Ray Charles Funeral – Willie Nelson / Stevie Wonder / B.B. King / Glen Campbell – First AME Church (Los Angeles, CA)
Even on the most prosaic of occasions, hearing a decent version of “Georgia On My Mind” can be an evocative experience. It’s just one of those perfect songs, so perfect, in fact, that it really takes little more than the singing of its very first word — Georgia — to prompt shivers down the spine.
So when Willie Nelson steps up to the microphone and offers the magical first lyric at the funeral for Ray Charles — he of the definitive version of the Hoagy Carmichael classic — at the First AME Church in South Los Angeles on the morning of June 18, it’s nothing short of transcendent. Two lines later, Nelson’s voice cracks with lament over the loss of his longtime friend, and it’s like the entire room of 1,500 invitees, hell, the entire neighborhood even, heaves in the wake.
Nelson’s performance was but one of several towering moments by several storied figures who came out to honor Charles, who had died eight days earlier. Stevie Wonder hit a spiritual note with “I Won’t Complain”. B.B. King, choking back tears, gave to the room his own, intimate “Please Accept My Love”. Glen Campbell presented a nicely understated and dignified rendition of the country gospel standard “Where Could I Go But To The Lord?”
Speakers included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cicely Tyson and Clint Eastwood; video tributes were offered from former president Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby and Quincy Jones. Other guests included Wynton Marsalis, Little Richard and Johnny Mathis. The audience was a testament to the reach of Charles’ enduring, singular artistry.
The event was one of both joy and sadness, uplift and solemnity. Prayers were punctuated with hallelujahs, and the sounds of the Crenshaw High School Elite Choir conjured up the heavens. Both Nelson and King shared light-hearted anecdotes about perpetually losing to Charles in games of chess and cards, respectively. Some marveled at Charles’ happy demeanor. The word “genius” was used to describe Charles more than a half-dozen times during the funeral. Wonder called him a man whose voice “made me want to feel like I wanted to live deeper, care more.”
Perhaps Jackson put it best. “Heaven now has a maestro,” the reverend pronounced, in his typically emotive style. “Ray, when you first get there…before you meet Count [Basie] and before you meet the Duke [Ellington], before you meet friends and loved ones — there’s a man over there across the river who gives sight to the blind, there’s a man over there who gives hope to the spare, there’s a man over there that gives joy without end. There’s a man across the river. We commend you to him.”
Selections of Charles’ own recorded music, played at various points during the services, proved no less powerful in their impact. Over a silent reading of the obituary, Charles’ version of “America The Beautiful”, a monumental reading that implies soul and compassion rather than simply blind patriotism, brought many in the hall to tears. During the recessional, a recently recorded duet with Johnny Mathis of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” offered a final sense of peace and warmth to this grand goodbye.
Outside the church, across a thin blue line and a gleaming, waiting hearse, the regular folk amassed to pay their respects. Some craned to see the famous; some aimed disposable, digital or video cameras. Others hoisted handmade signs honoring Charles; one man sat quietly painting a substantial portrait of his departed hero. They watched patiently as the day grew long and the sun grew intense for the casket to emerge from the church. When it did, the entire block seemed to tingle, tremble, and think only of Brother Ray in this, his last exit.
Among the crowd, parents guided, tugged and hoisted their children. One father wiggled his 4-year-old girl into a sightline for the news media’s video feed of the events inside. Did the girl even know what a Ray Charles was? Hard to tell, but just that she was there was a hopeful sign. One day, maybe she too will recognize the genius and claim a small part of Ray Charles as her own.