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Ray Charles

The late RAY CHARLES is often credited with making one of the most important evolutionary leaps in rhythm and blues, a musician totally blind from the age of seven whose disability meant he played with even more gut feeling than he doubtless would’ve anyway. CHARLES’ influence was especially acute in Britain, where his hammering piano grooves set many a future icon to dreams of blues-ness; VAN MORRISON, in an interview in Word magazine, talked about instinctively knowing `What’d I Say’ was a RAY CHARLES record the first time he heard it, even though he’d never previously heard any of his stuff. Van the Man finally got to duet with him – on `Crazy Love’ – upon the Belfast bard’s induction into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2003. CHARLES himself was to be honoured with RAY (2004), a lavish Hollywood biopic directed by Taylor Hackford. As well as putting Jamie Foxx through his piano paces prior to shooting, RAY CHARLES personally selected the songs Foxx was to lip-synch. Cruelly, Ray didn’t live to see the movie’s release, or its critical acclaim.
Born Ray Charles Robinson, September 23, 1930, Albany, Georgia, Ray was encouraged to take up the piano at an early age after his family moved to Greenville, Florida; he’d been afflicted by glaucoma (after witnessing the death of his brother, George) at the age of seven and subsequently went blind. Using braille, he studied composition at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind, as well as learning instruments such as organ and saxophone. The troubles continued to pile up, however, as both his mother and father died before he reached the age of sixteen. Leaving school, he survived by playing in various dance bands around Florida before saving enough money to move to Seattle.
As R.C. Robinson he began playing with The McSon Trio (alongside guitarist Gossady McKee and bassist Milton Garratt) before signing to Jack Lauderdale’s Down Beat imprint in 1949. To avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, he began recording as RAY CHARLES (accompanied by The Maxin Trio). He released his debut single, `Confession Blues’, the same year, while a further two singles followed before the label was taken over by Swing Time. Subsequently working with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, CHARLES continued cutting sides in the “sepia Sinatra” style of singers such as NAT “KING” COLE and CHARLES BROWN.
1951’s `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand’ and 1952’s `Kiss-a-Me Baby’, marked Ray’s first pair of R&B Top 10 hits, during which time he embarked on a national tour with blues man LOWELL FULSON. Starting out as a sideman, CHARLES soon advanced to musical director and the experience put him in good stead for a subsequent stint in New Orleans with GUITAR SLIM. He both arranged and played piano on the man’s million-selling 1954 hit for Specialty: `The Things That I Used To Do’; Ray duly incorporating a more organic, gospel-influenced style into his own recordings.
Adding alto sax and a quartet of horn players, the singer signed to Atlantic Records and perfected his thrilling marriage of earthy, hollering gospel and raw R&B with 1955’s `I Got A Woman’. The track narrowly missed top spot on the R&B chart and initiated a string of such hits (including 1957’s Top 40 mainstream breaker, `Swanee River Rock (Talkin’ ‘Bout That River)’ wherein CHARLES alchemised various black music styles in what amounted to a blueprint for 60s soul.
His first brush with the Top 10 pop chart came in summer ‘59 with the classic `What I Say’, a raucous combination of gospel, jump-blues and rock’n’roll that made him a national star overnight. A cover of HANK SNOW’s `I’m Movin’ On’ also hit Top 40 status, while THE GENIUS OF RAY CHARLES (1959) {*8} – his fourth bona fide album – finally cracked the Top 20 the following spring, its combination of sentimental balladry and big-band ebullience setting the tone for many of his future recordings. 1960 was also the year he moved to ABC-Paramount, thrashing out a deal whereby he was given far more creative control as well as full ownership of the master-tapes (virtually unheard of in those days).
Things got off to a flyer with a stunning chart-topping cover of pop standard, `Georgia On My Mind’, while female backing singers, The Raelettes, spiced up CHARLES’ rasp on 1961’s `Hit The Road Jack’ (another No.1 from THE GENIUS HITS THE ROAD {*8}) and its follow-up, a rollicking take of `Unchain My Heart’. Credited QUINCY JONES and Ralph Burns on the sleeve and issued as a one-off for Impulse Records, GENIUS + SOUL = JAZZ (1961) {*7}. Also note that the Ray Charles Singers – who had US hits in the 60s – were in fact conductor Charles Ray Offenberg and not RAY CHARLES himself.
1962 saw him recording a set of duets with Betty Carter as well as making a shock move into country with the No.1 album, MODERN SOUNDS In Country and Western music {*8}. Having already cut a number of straight-laced jazz albums at Atlantic, CHARLES proved there were few boundaries to his eclectic talent with unique interpretations of country standards like DON GIBSON’s `I Can’t Stop Loving You’ (a transatlantic No.1) and HANK WILLIAMS’ `Hey, Good Lookin’’; a second volume {*7} was duly dispatched a matter of months later. Both LPs crossed the tracks in a way no other black artist had done before, bringing country to an urban Afro-American audience and making Southern soul more possible than it already was.
1963’s brassy Top 5 remake of Harlan Howard’s `Busted’ (spawned from INGREDIENTS IN A RECIPE FOR SOUL {*7}) proved uncannily prophetic as CHARLES was arrested for possession of heroin two years later; though he took a year out to fight his addiction, he was back in court on a second drugs rap in ‘67, the judge refraining from handing out a prison sentence but fining him heavily and putting him on four years probation. In the meantime, the hit machine just kept on a-rolling, although only `Crying Time’ was regarded as classic Top 10 material, while selective full-sets SWEET & SOUL TEARS (1964) {*5}, HAVE A SMILE WITH ME (1964) {*4} and, of course, CRYING TIME (1966) {*6}, sold in any great quantities.
He also played his benevolent self (and served as musical director) in his first starring role, doing his performance bit in a school for the blind in veteran actor-turned-director Paul Henreid’s final feature, Ballad In Blue (1966). CHARLES’ most notable cinematic contribution of the 60s, though, was his performance of the title theme to one of his protégé QUINCY JONES’ most widely heard scores from In The Heat Of The Night (1967).
By the time Ray had formed his own label, Tangerine (through which he released material by other artists as well as his own), in the mid-late 60s his sound was increasingly catering to the MOR market, though he could still come up with funky little gems like the 1969 minor hit collaboration with Jimmy Lewis: `If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck’ and 1971’s instrumental `Booty Butt’.
He also cut a couple of notable albums during the 70s, the black consciousness-centered A MESSAGE FROM THE PEOPLE (1972) {*6} – CHARLES was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and its leader, Martin Luther King – and 1975’s RENAISSANCE {*6}. Ray spent much of his 70s screen time as a tireless variety show guest, also appearing on several country music tributes. 1976, meanwhile, found him recording a jazz-pop interpretation of PORGY & BESS {*6} with CLEO LAINE; CHARLES going on to cut unlikely recordings with everyone from Clint Eastwood (a track from the film, Any Which Way You Can) and BILLY JOEL to INXS. Many didn’t know at the time, but Ray was married to Della Beatrice “Bea” Howard for 22 years, until they divorced late 1977.
An impromptu performance in a music shop (as more or less himself) endeared the man to a whole new audience with John Landis’ landmark, “Blues Brothers” (1980), while a more unlikely role as a heavy in Roger Moore’s final James Bond film, Octopussy (1983), was at least lent a bit of authenticity via the trademark dark glasses. An early 80s move to Columbia Records saw CHARLES attempt a fully-fledged transformation into country on WISH YOU WERE HERE TONIGHT (1983) {*5} and FRIENDSHIP (1984) {*5}, the latter a Top 75 hit album of collaborations with the likes of JOHNNY CASH, MERLE HAGGARD and WILLIE NELSON. As well as a concert performance with NELSON and an appearance on `We Are The World’ (1985), CHARLES also contributed to 80s documentaries on ARETHA FRANKLIN, FATS DOMINO and PERCY MAYFIELD.
If critics weren’t too enamored with these efforts, CHARLES certainly didn’t redeem himself (in commercial terms at least) with 1985’s festive set, THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS {*6}. Nevertheless, he won a Grammy for his 1990 duet with CHAKA KHAN: `I’ll Be Good To You’ (from QUINCY JONES’ “Back On The Block” album), while he endeared himself to a whole new generation of American youth with a series of ads for Diet Pepsi; see Lights Camera Soundtracks for further 90s cameos. If Nat “King” Cole was “Unforgettable” by his own standards, “forgettable” RAY CHARLES albums for Warner Brothers just seemed to roll off a subdued production line; namely WOULD YOU BELIEVE? (1990) {*4}, the charting MY WORLD (1993) {*5} and for Quincy’s Qwest imprint, STRONG LOVE AFFAIR (1996) {*4}, all a poor shadow of an artist in his 60s unwilling to retire gracefully.
Into the millennium, Brother Ray recorded both a solo set, THANKS FOR BRINGING LOVE AROUND AGAIN (2002) {*5} and an album of duets, GENIUS LOVES COMPANY {*6}, the latter only released after his death from liver disease on June 10, 2004. Collaborative partners included the usual suspects (ELTON JOHN, B.B. KING, WILLIE NELSON, BONNIE RAITT, JAMES TAYLOR, JOHNNY MATHIS) and younger talent such as NORAH JONES and ELVIS COSTELLO’s wife DIANA KRALL, an all-star line-up which couldn’t really fail to top the US charts.
RAY CHARLES remains one of the true giants and founding fathers of modern music, his part in the development of soul especially, beyond question. His versatility and eclecticism remain unparalleled, with his influence apparent in the vocal style of everyone from STEVIE WONDER to VAN MORRISON and JOE COCKER. Although he lived long enough to oversee the first edit of his biopic, Ray, CHARLES died before the film hit the theatres and assumed blockbuster status. Not only did actor/singer, Jamie Foxx, win an Oscar in the leading role, but the {*8} soundtrack – composed of technologically enhanced original classics – went Top 10.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS // rev-up MCS May2013-Jul2020

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    1. Martin Strong

      Thank you, Paula. Major mistake there. Lying dormant since my soundtrack book, no doubt.

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