Few epithets sit less comfortably than that of genius; Ray Charles held this title for over 40 years and he was a true musical genius. As a singer, composer, arranger and pianist, his prolific work deserved no other praise. Born in extreme poverty in Georgia, Ray Charles Robinson grew up in Greenville, Florida. He was slowly blinded by glaucoma until, by the age of seven, he had lost his sight completely. Earlier, he had been forced to cope with the tragic death of his brother, whom he had seen drown in a water tub. He learned to read and write music in Braille and was proficient on several instruments by the time he left school. His mother Aretha died when Ray was 15, and he continued to have a shared upbringing with Mary Jane (the first wife of his absent father). Dropping his surname in deference to the boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, Ray Charles drifted around the Florida circuit, picking up work where he could, before moving across the country to Seattle. Here he continued his itinerant career, playing piano at several nightclubs in a style reminiscent of Nat 'King' Cole and a vocal similar to Charles Brown.
Charles began recording in 1949 and this early, imitative approach was captured on several sessions. Three years later, Atlantic Records acquired his contract, but initially the singer continued his 'cool' direction, revealing only an occasional hint of the passions later unleashed. 'It Should've Been Me', 'Mess Around' and 'Losing Hand' best represent this early R&B era, but Charles' individual style emerged as a result of his work with Guitar Slim. This impassioned, almost crude blues performer sang with a gospel-based fervour that greatly influenced Charles' thinking. He arranged Slim's million-selling single, 'Things That I Used To Do', on which the riffing horns and unrestrained voice set the tone for Charles' own subsequent direction. This effect was fully realized in 'I Got A Woman' (recorded in November 1954), a song soaked in the fervour of the Baptist Church, but rendered salacious by the singer's abandoned, unrefined delivery. Its extraordinary success, commercially and artistically, inspired similarly compulsive recordings, including 'This Little Girl Of Mine' (1955),'Talkin' 'Bout You' (1957) and the lush and evocative 'Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying' (1959), a style culminating in the thrilling call and response of'What'd I Say (Part 1)' (1959). This acknowledged classic is one of the all-time great encore numbers performed by countless singers and bands in stadiums, clubs and bars all over the world. However, Charles was equally adept at slow ballads, as his heartbreaking interpretations of'Drown In My Own Tears' and 'I Believe To My Soul' (both 1959) clearly show. Proficient in numerous styles, Charles' recordings embraced blues, jazz, standards and even country, as his muscular reading of'I'm Movin' On' attested.
In November 1959 Charles left the Atlantic label for ABC-Paramount Records, where he secured both musical and financial freedom (he was also given his own label, Tangerine Records). Commentators often cite this as the point at which the singer lost his fire, but early releases for this new outlet simply continued his groundbreaking style. Charles' first two US chart-toppers, Hoagy Carmichael's 'Georgia On My Mind' (1960) and Percy Mayfield's 'Hit The Road Jack' (1961) were, respectively, poignant and ebullient, and established the artist as an international name. He was battling a serious drug habit at this time and was finally convicted for possession. He managed to put it all behind him and gain strength. His stature was enhanced further in 1962 with the release of the massive-selling album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, a landmark collection that produced the million-selling single 'I Can't Stop Loving You' (this US/UK chart-topper was written by country artist Don Gibson). Its success defined the pattern for Charles' later career; the edges were blunted, the vibrancy was stilled as Charles' repertoire grew increasingly inoffensive. There were still moments of inspiration: 'Let's Go Get Stoned' and 'I Don't Need No Doctor' brought glimpses of a passion now too often muted, while Crying Time, Charles' first album since kicking his heroin habit, compared favourably with any Atlantic release. This respite was, however, temporary and as the 60s progressed so the singer's work became less compulsive and increasingly MOR. Like most artists, he attempted cover versions of Beatles songs and had substantial hits with versions of 'Yesterday' and 'Eleanor Rigby'. Two 70s releases, A Message From The People and Renaissance, did include contemporary material in Stevie Wonder's 'Living In The City' and Randy Newman's 'Sail Away', but subsequent releases reneged on this promise.
Charles' 80s work included more country-flavoured collections, and in 1984 he signed to CBS Records' Nashville division for whom he recorded the country chart-topping Friendship. The album included duets with George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ricky Skaggs among many others. In 1980, Charles had made a memorable cameo appearance in the movie The Blues Brothers, but the period is better marked by the singer's powerful appearance on the USA For Africa release, 'We Are The World' (1985).
Charles signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1990, making his debut for the label the same year with the album Would You Believe. In 1992, an acclaimed documentary Ray Charles: The Genius Of Soul was broadcast by the PBS television channel. The following year's My World was a return to form, and was particularly noteworthy for Charles' cover versions of Paul Simon's 'Still Crazy After All These Years' and Leon Russell's 'A Song For You', which the singer made his own through the power of his outstanding voice. The follow-up Strong Love Affair continued in the same vein with a balance of ballads matching the up-tempo tracks; however, it was clear that low-register, slow songs such as 'Say No More', 'Angelina' and 'Out Of My Life' should have been the focus of Charles' concentration. In 2000, Charles returned to jazz with an excellent contribution to Steve Turre's In The Spur Of The Moment. His final studio album in his lifetime, Thanks For Bringing Love Around Again, was released on his own Crossover imprint in 2002. On 23 May 2003 he played his 10,000th concert in Los Angeles, but was sidelined shortly afterwards by a hip ailment. Charles was recording a new collection of duets when he died of acute liver disease in June 2004. The album Genius Loves Company was released posthumously a few months later. It became a smash hit and was his first platinum-selling album in over 50 years of recording. The irony of such a success is shocking. At the end of the year the excellent biopic Ray, with Jamie Foxx in the lead role was released to a sympathetic audience still in mourning. Foxx had spent time with Charles during production of the movie perfecting his quite remarkable screen portrayal of the genius.
Charles' marriage of gospel and R&B laid the foundations for soul music. His influence is inestimable, and his amazing voice widely acknowledged and imitated by formidable white artists such as Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison and Eric Burdon. Charles was honoured with countless awards during his career including induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986, and receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 (he notched up a dozen Grammy Awards during his career).
No record collection should be without at least one recording by this 'musical genius'. His ability to cross over into other musical territories remains an enviable achievement. He performed rock, pop, jazz, blues, and country with spectacular ease, but it is 'father of soul music' that will remain his greatest title. He was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the entire history of most branches of popular music.
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