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It's time to appreciate the greatness of Ray Charles and 'Blazing Saddles'

When the legendary Ray Charles died a few weeks back, he had the misfortune of passing on right at the height of Ronald Reagan Death-a-Thon. And while the singer may have been overshadowed in death by the actor, there is no doubt as to their respective legacies. One man was an enduring symbol of peace and love and understanding who profoundly affected the lives of untold millions of people throughout the world, while the other guy sat in the Oval Office for eight years. Indeed, I sincerely agree with Ahmir Thompson of The Roots, who suggests that if anybody is to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, it should be Brother Ray, not Grandfather Ronnie.

In her remembrance of the blues/soul/country/gospel/ pop/R&B singer, Bonnie Raitt said, "All I know is that there was music before Ray Charles, and there was music after Ray Charles." Indeed, it was Charles--not Elvis, or Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis--who was the dividing line between the Then and the Now. It was the universality of his voice and his talent that allowed him to bridge the gap between Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, between Nat King Cole and Luther Vandross, between Cab Calloway and James Brown.

It has been suggested that Charles' blindness facilitated his ability to glide effortlessly from one musical genre to another. He was certainly aware of race, but he neither thought of it as an obstacle nor used it as a crutch. In one interview, he remembered having to go to the school for the blind in St. Augustine, Fla., which, amazingly, was segregated, and said, "Imagine separating kids by color when we couldn't even see each other. Now ain't that a bitch!"

He was an American original, and 1,000 years from now, people will still be listening to Ray Charles' music.


This week marks the release of the 30th anniversary DVD edition of Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. If Bonnie Raitt were asked about it, she would probably say that there were comedies before Blazing Saddles, and there were comedies after Blazing Saddles.

Certainly, there had never been anything like it before. And there have been a lot of movies in the past 30 years that tried to match the raunchy genius of that film, but none has come close. Even Brooks' follow-ups, like Spaceballs and History of the World, Part I, have fallen short of the classic.

I didn't even see Blazing Saddles until several months after its initial release. It was the first date I ever had with my wife. When I picked her up that night, she wasn't in a great mood, although I'm pretty sure it had nothing to do with the fact that she was going out with me. I laughed at the movie from start to finish. I laughed at the racial jokes; I laughed at the Nazi jokes; I laughed at the obscure references to a vaudeville artist (LePetomane) who could control his burps and flatulence and do the French national anthem with his butt. And when the big, fat, white town mayor, after being asked to mull over allowing railroad workers to live in their community in exchange for the workers' help in repelling the bad guys, replied, "We'll take the niggers and the chinks, but we don't want the Irish," I though I was going to have a seizure.

Meanwhile, Ana sat there, tight-lipped, offended and unamused. To this day, she won't watch that movie, even though they occasionally show an incredibly sanitized version of it on ABC Family Channel.

A couple months ago, they had it as the midnight show at the Catalina Theater. I asked Ana if she wanted to go, but she gave me a look like, "I'd rather go through childbirth again, this time without the epidural," which I took as a "no."

So a bunch of us decided to go, but several guys sissied out at the last minute. Buddy's and Jon's wives told them they couldn't go, which is weird, because neither of them is actually married. I ended up going with Pete Fajardo, the girls' basketball coach at Salpointe, and Stew, who coaches the Salpointe boys. (Despite the affiliation with Salpointe, they both have senses of humor, and neither of them drives drunk.)

The movie started, and Pete and I, in the grand tradition of midnight movies, began talking along with every single word. Then, this young couple sitting behind us, shushed us and said they couldn't hear what the actors were saying. When Pete asked, "You mean you don't already know what they're going to say?" they claimed they had never seen the movie before!

We were stunned into momentary silence, but then Cleavon Little pulled a gun on himself and said, "One false move and the n-- gets it!," and Pete and I were back at it. That couple moved, but there was no quiet section in the theater that night. Serves 'em right for having lived sheltered lives.

Next time, I'm going dressed as Mongo. And not the one from Shrek 2.

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