In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Ray Charles we heard on “Georgia On My Mind” was 30. He sounded 300. By 1960, Charles had been working as a musician for 13 years, playing around with every form of popular music that America had to offer — jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, early rock ‘n’ roll, crooned standards, whatever made sense at the moment. By merely dabbling in country, he became one of the greatest country music artists of all time. All of those things exist in his version of “Georgia On My Mind,” the song that really made Charles into a crossover star for the first time. None of them dominates. Only Charles’ voice dominates.
“Georgia On My Mind” had a history before Charles got to it. The white jazz-pop pianist Hoagy Carmichael co-wrote and recorded “Georgia On My Mind” in 1930, and his version is perfectly lovely, even if it’s now a historical afterthought. Frank Trumbauer covered it and made it into a hit a year later. Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks were playing it in the ’50s, and years later, after they’d become the Band, they recorded a version of it for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential bid. (The song was a favorite of the Georgia native Carter; witness this video of Willie Nelson singing the song while Carter plays harmonica.)
But in the end, those other versions of the song don’t matter; it belongs, now and forever, to Charles. His voice is a craggy croak, tired and broken. But it’s beautiful, too. There’s sweetness and devotion in it, and he’s clearly singing about something that fills him with bliss. He’s not a showy singer, exactly, but it’s clear from the song that he’s not bound by the weariness of that voice. Late in the song, he hits a couple of dazzling falsetto notes, and stretches his syllables out, and power just crackles out of him.
It remains an open question whether “Georgia On My Mind” was originally a song about a state or a woman; there’s a story that Carmichael really wrote it about his sister. But in Charles’ hands, it’s absolutely a state, and it leaves a lot unspoken. Charles rarely got explicitly political, but there are forces at work in this song. Charles came from Georgia, but “Georgia On My Mind” isn’t a simple love letter to home. It’s complicated. The Civil Rights struggle was in full swing in 1960, and Charles’ home state was where much of that struggle was happening. If I hear a conflicted bittersweetness in Charles’ voice, in the way he lets himself sound broken-down and exhausted, I don’t think I’m imagining things. This was all subtext, of course. Plenty of segregationists probably heard and enjoyed Charles’ version of “Georgia On My Mind.” But they weren’t hearing it right.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ludacris and underrated Atlanta duo Field Mob rapping over Oscar-winning Ray Charles portrayer Jamie Foxx’s version of “Georgia On My Mind” on Field Mob’s 2005 single “Georgia”:
And here’s Lil Wayne using that “Georgia” beat to absolutely excoriate then-president George W. Bush on his 2006 post-Katrina mixtape classic “Georgia Bush”: