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Charles turned ‘Georgia’ into hit state song

He used to hum the tune and his driver suggested he record it; the song was written by Hoagy Carmichael  and Stuart Gorrell.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An overflow crowd of 400 watched the man in dark glasses and a purple suit approach the grand piano wedged between the desks and podium of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Brother Ray Charles had come to the state Capitol in Atlanta to baptize the new state song — an old sweet song.

“Georgia, Geor-giaah,” he sang above chords from the piano. “The whole day through...”

“Georgia On My Mind” truly was an old song when Charles performed it for state legislators, their wives and children on March 7, 1979.

The song had been around 30 years when the Albany, Ga., native recorded it in 1960. “Georgia” would become the song most associated with Charles in a career than spanned 55 years until his death Thursday.

As the official state song, the tune has been used to promote everything from Georgia tourism to lottery tickets. State license plates even carry the slogan: “Georgia On My Mind.”

“It was the best promotional tool that anyone could ever come up with,” said Sen. Zell Miller, who was lieutenant governor when the state adopted “Georgia.” “He’s the one who made it a great song.”

Driver's choice
Not bad for a tune written in 1930 by two college roommates at Indiana University, and one Charles recorded only at the suggestion of his chauffeur.

“Had me a driver who’d always hear me humming ‘Georgia On My Mind,”’ Charles said in the notes to his 1997 CD box set, Genius & Soul. “Cat said, ‘You hum it so much, why don’t you record it?’ I said, ‘’cause I don’t even know the words.”’

Charles learned the words and “Georgia” shot to No. 1 on the pop charts and No. 3 on the R&B charts, cementing the song’s status as an American standard.

“Really, it did not become a hit until he sang it,” said Joseph Johnson, curator of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon.

Others had tried — Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday recorded “Georgia” before Charles. Many more followed, from Ella Fitzgerald to Willie Nelson to Michael Bolton. But none quite matched Charles’ success.

Ever since legendary songwriter Hoagy Carmichael composed “Georgia” with help from roommate Stuart Gorrell, music buffs have debated whether the ambiguous lyric refers to the state or a woman’s name.

Carmichael’s 1965 autobiography, “Sometimes I Wonder,” seems to settle the question. He wrote that a friend suggested: “Why don’t you write a song called ‘Georgia?’ Nobody lost much writing about the South.”

Thirteen years before “Georgia” became the state song, another famous songwriter all but suggested it. In 1966, lawmakers wrote Savannah native Johnny Mercer, asking the lyricist to compose a state song.

Mercer dashed off a tuned titled “Georgia, Georgia,” but expressed his doubts in a letter: “I still feel I will have to go some (length) to top Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Georgia.”’

When the Legislature adopted “Georgia” as state song in 1979, its resolution specifically named the version recorded by Ray Charles.

It was an honor Charles, winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, ranked as highly as any.

“That touched my heart,” Charles said in his autobiography, “Brother Ray.” “I cried. I truly did.”