Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


CHARLES, Ray, the Soul giant

(b Ray Charles Robinson, 23 September 1932, Albany, Georgia; d 11 June 2004) Piano, organ, singer, composer, also alto sax; aka 'The Genius'; perhaps the most successful soul artist of all time. Some sources give 1930 as his year of birth. From extreme poverty and blind from age six; his mother taught him to be self-sufficient and he never needed pity from anybody. He went to a Florida school for the blind, then to Seattle to get as far from the South as possible. He taught himself to arrange and compose by braille. He formed the Maxim Trio c.1947 in a Nat Cole style and was the first black act to have a TV show in the Pacific Northwest; he soon developed a more personal style soaked in Southern blues and gospel feeling, which he subsequently brought to a wide range of material, becomong one of the most influential of all American recording artists.

His first records in 1949 were on Swingtime, hits in R&B chart '51-2; then he went to the Atlantic label, where he was encouraged to develop his own groove. He didn't compose or arrange at first but his mature style was already becoming evident: 'Losing Hand', 'It Should've Been Me', 'Mess Around' (all May '53). His arrangement of 'The Things I Used To Do' was a no. 1 R&B hit for Guitar Slim early '54; originals followed beginning in December '53: 'Don't You Know', 'Come Back Baby', 'I Got A Woman' (covered by Elvis Presley), 'This Little Girl Of Mine', 'Hallelujah I Love Her So', others, all R&B hits. He sometimes fitted new words to gospel tunes: 'Talkin' 'Bout Jesus' became 'Talkin' 'Bout You'; Clara Ward's 'This Little Light Of Mine' became 'This Little Girl Of Mine'; 'How Jesus Died' became 'Lonely Avenue'. Big Bill Broonzy said, 'He's mixing the blues with the spirituals. I know that's wrong ... he should be singing in a church.' But the mixture of gospel emotion, secular subject matter and smooth but honest delivery led to comic Bill Cosby's routine about Columbus going to America so he could discover Ray Charles.

He used a female quartet, the Raelets; on the soulful 'What Kind Of Man Are You?' they carried the vocal on their own. His first LP The Great Ray Charles '57 was a jazz set, with laid-back instrumentals 'Doodlin' (a Horace Silver tune), his own 'Sweet Sixteen Bars'; he had his first top 40 pop hit 'Swanee River Rock' same year. Tracks with strings, voices, arrangements by Ralph Burns, others with Basie, Ellington sidemen, writing by Quincy Jones, Al Cohn, Ernie Wilkins etc were recorded May '59: The Genius Of Ray Charles was his first entry (no. 17) in the pop LP chart. An extended arrangement with the Raelets 'What'd I Say' was a hard-driving gospel-style rock'n'roll hit '59. He switched to ABC '60, the new contract allowing him to retain ownership of his own recordings at the end of the association, unusual for a black artist then; soon had a smash no. 1 hit '60 with down-home vocal on Hoagy Carmichael evergreen 'Georgia On My Mind' (used in soundtracks of Norman Jewison film In The Heat Of The Night '69, Arthur Penn's George's Friends '82). The film theme 'Ruby' (pop hit '53) was recorded with strings '60; he played organ with Basie sidemen on 'One Mint Julep' '61 (from the Impulse LP Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz, arranged by Jones); women got the upper hand as the Raelets told him to 'Hit The Road Jack', his second no. 1 single '61. Duet album Ray Charles And Betty Carter '61 charted ('Takes Two To Tango', 'Baby It's Cold Outside'), followed by Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Vol. 1 '62, his only no. 1 LP, including Don Gibson's 'I Can't Stop Loving You', no. 1 single on both R&B and pop charts. (Vol. 2 and Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul '62-3 were both no. 2 albums.) The eclecticism of his material upset some critics, but he was voted best male singer five times in a row from '61 by international jazz critics in down beat magazine. He won his first Grammy '61 and formed his own company Tangerine '62, leased records to ABC, recorded Louis Jordan and others; toured Europe, packing a huge sports stadium in Paris several nights at the height of the Algerian crisis (a Berlin concert was later on a Pablo CD); toured the world in '64. He walked out of an Atlanta gig because the audience was segregated, and played the first ever integrated concert in a Memphis municipal auditorium.

He took time off '65-6, cured himself of long-term drug addiction; he had an acting role in a film made in Ireland, released '66, variously titled Light Out Of Darkness, Ballad In Blue, Blues For Lovers. Hits continued to alternate between straight soul numbers and others with strings setting off blues-flecked vocals and piano. Top ten entries in pop chart included 'You Don't Know Me' and 'You Are My Sunshine' '62, 'Take These Chains From My Heart' (a Hank Williams song) and the humorous 'Busted' (by Harlan Howard) '63, 'Crying Time' '66 (won two Grammys). There were 32 top 40 hits altogether '57-71, more than 50 in the black chart '51-71. LPs My Kind Of Jazz '70, Jazz Number II '73 were on the Tangerine label. Heavy touring continued: virtually annual visits to Japan in '70s; twelve countries in '75 plus annual US tours; London jazz festival appearance taped for TV '83, etc. Among other albums: his earliest recordings were compiled on two-CD Birth Of A Legend on Ebony; three-CD The Birth Of Soul on Atlantic compiles complete '52-9 R&B recordings, two-CD Blues + Jazz on Rhino recordings from the same years with Milt Jackson and David 'Fathead' Newman. Soul Meeting and Soul Brothers both with Milt Jackson were combined on one Atlantic CD; Ray Charles Live on Atlantic compiles two live albums, one of which charted '73; he did a Porgy And Bess '76 on RCA with Cleo Laine; there are many compilations on Rhino and other labels.

Friendship '85 on Columbia was duets with ten country music superstars; From The Pages Of My Mind '87 was described as 'commercial Nashville schlock' by Cadence; My World on WB had guests including Eric Clapton, Billy Preston etc. Having touched all the bases he had to start repeating himself eventually, but he still rocked with good pick-up bands on tours; Stanley Dance once wrote in the notes to a two-LP compilation on ABC, 'Charles sings from the shadow about the shadow with such compelling authority that everyone ... can identify with him ... On stage, he seems to face the realities of life, even to mock the shadow, with a spirit that inspires others to greater resolution.' His legend is secure. Five-CD Genius And Soul '97 on Rhino was the ultimate compilation, from the pre-soul soul of '49 to the schlock.