Ray Charles: 1930 to 2004
It’s often said that Ray Charles’ great innovation was to sing the blues with the fevered rhythms and fervent vocals of black gospel music. His fusion of juke joint and church on “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”, “What’d I Say” and his other early hits for Atlantic Records was certainly a primary contribution — perhaps even the primary contribution — to the emerging rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s. Elvis Presley, for example, cut “I Got A Woman” both at Sun Studios and at his very first RCA session.
Today, thanks largely to Brother Ray Charles — who died of liver disease on June 10 at age 73 — we can hear melismatic, gospel-inspired vocals and call-and-response arrangements on any pop radio station, at virtually any time, regardless of format.
Still, the blues-plus-gospel equation reveals little of Charles’ brilliance. He was dubbed the Genius, after all, without hyperbole. Charles’ real impact is not just as a combiner of styles but as an imaginer of altogether different spiritual and political possibilities, each created for three and four a minutes at a time. Yet those possibilities existed only when that blues and gospel pairing was executed with the skill, charisma, and presence of an artist the equal of Ray Charles.
And few have been Charles’ equal. In the 20th century, scores of American artists modified old musical forms in significant ways (Willie Nelson, say, or Dr. Dre). A few more helped create entirely new musical subgenres (Bill Monroe, Charlie Parker). But only a tiny handful of artists have altered the entire pop landscape: Satchmo, Crosby, Elvis, and James Brown. And Ray Charles. These men offered the world not just fresh sounds but new ways to feel, new ways to be.
In Charles’ case, he took nationwide Ralph Ellison’s definition of the blues: “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and [so] to transcend it.” What’s more, by spiking this impulse with gospel, Charles helped Americanize the notion that some blues are human-made and, therefore, might be transformed into brighter tomorrows. But only if we join hands and work together.
“I wish,” Charles liked to announce in his popular version of “America The Beautiful”, “I had someone to help me sing this.”
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930, but he grew up poor as dirt in Greenville, Florida. When he was 5, his little brother was trying to beat the summer heat by splashing around in a big washtub; little George slipped beneath the surface of the water and panicked, kicking so violently that Ray couldn’t drag him out. He ran for his mother’s help, but by the time they returned, George was dead.
It was only a few months after this that Charles began waking up with his eyes crusted shut. The doctor said Ray was going blind, and by the time he was seven, his loss of sight was complete. His determined single mother, Aretha Robinson, groveled sufficiently to talk an influential local white family into getting Ray accepted at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.
A blind 7-year-old naturally didn’t want to leave his mother. But Aretha was intent upon making sure her son would be as independent as possible in case she someday wouldn’t be there to help him. Even after Ray lost his sight, for instance, she insisted he do his chores, cleaning house and chopping wood. So when the day arrived to put her scared, sobbing little boy on the bus to St. Augustine, she did it with the conviction it was for his own good.
At Florida D&B, the blind white kids and the blind black kids were segregated — such was the lunacy of Jim Crow. Ray attended school there for almost eight years, until his mother died unexpectedly. He was 15 years old now, and on his own.
These were surely dark, at times terrifying, years for Charles, but that can’t be all they were. For one thing, there had been the sheer wonder of pulling new sounds from the darkness, whether he was trying his hand at boogie-woogie piano at the Greenville general store or practicing Chopin at school. There’d been the thrill of sneaking into the girls’ dorm at night, and of once again embracing his mother when he had returned home for the summer at the end of each school year. There was the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, Artie Shaw and Nat King Cole on the jukebox, his friends at school.
Charles learned early, in other words, that the human condition is a tragic one, filled with pain and limitation and loss, but that life comes too with shares of pleasure, fun and joy built right in. This double-edged state of affairs isn’t any less true for you and me than it was for Charles. But by virtue perhaps of his singular experience, Ray was given — he earned? maybe, sometimes, it’s the same thing — the ability to see these universal conditions with more clarity than most of us are willing to admit.
In 1962, the most commercially successful year of Charles’ career, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time. “White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad,” Baldwin observed, “and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them.” Ray Charles was hardly the first artist, black or white, to show that sad and happy are linked, always present within one another. But he had a genius for emphasizing the point.
“My covers they feel like lead and my pillow it feel like stone,” Charles admits in “Lonely Avenue”, another of his early R&B hits. This is a description of clinical depression if ever there was one, but the record’s lurching rhythm and the Raeletts’ gently mocking cries — “I-could-die, I-could-die, I-could-die” — reveal there’s a fair amount of self-pity involved here, too, even humor.
In “I’ve Got News For You”, one of his many knee-slapping novelties, Ray’s woman says the new watch she’s sporting was a gift from her dear old Uncle Joe; then he reads the inscription and moans: “Love from Daddy-O-Ohhh-O!” When the punch lines come sharp enough to draw blood, better laugh quick before they bring a tear.
In 1945, just after the end of World War II, his mother buried, 15-year-old Ray Charles set off alone for Orlando. By the time he was 17, he was writing charts and arranging, and had spent time in a hillbilly band called the Florida Playboys. By 18, he’d traveled to Seattle, fronted a short-lived group called the Maxin Trio, and had his first hit of heroin. At 19, he moved to Los Angeles and, billed as “The Blind Sensation,” began crisscrossing the country with Guitar Slim and other blues and R&B acts. When he wasn’t yet 24, he signed to Atlantic Records and was on the cusp of stardom. And he was a junkie.