Many musicians possess elements of genius, but only one — the great Ray Charles — so completely embodied the term that it was bestowed upon him as a nickname.
Charles displayed his genius by combining elements of gospel and blues into a fervid, exuberant style that would come to be known as soul music.
While recording for Atlantic Records during the Fifties, the innovative singer, pianist and bandleader broke down the barriers between sacred and secular music. The gospel sound he’d heard growing up in the church found its way into the music he made as an adult. In his own words, he fostered “a crossover between gospel music and the rhythm patterns of the blues.” But he didn’t stop there: over the decades, elements of country & western and big-band jazz infused his music as well. He is as complete and well-rounded a musical talent as this century has produced.
Born in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930, Charles was raised in Greenville, Florida, where he made the acquaintance of a piano-playing neighbor. As a youngster, Charles apprenticed with him at his small store-cum-juke joint while digesting the blues, boogie-woogie and big-band swing records on his jukebox. At age six, he contracted glaucoma, which eventually left him blind. Charles studied composition and mastered a variety of instruments, piano and saxophone principal among them, during nine years spent at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. Thereafter, he played around Florida in a variety of bands and then headed for the West Coast, where he led a jazz-blues trio that performed in the polished style of Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown. After cutting singles for labels such as Downbeat and Swingtime, Charles wound up on Atlantic Records in 1952. It turned out to be an ideal match between artist and label, as both were just beginning to find their feet.
Given artistic control at Atlantic after demonstrating his knack as an arranger with Guitar Slim’s “Things That I Used to Do” — the biggest R&B hit of 1954 — Charles responded with a string of recordings in which he truly found his voice. This extended hit streak, which carried him through the end of the decade, included such unbridled R&B milestones as “I Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “Drown in My Own Tears” and the feverish call-and-response classic “What’d I Say.” All were sung in Charles’ gruff, soulful voice and accompanied by the percussive punctuations of his piano and a horn section. After his groundbreaking Atlantic years, Charles moved to ABC/Paramount, where he claimed the unlikeliest of genres as his own with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, an album that topped the Billboard chart for 14 weeks in 1962.
Throughout his career, Charles never stopped pursuing that uncategorizable blend of idioms that is best described with a single word: soul. And just what is soul, according to Ray Charles? As he told Time magazine in 1968: “It’s a force that can light a room. The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you’ve been and what it means. Soul is a way of life – but it’s always the hard way." Charles remained active as a performer and recording artist right up to his death from liver disease on June 10, 2004 at age 73.
Ray Charles (vocals, piano; born September 23, 1930, died June 10, 2004)