Charles’ version of the song, or part of it, was featured in a 2011 TV advertisement that ran during the 2011 World Series. It was 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 was 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 have succeeded. 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 were certainly hitting some persuasive notes. But the story that follows here 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.
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.
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
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine
“…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 9/11Charles’ 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.”
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.
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.
Date Posted: 5 November 2011
Last Update: 21 April 2015
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Ray Sings America, 1972-2011,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 5, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
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