Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story

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Ray Charles and David Ritz
Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story
Da Capo
ISBN: 0306814315

If the widely heralded and Oscar-nominated biopic Ray wrapped Ray Charles' extraordinary life in somewhat too neat a Hollywood package, Charles' newly reissued 1978 autobiography pulls no such punches. It's a raw, honest, decidedly unromantic look back at a then-30 year career in music that saw Charles overcome blindness, racism, poverty and drug addiction to earn a place in the pantheon of American popular music.

Told in a plainspoken, conversational style, Charles and co-author David Ritz trace a life story that's by now well known. It's still astonishing, though, to read in Charles' own words how he set out all alone as a blind and newly orphaned 16-year-old to make a name for himself as a musician in the segregated South of the '40s. Or how, two years later, again all on his own, he hopped a bus for Seattle simply because it was the farthest place on the map from his native Florida. Or how, against all odds, he was able to forge blues, jazz, gospel and country music together into something called "soul".

There's plenty to titillate here - Charles did more than his share of womanizing, had the requisite run-ins with the law and was a long-term heroin addict - but this is no tell-all tale of show biz shenanigans. Charles makes no excuses for his habits; he simply acknowledges that he loves women and loves getting high.

But what's most remarkable in this remarkable book (besides the novelty of reading about a blind man who drives a car and flies an airplane) is Charles' utter lack of bitterness - whether about his blindness, the prevailing racism he encountered, the untimely deaths of his mother and brother, or anything else. Aside from some minor griping that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin have probably made more money, Charles has few axes to grind.

In the end, the Ray Charles who emerges from Brother Ray is a man of enormous strength, courage and, above all, independence. He lived his life on his own terms, made few close friends, but touched millions through his music.

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