My wife has a simple theology. As far as she is concerned, Ray Charles is God.
This isn’t an organized religion and she doesn’t attend services. But I know what she means: When you hear Ray Charles sing, you can easily be convinced that there is a kind of divinity making itself heard through his throat.
It isn’t strictly speaking his music which causes this reaction. Some of the songs he sings are as trivial as any other pop music, the arrangements just as kitschy, and his backup musicians are often the same ones that show up elsewhere when no divinity is present.
No, it is a quality in his voice that transcends the pop music he sings. It is as if all of humanity is trying to crowd through the narrow pipe of his trachea.
What you hear is pain, joy, weariness, enthusiasm, strength, vulnerability, death and birth, all at once.
Well-trained voices of opera singers are meant to sound effortless; they know how to ease the notes across their vocal cords and project them to the back of the house. With Charles, the rasp of his voice underlines how hard the music is working to get so much meaning through so small a tube.
I’m going on about one singer-deity, but I am myself a polytheist. There are a tiny handful of others working in pop culture that bring so much to their medium that they transcend it and reach the rank of high art.
You hear something of the same going on in the tenor of Willie Nelson. Now, I am not a country-Western fan. Mostly such music gives me the worms. But Nelson is something beyond the category and every note he utters seems rife with human life.
Others on my list include Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, and — yes, I’m serious about this — Jerry Lee Lewis.
In each, there is an authenticity in their voice that only gets more profound as they age.
You should hear the Killer bend Somewhere Over the Rainbow into a melancholy confession of regret. I doubt he could have managed that when he was a young Turk.
And Billie Holiday, in the year before she died, worn threadbare by heroin and alcohol, sang her Don’t Explain at New York’s Plaza Hotel with Duke Ellington and you can barely stand listening to her pain:
“Cry to hear folks chatter/ And I know you cheat./ But right and wrong don’t matter/ When you’re with me, sweet.”
The same authenticity — the sense that the joy of life depends on the pain and loss caused by death — shows in the guitar solos of B.B. King and the comedy of Richard Pryor.
In all these cases, the quality that transcends pop is soaked thoroughly into the sound. Like a hologram, which you can scissor into many pieces and each contains the whole image, you can slice up a Ray Charles song or a B.B. King guitar lick and the whole of humanity is in every sliver, complete and undiminished.
When you hear something so human, you recognize instantly its status as art. Most pop is merely commercial and no matter how catchy the tune, it comes and goes quickly, with no more lasting influence than yesterday’s newspaper.
In an age that likes to downplay the difference between high and low art, it is important to recognize the difference. Too often, anyone who makes that suggestion is accused of being a snob and an elitist.
But there is a difference between those things which entertain us and those which make us recognize and feel our own humanity, that open us up to the wider world of thoughts and emotions. And despite the reigning egalitarianism, the one has more value than the other.
A snob is someone who believes one thing is better than another for the wrong reasons. But what do you call it if you recognize the right reasons?
A snob believes that money or birth or style makes one form of art better than another. But it is not money or style that makes something better.
It is quality, authenticity, genuineness: Mozart at his best had it and Ray Charles at his best has it. Style has nothing to do with it.
Which is why Ray Charles could sing country and Western, and why Willie Nelson could sing Stardust.
For style is merely the vessel the humanity pours into. And it is the humanity that makes it art, not the style.