President Barack Obama paid tribute Wednesday to Ray Charles and the late singer-songwriter’s unmistakable “singular sound” that the president said continues to influence generations of musicians.
Obama noted that Charles grew up in the segregated South, his early years colored by poverty and tragedy. But, the president said, Charles had two things working in his favor: a strong mother and music.
He quoted Charles as once saying that he was born with music inside of him and noted that Charles’ career encompassed every genre, including jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, country and soul.
“Whatever genre of music he was playing, there was no mistaking his singular sound: that virtuoso piano playing that matched that one-of-a-kind voice,” Obama said at the White House, where he and first lady Michelle Obama hosted a taping of “Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House.”
“Even as a young man, he had the rich, raw honey tone of an old soul,” Obama said.
Calling Charles one of his musical favorites, Obama said that whether a person was overcome by feelings of love, longing or loss, “Ray Charles had the rare ability to collapse our weightiest emotions into a single note.”
“He couldn’t see us, but we couldn’t take our eyes off of him,” the president said.
Usher, Demi Lovato, gospel singer Yolanda Adams and The Band Perry were among a group of contemporary artists who performed Charles’ music for an audience that included some of the musician’s children, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Usher performed “Georgia On My Mind,” one of Charles’ most-recognized hits, along with “What I’d Say,” which brought the audience to its feet.
The hour-long program is scheduled to be broadcast by PBS stations nationwide on Friday.
The audience booed playfully when Obama mentioned during his welcoming remarks that Wednesday’s program is the final “In Performance” event of his administration. Obama will leave office in January after two terms.
“Over the past seven years, Michelle and I have set aside nights like this to celebrate the music that shaped America,” he said, adding that it had become one of their most-cherished traditions. “I will not sing. But for our last one, it is fitting that we pay tribute to one of our favorites.”
Mrs. Obama said the event would be “a little bittersweet for all of us” because it’s the final one.
“We’re going to have a lot of lasts coming up,” she said earlier Wednesday during a student workshop with some of the performers. “And this is the last of one of my favorite events of all time. So we figured we’ve got to go out with a bang, right?”
The Obamas have hosted more than a dozen “In Performance” events, including the tribute to Charles.
Charles, who lost his sight as a child, died in June 2004.