Whether he was falling into or out of love, the late Ray Charles had a penchant for falling into Detroit's cars when he sang the blues.

Charles favored Cadillac, the standard of motorized excellence in the 1950s when he began establishing his reputation as one of the world's greatest performers of blues and country and western music.

To get his woman, he needed that car -- the symbol of wealth, the high-powered version of manhood. No woman could resist a man who had the wherewithal to own and drive a Cadillac, Charles theorized in his songs, as evidenced by the opening lyrics of his 1953 classic, "It Should've Been Me":

As I passed by

A real fine hotel

A chick walked out

She sure looked swell.

I gave her the eye

And started to carry on

When a Cadillac cruised up

And "swish" she was gone.

It should've been me

With that real fine chick.

It should've been me

With that real fine chick.

Hey, hey, hey, hey, driving that Cadillac.

There is substantially more than greed and lust at work in these lyrics. In the racial context of 1950s America, there are also the matters of aspiration and pride -- of overcoming the white majority's view of black value.

Truth is, even when they had the money, blacks typically could not walk into a Cadillac dealership of the 1950s and just order up a car. In my native New Orleans, for example, blacks were expressly forbidden from entering a Cadillac dealership to do business.

From the perspective of many southern white Cadillac dealers at the time, it was a legitimate, logical practice of discrimination. It just wouldn't do to have a statutorily inferior minority race -- one whose limited societal status was affixed by law -- shopping for and buying a symbol of superiority.

As a result, many southern blacks, my late parents among them, frequently bought their Cadillac cars through secondary sources -- usually as used vehicles directly sold to them by previous owners who were white.

My mother, Lillian, perfected that buying technique. She kept a keen eye on the latest changes in Cadillac cars. She then schmoozed white owners of older models and persuaded them to "get rid" of their old Caddies by selling the cars to her, which she often got at steep discounts.

The whites bought new Cadillacs. My mother polished and drove the old ones, perfectly willing to let our neighbors think that our teacher/scientist father, Daniel, somehow had become rich enough to live up to the often-stated Ray Charles blues promise:

Baby, I'll buy you a diamond ring

Cadillac and everything.

The curious thing is that neither of my Catholic, conservative parents liked Ray Charles, who died last June at age 73 at his home in Beverly Hills, and whose life is now the subject of the hit movie "Ray."

Charles was a moanin', groanin' blues man who frequently sang about women and sex in ways that would make our father snatch the little RCA Victor transistor radios from our sibling hands whenever we had the temerity to finger-pop to one of his songs.

(I almost lost my radio forever when my father caught me shadow-dancing and bumping to a Ray Charles rendition of "C.C. Rider," the lyrics of which my father regarded as "lewd, vulgar, cheap.") But there were other radios, many of which were in the family cars of friends whose wonderfully recalcitrant parents did not share my parents' views of Charles and his music. It was in one of those cars, a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air with a mint-green body and cream top, that I first heard two of my favorite Ray Charles songs, "I Got A Woman" and "Leave My Woman Alone," the latter of which has these great car lyrics:

Well, I know you got your money

And you've got a new fifty-six too

But if I ever see my little girl in your new car

I'm gonna do some work on you.

I've spent endless hours in arguments with friends over whether "new fifty-six" referred to a 1956 Chevrolet or 1956 Buick. If you know the answer, and can back it up with documentation, kindly drop me a line at warbro69@msn.com.

When Ray Charles sang about buying a Cadillac early in his career, it meant more to black audiences than trying to impress a woman with a flashy car.