Jewish World Review June 14, 2004 / 25 Sivan, 5764

Zev Chafets

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Hit the road, Elvis: The King was only a pretender to the crown worn by Ray Charles | Since the death of Ronald Reagan, a lot of Republicans have been calling for the Gipper to be enshrined on Mount Rushmore, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

I have no problem with that. Reagan was a great President. But he didn't win the Cold War all by himself. He had powerful allies. One of them died last week: Ray Charles.

Charles is the first of rock 'n' roll's septuagenarian Founding Fathers to depart this earthly bandstand. Soon enough he will be joined by the others: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Fats Domino.

Let's not argue about who else belongs in this august company. No one does. Elvis was briefly a rocker, then became a pop icon. Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke were great, but they died too young to qualify as elder statesmen. Jerry Lee Lewis was inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he was never a real creator. What's a Jerry Lee Lewis song? Nothing more than Little Richard in whiteface.

James Brown is also a charter member of the Hall, but he doesn't quite belong with the Founding Five. He didn't break out of the R&B ghetto until the mid-1960s. The War for American Musical Independence was over by then.

If Reaganism brought down the Berlin Wall, Ray Charles and his fellow revolutionaries brought down the Irving Berlin Wall. They did it in 1955, with a barrage of three minute hot-wax bombs - Bo Diddley's two-sided hit, "I'm a Man/Bo Diddley"; Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti"; Chuck Berry's "Maybelline"; Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" and Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman."

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The Founding Fathers were all black men born between 1926 and 1932, all raised in the Southern cradle extending from St. Louis down the Mississippi to New Orleans and eastward to rural Georgia. And yet, despite their common origins, they were vividly different. Little Richard sounds nothing like Chuck Berry. Bo Diddley invented his own beat. Fats Domino is unmistakably himself and nobody else (you try rhyming "in the rain" with "hand in hand").

Ray Charles was the most sophisticated musician among the Founders and the best businessman - a combination that kept him off the oldies circuit. Everything he hummed turned into a Ray Charles song. He wasn't the first artist to combine profane lyrics with gospel arrangements, but he was the first to make it sound just right.

Ronald Reagan's assault on the Iron Curtain might have succeeded even without the revolution of 1955. He was, after all, the Great Communicator. But he didn't come to his audience cold. They had been warmed up for years by the sounds of Chuck and Bo, Richard and Fats and the high priest, Ray Charles. The Founders, and their disciples (very much including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) wrote the marching music for the liberation of Eastern Europe.

That, of course, was never their intention. They made music for money and fame and the sheer pleasure of self expression. But the marketplace worked its magic; not even the dourest young Communist could resist such a sexy, passionate, individualistic, fun-inducing snake dance - or the society that produced it. Ronald Reagan may have liberated the peoples of Eastern Europe, but Ray and his glorious contemporaries unchained their hearts.

And before that, ours.

For this alone, Ray Charles and the other Founding Fathers of the Revolution of 1955 deserve a Rushmore all their own.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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