The most enduring legacy of Ray Charles remains the artistic cultivation of Soul music, an original fusion of R&B and Gospel. Charles appropriated the camaraderie in religious hymns for the burgeoning world of popular music and instantly caused uproar. Many traditionalists took offense to Charles and his attempts to fuse his own religious values with those of Rock ‘n Roll, namely sexuality and individuality. Charles used the hymn “Jesus Is All the World to Me,” as the musical backbone for his historic, smash single “I Got a Woman” in 1955, which boldly sang the praises of his second wife, the beautiful Della Howard, and not Jesus Christ.
The contributions of Ray Charles to popular music seem like history today, especially since his passing a little more than two years ago. Fans and students of Ray Charles now see him test the traditions of American society in film; Jamie Foxx as Ray, singing “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” to angry and adoring fans alike. We can also read about Ray Charles in the liner notes of his numerous and immense song anthologies. Still, it’s easy to miss that his massive achievements remain not just as influence, but flesh and blood.
Charles absorbed any controversy associated with fusing the religious and the secular in popular music 50 years ago, but the artistic dilemma itself still remains. Jack White, now one of America’s most mainstream musicians, revived this musical juxtaposition in 2001. At the face, The White Stripes cut “Little Bird” functions as a pronouncement of male sexuality, “I got a little bird” just as “I Got a Woman.” The slide-blues song possesses another function, however, just as the Ray Charles song did.
White, a Catholic, connects his “little bird” to those in Fioretti’s “Little Flowers,” which recounts St. Francis of Assisi preaching to birds “always seek to praise God.” White sings, “If you give me a look/I’m gonna get the book/I’m gonna preach the word/I want to preach to birds”; the religion layered upon sexuality, in terms of rhetorical priority, whereas Charles emphasized Rock values on top of a Gospel beat.
Surely in this case Ray Charles acts as the innovator, Jack White the benefactor. Jack White isn’t the first to artistically meld Jesus, his guitar, and a girlfriend, but he’s added worthy creativity to the line of religious theme through Rock music. Following the genius pop-pianist, White reminds us of the true, organic nature of Rock music; that, like society, Rock ‘n Roll battles, balances tradition and autonomy. And whether there’s a moral issue facing their experimenting with values of religion and sexuality, Ray Charles and Jack White, at least, assert metaphoric love.