Toward the end of her life, after the song was embedded in the national psyche and the author had become a genuine celebrity, Katharine Lee Bates held fast to her belief that the enduring success of "America the Beautiful" was due to the public, not to herself. "That the hymn has gained, in these twenty-odd years, such a hold as it has upon our people, " she once wrote, "is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood."
Ray Charles first recorded "America the Beautiful" in 1972, a year when idealism and brotherhood were splintered by violent political dissent. He said his performance came straight from the heart, with no irony intended. "I'm the first to say this country is racist to the bone," he told author David Ritz. "But that doesn't mean I can't be patriotic. For all the bullshit about America, I still work and live here in comfort."
His captivating interpretation, by any measure the definitive version of the song, is more blues than anthem, a mellow riff with deep personal meaning. "Some of the verses were just too white for me," he explained. "So I cut them out and sang the verses about the beauty of the country and the bravery of the soldiers. Then I put a little country church backbeat on it and turned it my way." One critic wrote that he transformed the song into "a gospel anthem, stretching the words into shapes both painful and exultant." Charles was asked if adding the song to his repertory was his own idea. "Yes, darling, who else's idea would it be?"
Three years later, Elvis Presley got the same idea