The Soul of a Genius
No baker's dozen was ever as sweet as these.
And don't you hear him just by hearing those titles? Those supple melismas and swooping inflections that today's singers so abuse, the gritty slurs and exuberant shouts of juke joint apprenticeships, the emotional nuances that gave Charles's lyric interpretations more feeling than most other singers dreamed of. It hardly mattered what the style of music was; Charles was blind, not just literally but also metaphorically: to musical borders, categories, limitations and prejudices. Growing up, he'd soaked up blues, jazz, gospel, pop, country and western, rhythm and blues, rock, show tunes and classical music. Some would insist on making distinctions.
To Ray Charles, it was simply music. Period. What he sensed were not the divisions, the differences, but the shared goals of storytelling and personal expression. How fitting that no other American singer since World War II experienced artistic and commercial success across so many genres and yet managed to sound sui generis. Over a career spanning more than 50 years, the music world morphed, diminished. Ray Charles seemed constant. He was an epic song, sung to perfection.
For 53 consecutive years, he didn't miss a tour and last summer performed his 10,000th career concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. In August, Concord will release Charles's last recording, "Genius Loves Company," a set of duets with Norah Jones, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, Elton John, Johnny Mathis and James Taylor, among others. A feature film based on his life story, "Unchain My Heart," starring Jamie Foxx, is scheduled for November release.
Despite his recent health challenges, he'd planned to start a new tour this month. The stage seemed to be the forum he felt most comfortable with. Ray Charles seldom let people see inside his world, and though he was almost always gracious, genial, warmed by his own legend, you sensed that very few people were let past the gate of his singular mystery.
Charles had a lot of nicknames in his extraordinary career, including the Genius; Frank Sinatra once insisted Charles was, in fact, the only genius in music. But the name or, more correctly, the title that always seemed most appropriate was the High Priest of Soul. Aretha Franklin, who knows a thing or two about soul, often referred to Charles as the Righteous Reverend Ray.
He had, in fact, pretty much invented soul when he secularized gospel music, beginning with "I've Got a Woman," which reworded the gospel standard "Jesus Is All the World to Me." That 1954 classic, Charles's first No. 1 R&B hit, featured a gospel-powered vocal and horn-driven chorus above familiar gospel progressions, but there was no mistaking the earthy, blues-rooted sentiment and sexual exultation of the lyrics. Saturday night joy often crept into Sunday morning sorrow on other songs from that era, such as "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "I Believe to My Soul" and "Drown in My Own Tears." The church always traveled with Charles, most obviously in the exuberant call-and-response patterns with his band and backup singers, the Raelettes, who might have passed for a church choir, except for their whooping and moaning and sexy attire.
That we hear so much in Ray Charles's music is hardly surprising. Blinded by glaucoma at age 7, he turned into a voracious listener, experiencing more in his head than most people do in the sighted world. At the State School for Deaf and Blind Children in St. Augustine, Fla., Ray not only mastered the complexities of Braille scores but also learned to play piano, trumpet, clarinet and saxophone. And when he was orphaned at 15 and forced to find work, he was well ahead of the game, finding jobs in Seattle as a pianist, singer and arranger (he'd dictate the notes to the other musicians). Charles loved big bands -- Count Basie/Benny Morton style -- and by 1961 he'd worked his way up to his own 16-piece blasters. Kept 'em working for the next four decades, too.
Charles also set the standard for frontmen, both as singer and pianist. Few rock, pop, blues and even jazz piano players today were not influenced and transformed by his artistry, and an argument could be made that he was the most influential improvisational singer in American popular music since Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
The late '50s, when Charles recorded for Atlantic, had been the breakthrough years, when he melded blues and gospel and invented soul. In style and attitude, blues and gospel were as far apart as heaven and hell: One affirmed the spiritual release of the afterlife, while the other confirmed the pain and heartache of the here and now. Elvis Presley and others mixed the blues and hillbilly music and came up with rock-and-roll; Charles mixed blues and gospel and came up with soul. More important, he secularized gospel without compromising its unique vocal characteristics, becoming the first black singer to cross over to a largely white audience without abandoning the essence or vitality of his roots.
And that was just a beginning. In the early '60s , Charles made another dramatic crossover with the volumes of the aptly titled "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." Charles often called country "the white man's blues" and he clearly identified with romantic sadness and blue-collar misery at the heart of both genres. Early in his career, he'd even sung with an all-white country band, the Florida Playboys, billed as "The Black Singing Cowboy." But "Modern Sounds" showed Charles's affinity with country standards associated with white southerners such as Don Gibson, Hank Williams and Floyd Tillman. How typical that his two highest-charting singles are his covers of "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Busted."
But that was Brother Ray. He refused to be contained. What delight it must have been for him to win a pop Grammy in 1960 for "Georgia on My Mind," an R&B Grammy in 1961 for "Hit the Road Jack" and a country Grammy in 1962 for "I Can't Stop Loving You" -- quintessential Ray-diance.
Were Walt Whitman around, surely he would write "I hear Ray Charles singing." It would be no different from "I hear America singing," the carols of Whitman's poem no more varied, and no more rich and rewarding than the songs in Ray Charles's heart.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ray Charles sings "America the Beautiful" in the rain at last year's Red Sox home opener.
(Winslow Townson -- AP)