.  This compilation, coming a year after the terrorist attacks, was a collection of American tribute songs with a few new tracks from Charles, including a spoken version, “Ray Reflects On America” and “God Bless America Again.”  The collection also includes “America The Beautiful.”  The following spring, on Friday, April 11, 2003, Charles sang “America The Beautiful” at Fenway Park in Boston at the Red Sox opening day baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, though the game was later rained out.


In Ray Charles’ birthplace of Albany, Georgia, a revolving, illuminated, bronze statue of Charles seated at a baby grand piano (by sculptor Andy Davis) is the centerpiece of the Ray Charles plaza and park.
In Ray Charles’ birthplace of Albany, Georgia, a revolving, illuminated, bronze statue of Charles seated at a baby grand piano (by sculptor Andy Davis) is the centerpiece of the Ray Charles plaza and park.
     Also in 2003, at what may have been his final performance in public, Charles  sang “Georgia On My Mind” and “America the Beautiful” at a televised gathering of journalists in Washington, D.C.  In 2004, New York Times writer Bob Herbert, describing Ray Charles’ style and impact as part religious, wrote: “Listen to the way he transforms ‘America the Beautiful’ from an anthem to a hymn…”  Ray Charles, at age 73, passed on in 2004.  However, he leaves behind a giant musical legacy for the ages, of which “America the Beautiful”  is just one part; an important and enduring interpretation that will continue to move people for many years to come.



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Date Posted: 5 November 2011
Last Update: 7 November 2011
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Ray Sings America, 1972-2011,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 5, 2011.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Cover of “Ray, Rare Genius” CD, 2010.
Cover of “Ray, Rare Genius” CD, 2010.
2006 CD featuring Ray Charles & Count Basie.
2006 CD featuring Ray Charles & Count Basie.
Ray Charles’ early recordings, 1949-1952.
Ray Charles’ early recordings, 1949-1952.

Stuart Elliott, “Chevy Turns to Pictures to Celebrate a Centennial,” New York Times, October 19, 2011.

Ray Charles, “America The Beautiful,” in performance, Dick Cavett Show, Sept. 18, 1972.

“Ray Charles Albums,” RayCharles.com.

“Ray Charles,”Wikipedia.org.

“America The Beautiful by Ray Charles,” SongFacts.com.

“Ray Charles Bio,” SwingMusic  .net.

“Ray Charles Sings ‘America the Beautiful’ to Close GOP Convention,” NBC Nightly News, August 24, 1984.

Tom Shales, “Battle Hymn Of the Republicans,” Washington Post, August 24, 1984, p. B-1.

Philip H. Dougherty, “Advertising; Campaign Set to Aid Disabled,” New York Times, April 19, 1985

Ray Charles, “America The Beautiful,” in performance, McCallum Theater, 1991.

Jon Pareles and Bernard Weinraub, “Ray Charles, Bluesy Essence of Soul, Is Dead at 73,” New York Times, June 11, 2004.

Charles Taylor, “The Genius Hits the Road,” Salon.com, Friday, June 11, 2004.

Bob Herbert, “Loving Ray Charles,” New York Times, June 14, 2004.

“An Appreciation of Ray Charles,” The Charlie Rose Show, Interviews with Phil Ramone, Marcus Roberts, Anthony Decurtis, June 14, 2004.

“Ray Charles At Republican Party Convention in 1984,” Ray Charles Video Museum, May 30 2010.

CBS Evening News, “The Deaths of Ronald Reagan and Ray Charles – June 2004 (4:45),” YouTube.

Rebecca Leung, “The Genius Of Ray Charles,” CBSNews.com, February 18, 2009.

“Ray Charles,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 165-167.

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