The only thing bad about the funeral for Ray Charles was that he died.
The ceremony here Friday morning at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was beautiful, the sweetest balance of joy and sorrow. B.B. King sat on a stool by the coffin and begged the congregation's indulgence as he pulled out a big white handkerchief and wiped away his tears, saying "forgive me a little bit," and some of the 1,500 mourners shouted out, "that's all right, baby, that's all right," like a mother soothing a child. And then the big man began to sing "Please Accept My Love," his fingers on the strings of his electric guitar, in a rasp and a lullaby: "I don't even know your name, but I love you just the same. If I could hold your hand, I'd make you understand . . ."
The two-hour memorial service was about the restorative and transforming power of music to help and to heal, said the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray, the church's pastor and a friend of Charles. "Eyesight sees what is on the outside," Murray said of the blind singer, pianist and composer. "Insight sees what is on the inside."
And the mourners called back in response, "Praise Jesus!" Murray worked himself up and let it go: "Ray Charles saw the dream, he didn't see the nightmare. 'I don't know about you,' says Ray. 'But I saw the light. I saw the light.' " And the church rose to its feet.
Among the performers for Ray Charles Robinson, who died last week at 73 of liver disease, were Stevie Wonder, Wynton Marsalis, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell and saxman David "Fathead" Newman. An amazing rendition of the Lord's Prayer was sung by Susaye Greene, a former member of Charles's backup singers, the Raelettes.
From the pulpit, Clint Eastwood said kind words and so did Cicely Tyson and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and condolences from former president Bill Clinton and producer Quincy Jones were read. The flowers in the church came from around the world, from the Rolling Stones, Ice Cube, Van Morrison, and the Oak Ridge Boys -- for such was the eclectic sweep of Charles's music across genres and generations, in soul, R&B, blues, gospel, country, jazz and funk.
The service was at the place known as FAME Church, in central L.A., a tough neighborhood far away from Beverly Hills, where Charles lived. FAME's is one of the oldest African American congregations in the city. It is a crossroads of religion, politics, entertainment and social action, where the stained-glass windows showcase the biblical saints along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. Its Sunday services have hosted a long line of aspirants for higher office. In attendance Friday were the city's mayor, James Hahn, its chief of police, the county sheriff and half the city council, plus Little Richard and Johnny Mathis. Clinton himself has been in the church a dozen times over his career.
It is a church built to play music in, with a piano and drum set as bookends to the altar, the place wired with speakers, and excellent acoustics. The Crenshaw High School Elite Choir, in blue-and-gold robes, rocked the house, while matronly ushers in white gloves and sashes helped the mourners to their seats.
One of Charles's 12 children, Robert Robinson, now a minister at Great Faith Ministries, told the audience, "If you want to do something for my family today, get up and shout hallelujah!" They did.
Jackson read from Psalm 23 about fearing no evil in the valley of the shadow of death, but he said that "death and the grave is not the end -- it is a pause of rest before we cross the river." Jackson paused and then added: "Heaven wanted some music, and sent for Ray Charles. Now Heaven has a maestro."
Cicely Tyson, a lifelong friend of "Brother Ray," as many referred to him, read from a poem by Roscoe Lee Browne, "I will sing to you if the birds do not come," and the actress, trembling, almost whispered, "If the birds do not come, Ray, will you sing to me?"
The saxophone was played by Newman, whose reedwork was breathy, like an old man weeping on a bar stool, as he played off the melody of "Georgia on My Mind," one of Charles's biggest hits.
The singer's manager, Joe Adams, said Billy Preston's doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital would not permit the singer to attend. "He cried like a baby this morning," Adams said. Neither could Quincy Jones attend; he was in Russia. But he asked that the Charles version of "My Buddy" be played: "Nights are long since you went away, I think about you all through the day, my buddy."
Adams then introduced Clint Eastwood. "To look at him, you're like kind of a square," he said. "But in reality, he's kind of a swinger." Eastwood, in fact, is known as a jazz lover.
"He was called a genius," Eastwood said. "I don't know what a genius is." But he said Charles had talent, plenty of it, "and nobody had a stronger work ethic than Ray Charles," who performed more than 10,000 concerts in his career and had not missed a tour in 53 consecutive years, until he was forced to cancel his remaining travel in 2003 for health reasons. "I was very proud to be his friend," Eastwood said.
Dressed in black, Willie Nelson came to the podium, and accompanied by a piano sang "Georgia" for Charles, slowing the tempo way, way down, keeping his phrasing sparse, lonesome as a stretch of empty road. When he reached the lyrics, early in the song, about how "a song of you comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines," Nelson wavered, but got through it, and then the harmonica player wailed, and someone in the church was praising it, saying, "Right now, all right now, blow it, blow it!"
After he was finished, Nelson told the story about how he and Charles loved to play chess (Charles was an expert) and how the blind musician always, always beat him. Finally, Nelson said he pleaded with his opponent, "Next time we play, Ray, can we turn on the lights?"
Stevie Wonder came next, and said, "I never thought I'd write a song that Ray Charles would sing, but God knew more." Wonder said he was sad that Charles had not lived long enough to see hate and injustice leave this world. He sang "I Won't Complain," a gospel tune. "Sometimes my clouds hang low and I can hardly see the road," goes the verse, but he picked it up with the refrain, "I say thank you Lord, I say thank you Lord," and the seats in the balcony of the church literally shuddered and bounced with the people clapping and stomping, and the choir came in.
While the mourners read from their memorial pamphlets an obituary for Charles, a recording was played of his rendition of "America the Beautiful," with its great changes of phrase and lyric, turning rote into heartfelt, reimagining the song: "Wait a minute! I'm talking about America, sweet America . . . "
Near the close, Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz trumpeter and composer from New Orleans, rose and played his horn, one-handed, before the casket and then strode down the aisle, the Crescent City jazz funeral style, and the mood bounced back.
And finally, they ended, with a recording of a duet by Johnny Mathis and Charles, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from the last album he recorded, still unreleased, and mourners walked past the open casket. And there was Ray Charles, in a crisp black tux and tie, his hands -- those strong fingers, thick with muscle -- folded upon his belly, a pair of dark, cool, wraparound shades around his eyes, and his expression: It wasn't a smile, but it wasn't a frown, either.
Charles was buried later at Inglewood Cemetery. En route, his hearse briefly paused outside the doors of his recording studio, now a historic landmark.