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date: 20 February 2020

Charles, Ray [Robinson, Ray Charles ]free

  • Dave Marsh

Ray Charles, 1979.

AP Photo/file

(b Albany, GA, Sept 23, 1930; d Beverly Hills, CA, June 10, 2004). American rhythm-and-blues and soul singer, pianist, and songwriter. Charles grew up in Greenville, Florida, in a poor African American family, and at the age of five he contracted glaucoma; it went untreated and within a year he was blind. At the same age he also began playing the piano. Two years later he went to the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind, where he studied composition and learned to write music scores in braille. In 1945 Charles was orphaned and left school to form a combo, which toured northern and central Florida. He then moved to Seattle, where he played in jazz trios, developing a piano and vocal style heavily influenced by Charles Brown and Nat “King” Cole. It was also at about this time that he changed his name to Ray Charles, in order to avoid confusion with the prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson. His first rhythm-and-blues hits were “Baby let me hold your hand” (Swing Time, 1951) and “Kiss me baby” (Swing Time, 1952).

Soon after joining the Atlantic label in late 1952 Charles made his first musical breakthrough—a merger of his sophisticated technique with the new type of rhythm-and-blues that was developing at that period into rock-and-roll. With “I’ve got a woman” (Atl., 1955) he immediately established himself as a major figure in the new style. During this period Charles took many of his song ideas from the gospel repertory, adopting a manner of delivery associated with the intense testifying of the Holiness and Apostolic churches and applying those vocal techniques (moans, grunts and ecstatic shouts) to secular and sometimes explicitly sexual material.

Charles still sang straight, sophisticated blues—“Drown in my own tears” (Atl., 1956) is one of the greatest performances of urban blues recorded since World War II—but his most successful songs were those performed in his sensual gospel style, such as “Hallelujah, I love her so” (Atl., 1956), “The Right Time” (Atl., 1959) and “What’d I say” (Atl., 1959).

Ironically, Charles may have achieved so many hits with such material precisely because of the unfamiliarity of white Americans with the conventions of blues and gospel. Such listeners were captured by the combination of emotionalism and virtuosity on Charles’s recordings, for however simple the subject matter and emotions of his songs, his performances always created the impression of a highly developed and controlled technique. This allowed him to broaden his palette to a degree previously unprecedented in rhythm-and-blues, which made him acceptable to audiences devoted to many different styles of music, from rock-and-roll and white pop to jazz; Frank Sinatra called him “the only genius in the business” (an accolade that Atlantic fully exploited). On the album that Charles recorded at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Ray Charles at Newport (Atl., 1959), he established himself as a testifying rock-and-roll preacher, a smooth, sophisticated popular singer, a big-band leader, and a swinging post-bop pianist. By that time he was recording as many albums as singles, working with such versatile arrangers as Ralph Burns and Quincy Jones (the latter had taken music lessons from Charles during his youth in Seattle) and touring with a big band and a female backing chorus modeled on gospel groups—supporting forces of a size that for economic reasons had seldom been used since the war.

By the end of the 1950s Charles had outgrown the commercial confines of Atlantic, which was a rhythm-and-blues and jazz company; having explored the possibilities open to a black singer recording with black musicians for a black audience, he had become an ambassador for black culture to white audiences. In consequence in late 1959 he signed with ABC/Paramount Records, a popular label owned by the ABC television network. At first, this change of labels made no essential difference to Charles’s approach. Indeed, one of his purposes in making the move was to gain more creative control over his recordings, though this seems to have amounted to no more than his being granted royalties as a producer as well as a performer. Even his most adventurous project, the recording in 1962 of two albums entitled Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (both ABC/Para., 1962) was foreshadowed by a version of Hank Snow’s country song “I’m movin’ on” (The Genius of Ray Charles, Atl., 1960). The best of the early ABC hits—“Georgia on my mind” (ABC, 1960), “Hit the road Jack” (ABC, 1961), “I can’t stop loving you” (ABC, 1962), “You don’t know me” (ABC, 1962), “Busted” (ABC, 1963)—have the same searing intensity, musical inventiveness and sly wit as the earlier successes. It was as a result of these recordings, as much as his first hits, that Charles became a dominant influence on such important performers of the 1960s as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Steve Winwood, the Righteous Brothers, James Brown, and Eric Burdon of the Animals. However, eclecticism proved to have as many pitfalls for a black performer in the blues tradition such as Charles as it did for a white one such as Elvis Presley. And, like Presley’s, his music deteriorated towards the end of the 1960s, not because it paled in comparison with new developments in hard rock, but because his material became increasingly sentimental and banal. In addition, his career was damaged by his arrest in 1965 for possessing heroin (it transpired that he had been an addict for his entire adult life, but he was apparently quickly and completely cured). After an absence from performing of a year following the arrest, Charles recorded some successful singles, including (ironically) “Let’s go get stoned” (ABC, 1966), and at least one acclaimed album (A Message from the People, ABC, 1972). But his power was diminished by his own acceptance of the conventions of supper-club show business. Although almost all of his later recordings include a remarkable moment or two, and his concerts continued to be stimulating, Charles never again recaptured the consistent unity of vision that marked his first decade as a performer.

Yet Charles must be regarded as a musician of fundamental importance and far-reaching influence. It can be argued that he was the principal architect of the transformation of black popular music from the rhythm-and-blues style to soul. There has been almost no performer in the latter genre who has not been deeply affected by his style. And within the mainstream of popular jazz Charles’s instrumental recordings, particularly those made with the vibraphone player Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet (Soul Brothers, Atl., 1957; Soul Meeting, Atl., 1958), have been equally influential. Furthermore, it is difficult to name another performer whose recorded work so completely expresses the scope of American popular-music ambition and achievement from the 1950s to the 1980s. All of these qualities decisively mark Charles not only as one of the most original popular artists of the 1950s, but as one of the most important American musicians of any style to have emerged in the postwar period. Among the many honors he received late in his career include induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and the Jazz Hall of Fame. He also received the Kennedy Center Honors and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Jamie Foxx’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of Charles in the biopic Ray introduced his music to a new generation.

Bibliography

  • J. Maher: “Ray Charles Carried the Ball – then Everybody Else Began Scoring Big,” Billboard (10 Nov 1962)
  • “Charles, Ray,” CBY 1965
  • P. Ackerman and others: “A Touch of Genius: the Ray Charles Story,” Billboard (15 Oct 1966), 1–15
  • B. Fong-Torres: “Ray Charles,” Rolling Stone (18 Jan 1973), 28–36
  • R. Charles and D. Ritz: Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story (New York, 1978/1992)
  • R. Palmer: “Soul Survivor Ray Charles,” Rolling Stone (9 Feb 1978)
  • P. Guralnick: Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (New York, 1986)
  • W. Balliett: American Singers: Twenty-Seven Portraits in Song (New York, 1988), 56–71
  • D. Ritz: Ray Charles: Voice of Soul (New York, 1994)
  • M. Lydon: Ray Charles: Man and Music (New York, 1998/R)
  • R. Palmer: “Liner notes for Ray Charles: the Birth of Soul,” Blues & Chaos: the Music Writing of Robert Palmer (New York, 2009), 163–88
  • T. Rowden: The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness (Ann Arbor, MI, 2009)
Current Biography Yearbook (1955-)