11 June 2004

The Man Behind The Music

"Music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can't retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver...I believe the Lord will retire me when He's ready. And then I'll have plenty of time for a long vacation." -Ray Charles

Well, God is ready, and he retired Ray Charles, 73, on Thursday, 11:35 am PDT (2:35 am, Friday, in Manila) at his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by family and friends. He died after a long fight with liver disease. During his career, he achieved 13 Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement honor in 1987. According to Reuters, he played his 10,000th concert last May at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and in 2002 celebrated the 40th anniversary of his first hit on the country music charts, "I Can't Stop Loving You."

He has been exposed to stress and problems since he was a child. At age 5, he watched powerless as his older brother drowned in a tub. The most he could manage at the time was scream for his mama to help. He lost his sight to glaucoma when he was six. At 15, he was devastated by the death of his Mama. During past interviews, Ray spoke highly of his mother, and praised her wisdom, love, and discipline.
"Mama was a country woman with a whole lot of common sense. She understood what most of our neighbors didn't --- that I should not grow dependent on anyone except myself. 'One of these days, I ain't gonna be here,' she kept hammering inside my head. Meanwhile, she had me scrub floors, chop wood, wash clothes, and play outside like all the other kids...And her discipline didn't stop just because I was blind. She wasn't about to let me get away with any foolishness." Ray Charles, in an interview.
In the same interview, he openly admitted the value of therapeutic crying,
"I suppose I have always done my share of crying, especially when there's no other way to contain my feelings. I know that men ain't supposed to cry, but I think that's wrong. Crying's always been a way for me to get things out which are buried deep, deep down. When I sing, I often cry. Crying is feeling and feeling is being human. Oh yes, I cry."
Though Ray Charles' Mama warned him that she will not be around forever, he was grief-stricken when she died:
"When a boy has just one parent and mama, he will cling to her like she's life itself. And he will never even start thinking about what life would be like without her. The thought is too terrible...I was unable to deal with the facts of death; I was unable to accept the reality of death. I had to make up my own mind, my own way, in my own time. I found the situation frightening but that week of silence and suffering also made me harder, and that hardness has stayed with me the rest of my life."
His 15 years of heroin addiction become public knowledge with his 1964 arrest in Boston for heroin possession. He stopped touring for all of 1965 to kick the habit and enrolled in the rehabiltation program at St. Francis Hospital near Los Angeles. His decision to withdraw from the world was an example of his determination. In St. Francis Ray learned how to play chess and cards in Braille. After the heroin addiction, came inner ear problems. He survived this one, too, and even urged Congress to increase funding for research into hearing loss in 1987, saying,
"Most people take their hearing for granted. I can't. My eyes are my handicap, but my ears are my opportunity. My ears show me what my eyes can't. My ears tell me 99 percent of what I need to know about my world."
Next came a hip replacement surgery after a hip fracture last year. Weeks before he died, he had been unable to speak, and his voice was reduced to a whisper. Quite an irony for the man who became famous because of the unique sound of his voice which expressed the emotions of his songs.

Unlike Reagan, not much was said about the liver disease which reports said finally did him in. I can only speculate that the liver disease was an off-shoot of the years and years of heroin addiction. Second to drug overdose, the most common cause of death of chronic heroin users is chronic liver disease (15.2%). Of course, I can be wrong, and we will never find out. But it really does not matter now, does it?

God be with you, Ray Charles!

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