36 years ago, state song was on Georgia’s mind

Ray Charles enjoys the ovation he received from a joint session of the Georgia Legislature. The Assembly made his version of the song 'Georgia on My Mind' the official state song after he sang it to the session in 1979.

Credit: AP FILE

Credit: AP FILE

It had the ageless voice of a native son, a haunting melody, and lyrics that some feel perfectly describe the sentiment of those born here. “Georgia On My Mind” became Georgia’s official state song on April 24, 1979 when Gov. George Busbee signed it into law.

Although the song had been around some time, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930, it became a major hit with Ray Charles’ 1960 recording on his album “The Genius Hits the Road,” reaching the number one spot for one week in November 1960 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

With his trademark blissful grin, ever-present Ray-Bans and side-to-side swaying at the piano, Charles’ definitive version of the song left no doubt that he was the best choice to represent the state.

The blind, soulful crooner was born Ray Charles Robinson on Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, but his family moved to Greenville, Fla., when he was a few months old. Nicknamed “The Genius” for his uncanny musical stylings, Charles said he always considered Georgia home.

His genius was the ability to channel so many major elements of American music: gospel, country, jazz, rhythm and blues and the call-and-response form that dated back to slave songs. The arrangements varied from the syrupy orchestral and choral backings of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” to the sexual moans and groans of “What’d I Say,” a song that was banned on many radio stations at the time. But tying them all together was the exuberant rasp of Charles’ gravelly voice.

His version of “Georgia on My Mind” used to be played with a video montage each time Georgia Public Television went off the air nightly. With the advent of 24-hour broadcasting, it is rarely used now, the last time being Feb. 17, 2009 for the permanent sign-off of GPB’s analog TV stations.

The song was the theme song to the CBS sitcom set in Atlanta, “Designing Women,” initially as an instrumental performed by Doc Severinsen and later a recording by Ray Charles. Charles’ version was also sampled for rap group Field Mob’s 2005 single “Georgia,” featuring Jamie Foxx and Ludacris. Lil Wayne also uses it in his satirical song about George W. Bush called “Georgia Bush.”

Sometime after 2000, Charles invited Italian singer Giorgia Todrani to sing it with him after learning she was named in honor of the song.

Jamie Foxx (who portrayed Charles in a biopic) and Alicia Keys, backed by Quincy Jones and His Orchestra, performed a new arrangement in honor of Ray Charles at the 2005 Grammy Awards.

At the time of his death at age 73 on June 10, 2004, Charles averaged about 200 concerts a year. "Georgia on My Mind" was usually a highlight.

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