Georgia mourns Lowery and Charles

Georgia music lost two of its brightest stars last week. Music publishing magnate Bill Lowery died Tues., June 8, after a long battle with cancer; two days later, soul legend Ray Charles succumbed to liver disease. Interestingly, in 1979, Lowery and Charles shared headlines when they were the first two people inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame — Lowery as the non-performer inductee and Charles as a performer.

As national and international mourners filled Washington's National Cathedral to eulogize the late President Ronald Reagan, a who's who of Atlanta's songwriting elite filed into the more intimate confines of Patterson and Son's Funeral Home on Ogletree Hill in Atlanta to mourn the passing of Lowery, 79, the elder statesman of local music.

Songwriters Joe South, Buddy Buie, Ray Whitley, Southern Tracks' Mike Clark, BMI's Francis Preston and many more offered memories of the man who connected with every genre of music imaginable. When he sold his Lowery Music Publishing Group to Sony in 1999, he controlled the rights to nearly 7,000 songs.

Born in Leesville, La., in 1924, Lowery moved to Atlanta in '46 to start a radio station. The operation became WQXI-FM, whose lineage extends to today's Star 94. Lowery hosted a local music show on WGST-AM in the '50s, bolstering the careers of many of Atlanta's singer/songwriters. He also founded a music publishing company to help the artists expand their reach. The market widened rapidly and later extended internationally. Lowery-owned songs are performed around the world daily.

During one 12-month stretch of the tumultuous '60s, Lowery Music titles sold 20 million copies and helped define the "AM Gold" sound. Performers the jovial potentate worked with include Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, Bill Anderson, the Tams, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and the Beatles. He even helped foster the career of Diana DeGarmo, "American Idol" star-of-the-moment, who sang at the funeral.

Like Lowery, Charles' legacy will live on in the songs he championed. The 73-year-old Charles, internationally loved singer/songwriter/pianist/saxophonist/actor, is forever connected to Georgia via his rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind," which was voted by the Georgia Legislature in 1979 to be the official state song.

Ray Charles was born in Albany and moved to Florida as a small child, returning often to the state that birthed him. "Atlanta's my old stompin' grounds, man," he said to this writer in 2002. Although he was blind from the age of 7, Charles never let it handicap him in any way. He learned to do everything a person with sight could do — including flying planes, driving cars, playing chess and producing records. He always required a television in his dressing room, as well. A regular act at Auburn Avenue's Royal Peacock, his career skyrocketed after his recording of "I've Got a Woman," recorded in November 1954 in the studio of Lowery's former stompin' ground, WGST radio. The late '50s and early '60s saw Charles become a star in R&B, jazz, country and rock.

Unlike many of his peers, Charles refused to stagnate and recycle his oldies. He continued to record almost daily in his studio in Los Angeles and played more than 200 shows a year until recent health problems sidelined him. In failing health for the last year, he recorded an album of duets in March with a diverse gathering of artists, including Norah Jones and Willie Nelson.

The Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, which Lowery helped govern, is currently inviting fans to pay tribute to Charles at a memorial in the museum's main lobby this week. Visitors can fill out personal condolence cards that will be mailed directly to Charles' family. The site has also arranged an area to place flowers and mementos of his legacy. For more information, visit www.gamusichall.com.

Also, Rhino Records — in charge of re-releasing many of Charles' classic albums on the Atlantic label — has a memorial site up with photos, history and streaming audio of The Ray Charles Anthology in its entirety (http://raycharles.rhino.com).