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The rising star had just left Atlantic Records. He wanted more independence, more artistic control of his music, and higher royalties. More than that, he wanted his music to reach more people. He wanted mainstream acceptance of his music at a time that albums were starting to outsell singles.

“The Genius Hits the Road” was his first new record for his new record label ABC Paramount. It was a 12-track theme album based on places in the United States. “Georgia on My Mind” was tucked between “Basin Street Blues” — the main street of Storyville in the red-light district of New Orleans — and “Alabamy Bound.”

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The song’s lush orchestration, including strings, was unlike anything Charles had recorded before. Some thought it a mistake. Others thought Charles was selling out. The public disagreed. The song reached number one in November 1960, and he won his first four Grammys that year. He’d go on to win 17 Grammys and to be nominated 37 times.

He would go on to break more musical barriers with his 1962 album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.”

Other hits by Charles include: “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Hit the Road Jack,” and his duet with Willie Nelson — “Seven Spanish Angels” —would rise to number one on the country charts in 1985. But it’s “Georgia on My Mind” that was his most memorable. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the song the 44th greatest of all time.

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Was the song about an old love? Or a man longing for home? We’ll never know. But Charles had his own opinion.

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In his 1978 autobiography, “Brother Ray,” he indicated that neither a woman nor a state was on his mind when he recorded the tune. “I’ve never known a lady named Georgia, and I wasn’t dreaming of the state, even though I was born there,” Charles recalled. “It was just a beautiful, romantic melody.”

That wouldn’t stop “Georgia on My Mind” from becoming the official state song back in 1979 when then-Gov. George Busbee signed it into law.

It’s a quintessentially American story, the story of “Georgia on My Mind.” Two white midwesterners wrote a song that a brilliant blind black man they never knew or met would bring to life many years later. It would change the lives of the writers and the singer forever. And make the world a more beautiful place.

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There were many other covers of the song, and by some great artists from every genre in the music spectrum: Eddy Arnold, Billie Holiday, Dean Martin, Michael Bolton, Michael Bublé, Ella Fitzgerald, Leon Russell, Jerry Garcia, Coldplay, the Righteous Brothers, James Brown, and the Zac Brown Band.

But one version stands out above all the rest.

At the time of his death at age 73 on June 10, 2004, Ray Charles averaged 200 concerts a year. “Georgia on My Mind” was always the crowd favorite.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.[lz_pagination]