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Ray Charles, Amazing Grace and Rommi's Wager

"I'm none of those things."

By C. Rommial ButlerPublished 2 years ago Updated 10 months ago 6 min read
Ray's Version of Amazing Grace

I cannot say for sure, as so many years have passed, but I believe it was November of 1999. I was working as an audio technician for a sound company based out of Indianapolis. One particular day two coworkers and I traveled to Richmond, Indiana with a truckload of gear to do a show about which, at the time, I was not too excited.

You see, I was only twenty years old, and though I had often been exposed to all sorts of popular music, I was primarily interested in Heavy Metal; and not the hairspray glamor stuff, but 80s thrash and 90s death metal made by bands who had names that evoke visions of destruction and mayhem. So learning that I was going to the Richmond High School gymnasium to mike an orchestra for a living legend made no real impression on me.

The man whose performance I was going to work was none other than Ray Charles.

How he ended up playing a high school gymnasium on the edge of the Hoosier state is still something I do not know. I have since learned that there is a Jazz Society in Richmond, and that once upon a time the town was a crossroads and recording space for Jazz musicians, so I assume that Ray must have had some old friends call in a favor.

There I was, miking a 65-piece orchestra on a high school gymnasium floor. I would learn from this and other shows that orchestral musicians do not like to be miked up. I went up to more than a few and tut-tutted them for casually pushing the microphones away after I turned my back. They gave me sour looks which told me that my imprecations were unappreciated but that they would abide now that I caught them. Well, too bad for them. Ray wanted them miked, so they got miked.

Ray came out on stage for a brief sound check in the afternoon. He had a grand piano facing sideways and a keyboard perpendicular to that at the front of the stage. Later I would marvel at how this blind man, who at the time was pushing seventy, could pivot on his stool from the piano to the keys, play a nifty solo in mid-song, then pivot right back to the piano and continue the song without missing a note. He had a small band on stage: bass, guitar, drums. He did a few measures of some pieces with the orchestra, gave some gruff instructions in a surly manner, found everything to his satisfaction, and then I didn't see him again until the performance later in the evening.

That performance still stands to this day as my all time favorite; but as to the particular memory which I most cherish, I need to give you some background about my spiritual beliefs; or, I should say, my lack thereof. I am still to this day an atheist. A nonbeliever. Nowadays it is immaterial what other people believe, so long as they do not attempt to impose their beliefs upon me; but at the time I was a lot more irreverent, even militant. It would be fair to say I was more of an antitheist, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

Perhaps it was that day that I began to unlearn some of that militant feeling. Ray played a lot of beautiful songs. Georgia On My Mind, for instance, was a soaring peon to a beloved place which existed forever in the old man's imagination and his heart. I was transfixed at the back of the gym, moved in spite of my determination not to be.

Moved, yes. Moved to look at myself and wonder how I had not heard this before, how I had not understood that other people's hearts, though not like my own, still nevertheless deserved respect for beating to the tune of their own particular rhythm.

Then Ray Charles played Amazing Grace, and I wept. The tough guy, militant atheist, metalhead who was literally jamming Slayer in his headphones on the way to this show stood there openly weeping and not caring who saw; but no one saw, of course, because everyone was watching Ray, just like me.

The story of how the song Amazing Grace came to be is an instructive one. You see, the man who wrote the original verses in the 16th Century, John Newton, was himself a scurrilous atheist, and infamous—even among sailors!—for his profanity. He was working on the ship Greyhound, when a storm assailed it and threw a fellow crew member overboard. After many hours working under duress to keep the ship from capsizing, Newton exclaimed “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!”

The ship made it to shore and Newton lived. This episode made him think deeply about his lack of faith, and eventually, after many twists and turns in his life and character, it became a catalyst for a full conversion back into the fold of the Christianity he was taught in his youth. It also became the catalyst for the verses of the song that I would weep upon hearing in the glowing presence of Ray Charles, two and a half centuries later.

For my part, I have chosen to live my life on a slightly different trajectory from Pascal's Wager. Call it Rommi's Wager, if you will. I wager that if God is benevolent, as his believers so often insist, then it is not my belief in God that will determine His, Hers, or Its judgment of me, but rather the honor, integrity and dignity with which I comport myself in this life. Ergo, belief in God should not be required to appease God. God is, after all, omniscient and omnipotent, and if I choose not to believe, then I cannot possibly offend such a one. If, on the other hand, I choose to act on either my belief or non-belief in such a way as to cause harm to others, I will be dishonoring the gift of life I have been given in such wise as to offend and displease such a personage if they do exist.

If this is not the case, then God is not in fact benevolent, and I am willing to pay the price of an eternal Hell to spite Him.

I cannot say that I have always succeeded in following through with my commitment to honor, integrity and dignity. I am, after all, as Thomas Paine once wrote of King Solomon, a worn-out debauchee; but as the years have gone on, I have tried to temper the strength of my will in the fires of my passions so as to realize this grace which I seek to internalize in my own character.

The seed from which this journey has sprung was planted in the presence of a man I still consider my better, a superior teacher and acolyte of life who intoned to a wretch like me a sound so sweet that it changed my heart, and my life. Perhaps if Mr. Charles heard this, he would be upset that his magical rendition of the classic hymn did not convert me back to the fold; but then again, he also once covered John Lennon's Imagine, so I suspect he would have understood.

***** * *****

“I'm a firm believer in God himself, but that's as far as I can go. I'm not any denomination. I'm not Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist or Jewish or Muslim. I'm none of those things. And I'm sure that's just fine with God.” -Ray Charles, Esquire Interview


About the Creator

C. Rommial Butler

C. Rommial Butler is a writer, musician and philosopher from Indianapolis, IN. His works can be found online through multiple streaming services and booksellers.

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  • Rick Henry Christopher 7 months ago

    Thank you for sharing this Charles. Ray Charles is one of my longtime favorites. No matter what he sings I recognize his voice. He sang "Amazing Grace" with such a rousing soul. My own beliefs are much like Ray Charles. I have a strong beautiful faith but I do not believe in organized religion which I suspect has probably always been corrupt.

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