So Long, Brother Ray
September 23, 1930 - June 10, 2004
Regardless of where you live in America, the media's coverage of Ronald Reagan's death has overshadowed the passing of Ray Charles. Charles was certainly more accessible and universally loved than Reagan; he was even asked to play at Reagan's second inaugural ball. Even Reagan would have to agree: Brother Ray's mighty soul touched us all.
Although he grew up in Florida, he was born in Albany, GA the place he has always considered home (his version of "Georgia on my Mind" is the state's official song). At seven, his severe glaucoma claimed his eyesight; at ten, his father died. With the loss of his mother several years later, Charles' early life was filled with tragedy and misery. His mom, wanting the best for her oldest son, sent him to Florida's state school for the blind and deaf. In a 1997 interview with NPR journalist, Terry Gross, Charles revealed, "even among the blind, there was still segregation."
Charles learned Braille quickly and took to piano. During his junior year in high school, his mother died, and practically penniless, he left the school to search for work. Known simply as RC, Charles took the first paying gig he could find: a position with the Florida Playboys, an all-white rockabilly group. In his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, Charles explains that he "learned to yodel" with the Caucasians Playboys. But as he's said before, the only color that mattered to him was the color of his piano chords.
In early 1949, he moved to Seattle and formed the Maxim Trio - a group that recorded their first single, "Confession Blues," for the Downbeat label. Met with moderate success, the Maxim Trio began regularly playing and recording. Charles was financially secure by 1951, but unfortunately, he also picked up a heroin addiction. The following year, he signed with Atlantic Records and began recording some of his most important tracks: the gospel-tinged "I Got a Woman" in 1955, "What'd I Say" in 1958, and "Nighttime is the Right Time" in 1959.
When he joined ABC in 1960, he took advantage of the top-flight studio, adding elaborate string orchestrations to tracks like "Georgia on my Mind" and recording country and western numbers. Around this time, he invented his own, patented "swingova" rhythm, which he described as, "a reverse, or backward, bossa nova."
Hits like "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Hit the Road Jack" kept Charles in the spotlight through the late 60s and 70s, and over two decades he appeared in more than six films. His most notable appearance is probably the cameo in the original Blues Brother film, where Brother Ray jams on a Fender Rhodes in a pawnshop. It was around this time (1980) that Charles kicked his habit, cleaned up his act, and started working overtime. As an official spokesman for Pepsi (and later, McDonalds), he appeared in commercials for well over a decade, while touring internationally all the while. Although he suffered from an acute liver disease that ultimately led to his death on June 10, Charles toured up until 2003.
Back in summer of 1986, I met Ray Charles in a hotel elevator in my hometown of Charleston, WV. I was 14 at the time and really only knew him from my "We Are The World" LP and The Blues Brothers, but still I had to whisper to my friends in the elevator: "That's Ray Charles!" With a laugh, Charles responded, "Go ahead! You can touch me," (which we all did). Thinking of those words now, after his death, it is apparent that Brother Ray is the one who touched all of us. So long.