1930 - 2004
Often cited as "the genius of soul music, Ray Charles used his prodigious talents as singer, pianist, and bandleader to marry elements of blues and gospel into an exciting new genre. Initially ruling the R&B charts, Charles' gritty, passionate croon became the essence of soul and with his unique genre-crossing sensibility hit songs flourished throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He tackled styles as diverse as jazz, R&B, blues, pop, and country music, possessing each one fluently.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia. Poverty and traumatic hardships shaped Ray's childhood. At five years old he witnessed the drowning of his younger brother in a laundry tub, an event that would haunt him for many years. At six Ray began losing his eye sight, presumably from untreated glaucoma, though it was never diagnosed. A year later he was completely blind.
A local general store owner became Ray's unlikely musical mentor. Wylie Pitman's Red Wing Café was home to a piano and a jukebox, two sources of alluring inspiration for a three year old boy. "Mr. Pit would often play boogie woogie piano and urged Ray to hop up and play regularly. In 1937, he was accepted on a charity grant to a school for the deaf and blind to study music. He received a formal education in composition and learned a variety of instruments including piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet. From the beginning his love of music was expansive, enjoying the popular big bands of the day like Artie Shaw and Count Basie or appreciating classical composers such as Chopin and Sibelius. He found pleasure in the hillbilly sounds of the Grand Ole Opry and was drawn to the soulfulness of gospel and the raw emotion of the blues. This openness to so many genres of music would become intrinsic to his own body of work.
Ray performed with various bands, including a country band, in Florida before getting the urge to move to Seattle in 1947. His reputation as a musician and arranger beginning to prosper, he and friend Gosady McKee formed a R&B/pop outfit called the McSon Trio (also misspelled Maxim Trio), in the vein of Charles Brown and his idol Nat King Cole. They recorded one major hit called "Confession Blues in 1949. Seattle was also where Ray first met a fourteen year old trumpet player named Quincy Jones. It would be a life-long friendship with occasional musical collaborations.
In the early 50s Ray rose steadily to prominence, launching hit singles with small bands and playing or arranging for others. He toured with blues artist Lowell Fulson and worked with both Guitar Slim and Ruth Brown, all of whom helped mold his own singing style. His sound now straying from the Nat King Cole inflections, it extended to blues ballads and jazz instrumentals sprinkled with gospel influences.
Atlantic Records offered him a contract late in 1952 and a hit soon followed with "It Should Have Been Me. Not until late 1954 did Ray form his own band and capitalize on the trademark blues/gospel blend that people came to know him for. Once that happened his muse broke free. Ray's warm vocal timbre relaying the spiritual screams, wails, and moans that would give birth to soul music. In a recording session that included an upbeat bop and R&B horn section he recorded his own composition "I Got a Woman. The song was buoyant with the blues, yet sung in a husky, passionate vocal straight from the gospel idiom that stemmed from Ray's Baptist church days. It was a crossover hit on both pop and R&B charts and made Ray Charles famous.
Atlantic allowed Ray an unusual amount of artistic freedom to bring what he wanted to the studio. He was still recording jazz and blues sides as well as R&B singles in the mode of "I Got a Woman. In 1957, searching for a fuller, more choir-like sound, Ray added female back-up singers to his records and touring, naming them The Raelettes. He continued to conquer the charts with songs like "A Fool for You," "Drown In My Own Tears," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "The Right Time, and "Lonely Avenue." His foray into the pop charts occurred with "What'd I Say, an infectious number that opened with a sprightly electric piano line and caught fire like a Jerry Lee Lewis rock n' roll number, complete with pleading back-up vocals from the Raelettes.
Feeling the need to expand his sound again Ray went into the studio in 1959 and recorded with the accompaniment of strings and a big band. Six of the tracks were arranged by his old friend Quincy Jones and included veteran Count Basie and Duke Ellington sidemen. Another six tracks were orchestrated ballads. The resulting album would aptly be named The Genius of Ray Charles
and enhanced Ray's reputation even wider.
Sensing a need for a new musical strategy Ray left Atlantic Records for ABC-Paramount shortly thereafter. He continued his amazing parade of hits well into the 60s and also mastered other genres like pop, country music and soundtracks, always soulfully making them his own. Ray Charles' genius came in many forms.