The Genius of Soul allowed wine, women and song to cloud his political judgment
When Ray Charles first performed in Paris in the 60s, the Algerians sent him a message that he was safe despite the fact that they were fighting a war against French colonialism.
It’s the kind of ambiguous tale that looms large in the legacy of the brilliant genre-bending artist who died last June, just missing the buzz over Ray, the recently released flick starring Jamie Foxx.
Charles may have been a musical and business genius, but on the political front it’s an altogether different matter. He liked to get paid and laid – and I’m afraid he allowed this aspect of his personality to cloud his political judgment.
His best-known transgression was performing in South Africa when the United Nations-sanctioned cultural boycott was in full effect – a boycott supported by the African National Congress and all the liberation movements.
When Charles played there in 1981, the Black Consciousness Movement (of Azania) made it clear that they loved him but that this was not the time to appear in that racist state. The appeal didn’t faze him, and as a result he faced pickets in South Africa and 15 cities in North America, including Toronto, Albany, New York City and Los Angeles.
All that the UN asked for was a simple apology and a pledge not to return to South Africa until apartheid was abolished. But Charles wouldn’t utter the “sorry’ word and instead told his detractors that they could “kindly kiss the far end” of his anatomy.
Other stars got it right: Curtis Mayfield, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, George Benson, Eartha Kitt, Jimmy Cliff and many others. Even Sammy Davis Jr., a card-carrying Republican, appealed to then president Ronald Reagan, one of the pariah state’s greatest supporters, to reverse his position.
Charles described himself as a Hubert Humphrey Democrat, meaning a left-moderate Democrat in the parlance of the times. But when he was offered $100,000 to perform America The Beautiful at Reagan’s second inaugural gala in 1985, he softened his stance on the Republicans. He had recorded a version of this patriotic song back in 1972, in the days when black activists were hostile to the symbols of American nationhood and on principle wouldn’t stand up at public events when the national anthem was played.
At Reagan’s celebration, Charles sang and played piano to a taped orchestral background, without a band, and he and long-time manager Joe Adams pocketed all the money. Adams was proud of the contract. When he met with Ron Wilkins of the Unity and Action Network (Los Angeles chapter) and actor Robert Hooks on the issue, Adams boasted that “for that kind of money we would have sung America The Beautiful at a Ku Klux Klan rally.”
I always blamed Adams for turning the race-conscious Charles into a puddle for the Republican party. Adams had been an L.A. radio personality, entrepreneur and actor who starred in many Hollywood films, including Carmen Jones, with Lena Horne, and the original Manchurian Candidate, in which he played Frank Sinatra’s psychiatrist. He managed Charles at a time when African-American artists were almost exclusively handled by Euro-Americans. So Charles made a brave choice in hiring Adams.
Still, I’ve come to believe over time that most of the political gaffes belonged to Charles himself. There’s no other way to understand his chronic insensitivity to the dreams and desires of black America. In the end – sadly – it appears that the “Genius of Soul” was unfailingly his own man.