Ray Charles, 1930-2004
A Singular Blend of Styles
Keyboardist, Composer, Singer Won 12 Grammys
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A01
Ray Charles, 73, the leathery-voiced dynamo who defied musical categories to become one of the most distinctive voices and personalities in popular culture, died of liver disease yesterday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
As a singer, pianist and composer, Charles broke racial and musical conventions -- blending rhythm and blues with gospel music, blues and country, gospel and rock -- and earned 12 Grammy Awards and immense fame and acclaim for five decades.
With his baritone capable of shifting from unvarnished to poignant, he produced hits ranging from the saucy "What'd I Say?" to the bluesy "Hit the Road, Jack" to the plaintive "Georgia on My Mind" to the impassioned "America the Beautiful."
His appearance -- the dark glasses, the immaculate, shiny outfits -- brought him instant recognition worldwide. To many, he was the "Father of Soul Music," that dynamic blend of rhythm-and-blues, jazz and gospel.
Gospel music he heard as a child, combined with the ecstatic, almost evangelical outbursts he learned from his mentors, became part of his own performance. He applied a powerful, rough-hewn voice and untamable energy from his earliest years in show business to his final public performance, last year at the Birchmere in Alexandria.
His mid-career foray into commercialism, whether through syrupy orchestrations of his once-raucous music or his run of Pepsi television ads, did not seem to diminish his stature.
At the 1986 Kennedy Center Honors, he was called "one of the most respected singers of his generation . . . the pioneer who broke down barriers between secular and sacred styles, between black and white pop."
Blind since childhood and orphaned as a teenager, Charles lived a life that traveled from despair to fame to redemption. He overcame racial prejudice, drug addictions and other setbacks to forge a singular life in music and popular culture, and as a media celebrity.
A philanderer of some repute, he liked to joke about his audition methods for his female call-and-response chorus that had been so integral to his fame.
"If you wanted to be a Raelette," he said, "you had to let Ray."
As a young man, he mastered the piano in a Florida state school for the blind; he sometimes memorized 2,000 musical bars at a sitting. On the road, he toured with rhythm-and-blues bands while studying such jazz piano giants as Art Tatum and Bud Powell.
During his six-decade career, Charles earned comparisons to major singers in all fields, from Frank Sinatra to James Brown. Such versatility helped him connect with an audience of fragmented tastes, while still forging a distinctive legacy by the force of his own persona.
Musical definitions troubled him. He felt soul was a hollow term that could mean simply having conviction in what one is singing, whether jazz, gospel or rock.
"The things I write and sing about concern the general Joe and his general problems," he told Joe Goldberg for his book "Jazz Masters of the Fifties." "There are four basic things: love, somebody runnin' his mouth too much, having fun, and jobs are hard to get . . . . When I put myself in the place of the . . . general Joe I'm singing about . . . I sing with all the feeling I can put into it, so that I can feel it myself."
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Ga. His father, a handyman and itinerant railroad worker, was absent. His mother moved Ray and two other children to Greenville, Fla., where they lived in extreme poverty.
"Even compared to other blacks," he once said, "we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us but the ground."
One of his siblings drowned as Ray watched, his eyesight so poor that he was rendered helpless. Suffering from glaucoma, he was completely blind by age 7.
A few years earlier, a local cafe owner and boogie-woogie pianist had encouraged the young Ray to play, giving him basic technique. He was a deft musician by the time he entered St. Augustine School for the Blind, where he learned Braille and focused more intensely on music.
He learned to score big-band charts, and he found immense pleasure in the radio, where he listened to country-western, church and popular song.
After touring with blues bands, he was a seasoned performer by age 18. He settled in Seattle and worked with singer Ruth Brown and befriended Quincy Jones and other future musical stars. He also changed his name, dropping his surname so he wouldn't be confused with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Charles formed a trio that won approval from recording executives and was encouraged to move to Los Angeles to record in 1950. He began recording for Swingtime, mostly records intended for a black audience. His "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" was an early R&B hit.
Initially modeling himself on the smooth style of pianist-singer Nat "King" Cole, Charles came to realize that so closely resembling another artist was detrimental to his own publicity.
"It was just a case of one day I heard somebody say to me, 'Ray, you sound just like Nat Cole.' And I said, 'Thanks.' I thought it was a great compliment. . . . But then the name of Ray Charles was not mentioned at all."
He was entranced by the energy he found in the whirlwind stage presence of Guitar Slim, with whom he recorded an R&B million-seller, "Things That I Used to Do" in 1954.
This was a rigorous working time for Charles. He tried to craft a musical identity while maintaining an extensive list of engagements in clubs and bands.
Meanwhile, Atlantic Records picked up his contract sight unseen.
Given more artistic control, he began to blossom with a series of commercially successful records that paired him with a group of experienced studio musicians, including the drummer Connie Kay. They blended gospel and rhythm-and-blues in a way that truly broke from the Nat Cole label that had followed him.
In 1954, he assembled his own band in Dallas, one of the key additions being saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. The group had its first breakthrough hit, "I've Got a Woman," which was not the first or the only song to combine blues and gospel inflection but was among the best early examples. It reached No. 1 on the R&B charts.
He remained largely a potent force in black music in the 1950s, refusing to compromise his preference for lusty lyrics, his rough timbre and more-complex composition to win over a mainstream, young, white audience.
An early success on the pop charts was "Swanee River Rock," and he made ventures into country-western and swing sounds. He also hired four female singers to offer gospel-tinged responses to his wild calls. The singers took the name the "Raelettes."
"What'd I Say?" which featured the Raelettes, was his first million-selling song. With its suggestive interplay, the tune was first relegated to black stations. Once Elvis Presley recorded it, the song reached wider audiences and won Charles a wider following.
Charles left Atlantic in 1959 after recording "The Genius of Ray Charles," for which he had arranged the massively popular singles "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'," "Am I Blue," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Let the Good Times Roll."
He accepted a lucrative contract at ABC-Paramount and recorded an album with singer Betty Carter in 1961 that included a favorite rendition of the strongly flirtatious "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Next came his definitive version of Hoagy Carmichael's 1930 classic "Georgia on My Mind" (1960). Charles's version became the official state song of Georgia.
Despite the record company's objections, Charles made "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" (1962), an album that produced the multimillion-seller "I Can't Stop Loving You" and well as "Hit the Road, Jack" and "Let the Good Times Roll." What distinguished the Charles recording was that he remained a bluesman, not a drawling cowboy.
The record company later asked Charles to follow up with "Country and Western Meets Rhythm and Blues" (1965).
This period in his career was marked by stunning achievement and grave personal trouble.
At the 1960 Grammy Awards, he took home four awards across all genres, including best vocal performance by a pop artist ("Georgia on My Mind"), best vocal performance album ("The Genius of Ray Charles") and best R&B performance ("Let the Good Times Roll").
He later won Grammy Awards for "Busted" (1963) and "Crying Time" (1966) and recorded songs such as "Let's Go Get Stoned." Many noted his sly references to his many encounters with police over narcotics use.
In 1961, Charles was arrested on drug charges in an Indiana hotel room before a performance. Although police found heroin and marijuana, the case was dismissed because officers lacked a warrant. Still, Charles said he had been drug addict since age 16 and relied on friends to help him use the drugs, because his blindness left him unable to take them himself.
The situation worsened, and he was charged in Boston in 1964 with possession of marijuana and heroin. He checked himself into a clinic for treatment and was said to have rid himself of his habit in 96 hours.
He bristled when asked about his drug troubles. He said: "I've known times where I've felt terrible, but once I get to the stage and the band starts with the music, I don't know why but it's like you have pain and take an aspirin, and you don't feel it no more."
When he emerged from treatment, his musical style seemed to have changed. He chose to record fewer freewheeling blues numbers and instead stuck close to popular songs, often with string arrangements that seemed more fit for easy-listening airplay.
However, his musical reputation had long been solidified. He started several record labels and toured frequently with a large band and the Raelettes.
He made what appeared to be victory laps by showing up in the rakish John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd film "The Blues Brothers" (1980), followed by his moving part in the famine relief recording "We Are the World" (1985).
He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and won his last Grammy in 1993 for best R&B vocal performance for "A Song for You."
Inevitably, reporters asked Charles about his chameleon tendencies in music, moving from blues to country to jazz to pure pop.
He was crusty and dismissive -- but somehow optimist.
"Look, let's face it, good music is good music," he told The Washington Post in 1983. "Meaning what? Meaning good is always good -- I don't care if it's Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff or one of those cylinders that was made almost 100 years ago. Effort went into it, and I can appreciate that.
"Music's been around a long time," he said, "and there's going to be music long after Ray Charles is dead. I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind. If it's a big record, that's the frosting on the cake, but music's the main meal."
His two marriages ended in divorce.
Estimates of his surviving children varied. He is believed to have had 12.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company