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Ray Charles died from acute liver disease Thursday June 10, 2004. He was 73. He left behind a long list of hits and Grammy awards and the musicians he influenced are as diverse in genre as the music he wrote, arranged, performed and recorded.The great Ray Charles was an explorer who returned time and again from expeditions across musical boundaries to give us, in his own unique way, melodious stories and charts of his adventures. In so doing he changed what had previously been only a black and white territorial paper map of American music into a 3-D, solid terrain model, full of color. Charles was born during the Great Depression in the Deep South and was raised on blues, country, gospel, jazz and big band music. Throughout his long career he skillfully and artistically gathered and combined these separate musical elements together, added his own unique personality and styling, and freed the end result for the world to hear. Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. His family moved to Greenville, Fla., when Charles was an infant. During the Great Depression there was almost no such thing as financial gain for anyone and especially for a black family living in the totally segregated South.
Charles recalled how poor his family was in his 1978 autobiography,
"Brother Ray": "Even compared to other blacks...we were on the bottom
of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the
ground.'' Although it was a poor existence, and his father was "hardly
ever around", he described himself as a "happy kid". The tragedy and
painful memories of the next several years however would change him
forever. At just five years old Charles had to endure the trauma of
witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother in his mother's
large portable laundry tub. Soon after the death of his brother he
gradually began to lose his sight and by 7 years of age Ray Charles was
blind. Although it is presumed that untreated glaucoma was the cause,
no official diagnosis was ever made. His mother refused to let him
wallow in self-pity however and since the sight loss was gradual, she
began to work with him on how to find things and do things for himself.
Ray had shown an interest in music since the age of 3, encouraged by
a cafe owner who played the piano. At 7, he became a charity student at
the state-supported school for the deaf and blind in St. Augustine,
Fla. Although he was heartbroken to be leaving home, it was at school
where he received a formal musical education and learned to read, write
and arrange music in Braille; score for big bands; and play piano,
organ, sax, clarinet, and trumpet. His influences were the popular
stars of the day like big band clarinetist Artie Shaw, big band leaders
and pianists Duke Ellington and Count Basie, jazz piano giant Art
Tatum, alto sax man and witty vocalist and bandleader Louis Jordan, and
the great classical composers like Chopin and Sibelius. But Ray Charles
loved it all. At night he listened on the radio to the raw melodies and
hillbilly twang of the Grand Ole Opry, to the sanctified soulfulness of
gospel, and to the secular emotional venting of the blues. Then at 15
his mother died and Charles, who said he never used a cane or guide dog
or begged for money, left school and began touring the South on the
so-called chitlin' circuit with a number of dance bands that played in
black dance halls.
In the South in 1945 the opportunities and outlook for any young
black musician, just getting started and hoping for a career in music,
would have been bleak. Add Mr. Charles' loss of site and new found love
for heroin (a habit he did not kick for nearly 20 years) and one would
think the situation to be nearly hopeless. But Charles would not be
denied and rather than give up, he made a significant geographical
relocation to Seattle, Washington. It was in Seattle's red light
district at just 16 were he met a young Quincy Jones only 14 himself.
He taught the future producer and composer how to write music and
arrange. It was a friendship that lasted a lifetime with the two
working on many sessions together later in their careers.
Ray Charles Robinson dropped his last name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and patterned himself in his early career after Nat "King" Cole. His first 3 recordings were made in Tampa, Florida in 1947 and included Guitar Blues, Walkin' And Talkin,' and Wonderin' And Wonderin'. With a recording contract in 1949 on the former Downbeat label, but at the time under the Swingtime banner, Charles and his trio (called the McSon Trio) moved to Los Angeles and cut numerous sides on which the influence of King Cole is clearly evident including the somewhat autobiographical All To Myself Alone and a medium tempo jiver called Let's Have A Ball. During the early 1950s, the trio released several singles including Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand, which hit the U.S. R&B chart.
In 1952, Atlantic Records signed him to a contract although his
first recordings with the label were not made until May of the next
year. Charles got his first taste of commercial success in 1953, when
he arranged and played piano on bluesman Guitar Slim's recording of The
Things That I Used to Do, which sold more than a million copies. In
1994 he told the San Jose Mercury News, "When I started to sing like
myself - as opposed to imitating Nat Cole, which I had done for a while
- when I started singing like Ray Charles, it had this spiritual and
churchy, this religious or gospel sound. It had this holiness and
preachy tone to it. It was very controversial. I got a lot of criticism
for it." The real Ray Charles emerged in 1954 on a record called I Got
A Woman. The recording reached #1 on the R&B chart in 1955. More
significantly it brought together elements of gospel music in a secular
setting, in a way they had never been married before, and served to
spawn a whole new genre later to become known as Soul. On this record
Charles began singing with inner emotional intensity like never before
by way of hoots, hollers and other genuinely enthusiastic voicings. He
had finally put to use the advice his mother had given him years before
to "just be yourself."
Much the same as his early idol Nat King Cole achieved fame with his
vocals, so Ray Charles finally broke through to white America. But in
the years preceding 1959's smash What'd I Say, like Nat Cole, Ray
Charles first cut some superb jazz sides. Many recordings done for
Atlantic in the mid to late 1950s, some arranged by old friend Quincy
Jones, are among his finest in the mainstream jazz idiom. Sessions in
November of 1956 produced such gems as Doodlin' Parts 1&2,
Rockhouse Parts 1&2, The Ray, Hornful Soul, and Sweet Sixteen Bars.
These recordings were all instrumentals and most featured reedman David
Fathead Newman who became another lifelong friend. By the late 1950s
Charles was being called "The Genius." In September of 1957 he recorded
an album called Soul Meeting with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet
and featuring vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In April of 1958 he got
together with Jackson again. This time the vibraphist was flanked by
guitarist Kenny Burrell, bass man Percy Heath and drummer Arthur Taylor
for the release Soul Brothers. On the cut X-Ray Blues Charles recalled
his roots at St. Augustine and played a reed instrument, the alto
saxophone. It is one of the only instances of Charles playing the
instrument on record.
This foray into jazz landed Charles along with his rhythm section,
David Fathead Newman, his back-up vocal group The Raelets, Bennie
Crawford, Marcus Belgrave and Lee Harper together, smack dab in the
middle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in July of 1958. While this
success would be enough to make some settle down into a particular
style or genre and rest on their laurels; such was not the case for the
ramblin' Ray Charles. In February of the same year he recorded a song
combining a Latin-esque blues riff, with gospel call-and-response
vocals between himself and the Raelets, and blatantly suggestive and
playful lyrics and attitude. What resulted was a million selling
monster hit called What'd I Say, which ran more than six minutes in its
LP form. The song became one of Charles' signature tunes and was his
first crossover hit, reaching #6 on the Pop chart and #1 on the R&B
chart in 1959.
Still Charles turned back to jazz and big band again for two
sessions in May and June of 1959 that were combined together for the
release The Genius Of Ray Charles. Half of the album featured backing
instrumentation by Quincy Jones who directed an all-star big band
consisting of numerous Count Basie alumni for the release. This
combination of talents provided Charles with a hip and swinging
backdrop on a number of standards and cover tunes. The release garnered
Charles two of his first four Grammy Awards in 1960; one in the Best
Rhythm & Blues Performance category for Let The Good Times Roll (a
cover tune of one of his early influences Louis Jordan); and another in
the Best Vocal Performance Album, Male category. On June 26th, 1959
Charles cut his first country cover when he recorded the song I'm
Movin' On, originally done by Hank Snow. Perhaps it was irony that this
would be his last session for Atlantic, as move on he did. Charles, by
1959, had posted some 20 hits on the R&B charts. This coupled with
the crossover success of What'd I Say allowed him to move from Atlantic
to the larger ABC Paramount label late in the year.
One of the chief attractions of the ABC deal for Charles was a much
greater degree of artistic control of his recordings. His first session
with ABC in December of 1959 produced just three recordings but his
next session in March of 1960 was a superb success. The album that
resulted was a geographical theme album called The Genius Hits The
Road. One of the twelve songs on the original pressing of the LP (ABC
335) was a Hoagy Carmichael tune. The Ray Charles version of the piece
was declared the official song of the state of Georgia in 1979. Georgia
On My Mind garnered Charles two more Grammy Awards at the 1960 ceremony
in the Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track, Male, and Best
Performance by a Pop Single Artist categories. In August of 1960
Charles recorded the second of a number of theme albums for ABC
Paramount called Dedicated To You on which all of the song’s
titles contained a woman's name. The idea of theme albums, with tunes
tied together by a particular common subject matter, was not new. Many
artists who trod down the theme path did so with varying degrees of
success, as was the case with Charles. However his fortune with theme
albums began well when the string-laden Marty Paich arrangement of Ruby
charted for five weeks near the end of 1960.
With Charles achieving commercial success with his ballads like
Georgia On My Mind and Ruby you would think that, like Nat King Cole,
he might abandon recording jazz or R&B tunes. But in December of
1960, little more than two weeks after Ruby had peaked on the chart, he
was in the ABC Paramount studios again. What resulted was arguably his
best jazz album ever. This one found "The Genius" singing and playing
Hammond B3. Once again he received expert backing by a number of Count
Basie alumni on several Quincy Jones arrangements. The release was
called Genius+Soul=Jazz and yet again the public responded. The cut,
One Mint Julep went to #8 on the pop chart and #1 on the R&B chart
in 1961. Although One Mint Julep may have been the hit, the album
featured other tastefully swinging tunes like Mr. C., Stompin' Room
Only, From The Heart, and a Ralph Burns arrangement of a blues called
I've Got News For You.
His next chart hit in 1961 was even bigger. Hit The Road Jack topped
both the Pop chart, where it stayed at #1 for two weeks in October, and
the R&B chart for 5 weeks beginning October 2nd. The recording also
won a Grammy in 1961 for the Best Rhythm and Blues Recording.
Amazingly, it was yet to be released on an LP when it garnered such
high accolades, evidence of the power of the 45 RPM record medium in
1961. Hit The Road Jack was originally released on just a two-song 45
RPM (ABC-Paramount 10244) and a four song extended play 7" jukebox 45
RPM called The Genius Hits The Road (ABC Paramount Records EP19), not
to be confused with the LP bearing the same name. It was not until 1962
that the song was released on an LP (ABC 415) called Ray Charles
Then Charles did what, to many, was the unthinkable; he tackled
country and western music. And not only did he tackle it, he conquered
it and forever changed its face when on June 1st, 1962 the landmark
album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was released. On this
LP Charles re-interpreted some of the greatest songs written in the
country music field, filling them with newfound energy and soul. In
doing so, he inspired other artists to reconsider their thoughts and
assessments of country tunes. It also beckoned to a wide range of music
fans to come in and sit a spell and hear what country music and country
songwriters had to offer. Although he had a hit in 1959 with the
aforementioned single cover of Hank Snow's I'm Movin' On, his decision
to record a full album of country songs was initially discouraged by
his record label and by others around him.
Charles said later that he knew it was risky business recording a
country album. "I didn't know what was going to happen," he said,
"because all my friends and people around me was telling me I was
making a big mistake because 'you're doing country-western music. Oh,
man you're going to ruin your career 'cause everybody know you're from
rhythm and blues, and you're going to go out, oh, you've got to be
The album covered a broad spectrum of what the country music song book had to offer at the time including the Everly Brothers' Bye Bye, Love, Hank Williams Sr.' Half As Much, You Win Again and Hey, Good Lookin', Don Gibson's hit of I Can't Stop Loving You, and Eddy Arnold's Just a Little Lovin' and You Don't Know Me.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was #1 on the Billboard Pop Album chart for three and a half months and stayed on that chart for two years. The album's producer, ABC-Paramount A&R director Sid Feller, said about the album's initial splash, "I didn't know that a Pop artist could do country songs and become a national monument. You know how unimportant it seemed? I put I Can't Stop Loving You in the number 5 position on the B-side of the album." Four singles from the album were released. Born to Lose, Careless Love and You Don't Know Me all charted Pop, but I Can't Stop Loving You was a #1 Pop hit for five weeks.
After the phenomenal success of the first country album, another one was inevitable. Enter Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 2 recorded in September of 1962. Surprisingly enough the sequel was just as solid as the original, and more varied. It went to #2 on the Album chart, powered by two singles: the ancient standard You Are My Sunshine, redone as a powerhouse R&B, and a soul filled, slow reading of Take These Chains From My Heart. One of the surprising facts about Charles' forays into the world of country and western music was the success of many of the songs on the R&B chart. You Are My Sunshine, maxed out at #7 on the Pop chart, but went all the way to #1 on the R&B chart in 1962. In 1963, Take These Chains From My Heart went to #8 Pop and #7 R&B.
On July 10th and 13th of the following year the release Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul was recorded and Charles had another hit single on his hands with Busted. Country songwriter Harlan Howard wrote the song however it was not done in a style resembling country and western. Instead it was given treatment by one of the greatest big band arrangers and jazz songwriters of all time, himself a consummate player and genius in his own right, the great Benny Carter. Carter created a bluesy big band backdrop for Charles' soulful reading of the piece, as was the case with a number of scores for the LP. In 1963, Busted made it to #4 on the Pop chart and was voted best Rhythm And Blues Recording by the Grammy committee.
Sixteen songs were recorded on the incredibly productive aforementioned July 13th session. Of the sixteen, several other recordings featuring Benny Carter arrangements were laid down as well as some Gerald Wilson and Johnny Parker scores. Although some of the songs were somewhat trite in lyrical content, nine were used on a 1964 release called Have A Smile With Me. Also appearing on the LP (but recorded a year later in July of 1964) was a single, which the great Benny Carter again arranged, called Smack Dab In The Middle. Smack Dab In The Middle, with its Raelets backing, was one of the highlights of the LP. However the song that makes the album worth owning is Charles' cover of an old Hank Williams tune. The peppy, humorous and carefree Move It On Over is a song about a man who is cast (literally) into the doghouse by his "little baby." Mr. Charles sounds in high spirits on the whole album, with an excellent swinging big band behind him, but on Move It On Over the energy and mood both come together in a roaring climax. In the 1980s George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers rather dryly covered the song, scoring a hit on AOR stations. Even with all of its amplification, the Thoroughgood version didn't come close to the big bang of energy emitted on this swinging Ray Charles gem.
During the 60s Charles became involved in films, appearing in the 1962's Swinging Along and recording soundtracks for several more. By 1964 he seemed on top of the world with his own label, an ABC imprint called Tangerine Records (which would release albums by Charles and his productions of vocalist-writer Percy Mayfield and singer Jimmy Scott). He also controlled his publishing and his masters. And he had opened his own L.A. studio, designed in part by Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd. But his personal life was coming apart. On Oct. 31, 1964, he was busted in a Boston airport after customs officers found marijuana, heroin and a syringe in his overcoat. Charles, who had been arrested for drug possession earlier in Indianapolis and Philadelphia, was shaken and scared. Taking a year off from touring, he checked into a California sanitarium and kicked his junk habit. Charles celebrated with the late-1965 release of Crying Time, his No. 6 Pop cover of Buck Owens' country hit. The recording won two Grammys: for Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance, Male. It proved to be his last top-10 Pop chart entry.
In December of 1966 he was convicted and given a five-year suspended
sentence for his drug bust. Yet there was a sense of humor about even
that as he released both I Don't Need No Doctor, and Let's Go Get
Stoned, in 1966. He later became reluctant to talk about the drug use,
fearing it would taint how people thought of his work. The 1970s began
with a release on his Tangerine label called My Kind Of Jazz with
longtime friend Quincy Jones. It was the source of his last Pop chart
hit, intriguingly titled Booty Butt, which reached number 36 on the
chart. Also in the 1970s Charles made a stirring guest shot on Aretha
Franklin's album Live at the Fillmore, and a hallmark pure-funk
rendition of America the Beautiful on his 1972 collection A Message
From the People. His output during this period also included work with
singers Randy Newman and Stevie Wonder. In 1976, he collaborated with
English vocalist Cleo Laine on an interpretation of Gershwin's Porgy
& Bess. The following year, he returned to Atlantic with the
underrated album True to Life. His second stint with the label lasted
That year, Charles' lagging career received a boost when he was
signed by Rick Blackburn, head of CBS Records' Nashville division, and
returned to country music. His association with Columbia Records
yielded hit duets with George Jones, Hank Williams Jr. and Mickey
Gilley, and a No. 1 Country album, 1984's Friendship, and single, the
Willie Nelson duet Seven Spanish Angels. Charles moved to Warner Bros.
Records in 1990. I'll Be Good to You, his duet with Chaka Khan for his
old Seattle colleague Quincy Jones' Qwest imprint, won a Grammy in
1991. He received the last of his dozen Grammys in 1994, for A Song For
You. In 1997, Charles' classic recordings got extensive re-release
through a licensing deal between the singer and Rhino Records. Charles'
most recent album, prior to his passing, was 2002's Thanks For Bringing
Love Around Again, on his own Crossover imprint. However, just prior to
his death, he had completed work on an album for Concord Records of
duets with such talents as Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Elton John,
Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor. The disc was released as scheduled on
Aug. 31, 2004. Charles achieved cult-movie fame for his role in the
1980 musical comedy, The Blues Brothers. Among other film roles, he
played a bus driver in the 1996 comedy, Spy Hard. Meant to be a gag--a
blind man operating a motor vehicle--the Spy Hard bit wasn't far from
the truth. The ever-resourceful Charles admitted to getting behind the
wheel every now and then. He had also been on Saturday Night Live and
on an episode of Who's the Boss? and St. Elsewhere.
Mr. Charles recorded a number of commercials, many of which were
self-produced. His Diet Pepsi commercial, which features his singing
"You got the right one baby-uh-huh," was rated most memorable
commercial in 1991. Although many saw the commercial as selling out, it
is said to have boosted his popularity among a younger audience. In his
well-traveled career, Charles won 12 competitive Grammys, earned three
Emmy nominations, scored the Kennedy Center Honors, the Grammy Lifetime
Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts and inductions into the
Rock, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues halls of fame. From his website
www.raycharles.com Mr. Charles' take on jazz is as follows; "I cannot
understand how we as Americans, possessing such a rich heritage of
music and the artists who play it, don't recognize all those talented
people. It's a shame that so many of today's young people don't know
the work of Art Tatum or Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker or Clifford
Brown, to name a few. They are the creators; they are the artists who
helped form the backbone of our country's popular music.... When you
talk about, say, classical music, you're talking about a form that came
from Europe and European composers and musicians from an earlier time.
But, we basically created jazz in this country; we own that form of
music. And it's sad that we all don't have more extensive knowledge of
that fact.... In Europe, though, you find people who know all about our
music. I'm talking about the average person. I've been to Europe and
talked to people who have records of mine that I forgot I ever made!
And I find that incredible."
On Thursday June 10th, 2004 the leader of a great expedition through
the pages of American music history made his final journey. This time
he crossed a boundary of a different sort, a boundary of which he
cannot cross back over and bring us songs and tales of his adventure.
Simple cliches cannot aptly describe the passing of Ray Charles; just
as a simple swing, gospel, soul, R&B, country and western, or jazz
biography could ever cover his career.
Ray Charles + American Music = Genius.
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