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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ray Charles

Charles, Ray 1930–

Ray Charles 1930

Vocalist, musician, composer, arranger
At a Glance
Rays Early Days
On The Road
Atlantic Records
A New Direction
The Legend Lives On
Selected discography

Above all his many talents is the innate ability of Ray Charles to interpret and sing songs in such a way as to fill the words from the depths of his own heart, carrying this emotion to the listener. As quoted in author Joe Goldbergs Jazz Masters of the 50s, Ray says, I sing the songs for what they mean to me. However, his highly regarded singing has tended to obscure his other considerable accomplishments as a blues pianist, band leader, composer, and arranger. Jazz musicians speak of a quality called the cry, a quality that echoes the blues no matter what is being played. The cry of blues permeates every Charles performance, said Goldberg.

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia on September 23, 1930, son of Bailey and Aretha Robinson. Ray is the father of nine children, three by his former wife DellaRay, Jr., David, and Robert. Ray and his beloved mother Aretha moved to Greenville, Florida when Ray was six-months-old. Rays absent father, Bailey Robinson, was a migrant railroad worker who Ray never knew. Times were tough for Ray, his younger brother George, and Rays mother during their Greenville years. In his autobiography entitled, Brother Ray, Ray recalled that Even compared to the other blacks in Greenville, we were at the bottom of the ladder. Tragically, at the age of five-years-old, young Ray helplessly watched as his four-year-old brother George drowned in a washtub from which Ray was unable to pull him out. Thereafter, Rays eyesight worsened considerably from glaucoma, leaving Ray completely blind by the age of seven. Ray then attended a state school in St. Augustine for the deaf and blind.

Despite being born into extreme poverty, Ray has created a prolific body of work spanning five decades. Proficient in numerous styles, Rays recordings are rich in blues, jazz, and country, and he has been simultaneously thought of as the best rock n roll singer, best jazz singer, and best pop singer, at times second only to Sinatra. Possessed of a sound which remains widely imitated by prominent artists and having been honored with numerous awards during his career, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, it is Rays title as Father of Soul Music, which seems to stick with him. However, Ray does not care to be pigeonholed into any one category. When told that he has successfully avoided all attempts to be categorized, he replies in Goldbergs

At a Glance

Born Ray Charles Robinson, September 23, 1930, Albany, GA, son of Bailey and Aretha Robinson; married 23 years and divorced from Della; their children- Ray, Jr., David, and Robert. Father of six other children. Raised in Greenville, FL and began playing piano as a small child. Lost sight at age seven from glaucoma. Learned classical piano while attending school for deaf and blind in St. Augustine, FL.

Career: Began touring with dance bands at age 15; road job with Lowell Fulsom led to a booking at Harlems Appollo Theatre; formed Swing-time Trio in Seattle; recording artist for Atlantic Records 1952-59; ABC-Paramount, 1959-65; and his own labels Tangerine Records 1965-73, Crossover Records Co., 1973-. Sang in We Are the World in 1985. Numerous TV and concert appearances including, Ray Charles, 50 Years in Music and Uh-Huh advertising for Pepsi-Cola in 1991, 1992. Compilations include The Ray Charles Story (1962); A Man and His Soul (1967); 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles (1971); The Right Time (1987); The Collection (1990, ABC recordings); The Birth of Soul (1991); The Living Legend (1993). Films include Blues For Lovers a.k.a. Ballad in Blue (1964) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

Selected awards: Bronze medallion, French Republic; Image award, NAACP; Named#1 malesinger, 16th Intl. Jazz Critics Poll, 1968; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1986; 10 Grammy awards, including Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, 1987; Playboy Jazz and Pop Hall of Fame; Songwriters Hall of Fame; honorary lifetime chairman of Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame; and Leadership award, NAFEO, 1991. Selected gold records include: Ray Charles Greatest Hits, 1962; Modern Sound in Country and Western Music, Vol 1 and Vol. 2, 1962, 1963; Ray Charles: A Man and His Soul, 1967.

Addresses: Ray Charles Entertainment, 2107 W. Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90018.
book, I consider that a compliment. I dont want to be branded. I dont want the rhythm-and-blues brand, or the pop brand, or any other. Thats why I try all these different things.... I know not everybody likes everything I do. Some like one thing, and some another. But I try to please everybody, while doing what I want. Im an entertainer. Ray is possessed of a quick, curious mind, a wide grasp of current affairs, and a ready laugh. Ray feels that he has been blessed with regard to his talent, and there are many who would agree with him.

Rays Early Days

While in St. Augustine, Ray learned to read, compose, and write music in braille, as well as to play the clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, and keyboards. Though Ray became familiar with classical music there, it was at the upright piano of Wylie Pittman, a local grocer, where Ray first experienced playing the piano. Robert Palmer writes that Ray fondly recalls visiting Wylies after school, where ... hed let me sit on the piano stool or in the chair next to him and bang on the piano with him. Ray credits four pianists as influencing him the most as a child: Art Tatum, Bud Powell, King Cole, and Oscar Peterson. Rays excellence as a blues pianist is evident on his instrumental albums, including The Great Ray Charles. Long-time friend, arranger Quincy Jones, credits Rays piano abilities as a major factor in the success of Rays recordings. Young Ray possessed a natural talent for music and, by age twelve, was reportedly able to arrange and score all parts of big band or orchestral music. As a child, Ray listened to a wide variety of blues and swing along with the weekly Grand Ole Opry and gospel music of his Baptist church. All of this can account for Rays eclectic, original style.

On The Road

While in St. Augustines at age 15, Ray learned of his mothers death. Rays father had also died several years earlier. With no immediate family left, Ray moved to Jacksonville, Florida in search of work. Ray recalled those days as being rough times, however, he felt that his youth provided him with a certain resilience. Soon, Ray was playing in numerous small bands across the state of Florida. By 1948, now 18-years-old, Ray was a seasoned road musician. Around the same time, however, Ray was well acquainted with heroin use, which he continued using for many years to come. However, the ambitious Ray was determined to make his way in music and he purchased an early wire recorder, recording some demo tapes in Tampa, Florida.

Once he had saved around $600 from performances, Ray travelled to the West Coast, settling for a time in Seattle. Out west, he met Quincy Jones and Bumps Blackwell, producer of the original Little Richard hits. Ray also successfully assembled a trio of guitar, bass, and piano, dropping his last name Robinson so as not to be confused with then popular boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson. Rays trio came to the attention of Jack Lauderdale of Downbeat and later Swingtime records. By 1950, Ray had moved to Los Angeles and was cutting records for Swingtime. One of Rays daughters was also born during this year by a woman named Louise.

In 1951, Ray recorded a hit popular with the black community known as Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand which reached the Top 10 on the rhythm and blues charts. This, along with other Swingtime singles, were in the style of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, as young Ray had not yet mastered his own style. He tried to sound like them in order to get work, especially club work.

Atlantic Records

During this same period, Ray toured with blues singer Lowell Fulsom and became the pianist for Fulsoms band. Near the end of 1951, Swingtime records opted to drop Ray and Atlantic Records partners Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Abramson, and Jerry Wexler snatched him up without ever having seen him, paying around $2,500 for his contract. For his beginning sessions with Atlantic, Ray was teamed with an extraordinarily talented group of New York studio players under the direction of Jesse Stone including guitarist Mickey Baker, drummer Connie Kay, and bassist Lloyd Trotman.

Apparently Jesse Stone was dissatisfied with his inability to take direction, learning some years later that Ray was better at giving, rather than receiving, direction. Nonetheless, a compromise between his individualism and the commercial rhythm and blues marketplace provided Ray with an Atlantic hit, a year and a half after signing with them. Despite his temperament, the Atlantic partners never treated Ray as just another artist. To them, he was a musical genius with a lot more to offer than writing and singing songs.

Ray worked out of New Orleans for much of 1953, the final period of his formative years. However, the Louisiana rhythm had less affect on his overall work than some have speculated. By this time, Ray was well on his way to a comfortable, innovative style. Actually, his mid-fifties band arrangements more closely resembled the style of James Brown than New Orleans rhythm and blues. Rays original style also emerged as a result of his work with Guitar Slim, whose crude gospel blues greatly influenced him. He even arranged Slims million-selling single, Things That I Used To Do. Early recordings are based on blues and gospel forms, including the soulful, A Fool For You, What Would I Do Without You?, Its Allright, and Drown In My Own Tears. During this time, Ray divorced his wife of approximately 16 months, a beautician named Eileen, and subsequently remarried Della.

In the fall of 1954, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records traveled to Atlanta to hear Rays latest batch of songs which differed radically from his expert imitations of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, and Louis Jordan of the previous six years. Ray had learned to unite gospel and blues music together for the incredible birth of soul music. Once his new music caught on, he became known as The Genius and The Bishop. From New Orleans, Ray moved on to Dallas, where he put together his first true band, with bandleader Renald Richard. The band began performing with Ruth Brown from El Paso throughout Florida. During this time, saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman joined the band, and Ray and Richard developed the song, I Got A Woman, which marked the turning point in his music from rhythm and blues to soul, exuding the fervor of the Baptist Church. In November of 1954 Charles extended an invitation to Atlantic executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler which resulted in a meeting at the Peacock Club in Atlanta. It was there that Wexler first realized the overall change in Rays music. However, Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmets brother, acknowledged that Rays style was not necessarily unique, as noted by author Robert Palmer, Ray was not the first to do this, combine gospel and blues. He is the best of a long tradition, but there were people singing this way twenty years ago. But Ray was able to bring so much of his own to it.

Early Atlantic recordings were made with Ray while he performed in Atlanta, Florida, and New York. Nesuhi Ertegun viewed this as an advantage for recording purposes, as it gave Ray a chance to work out his arrangements on the road. Upon his return to Atlanta, Wexler and Ertegun managed to produce his first number one hit album, I Got a Woman, a confirmation of the greatness of Ray Charles. The release of Rays next single, I Got A Woman, also soared to number one on the rhythm and blues charts. The extraordinary success of his new style, both commercially and artistically, spurred similar hit songs to follow, including, This Little Girl of Mine (1955), Talkin Bout You (1957), and Dont Let The Sun Catch You Crying (1959), whose call-and-response style was fully realized with Rays mega-hit, Whatd I Say? in 1959. This song remains a favorite closing number among performing soul singers worldwide.

Also during this period Americas white youth discovered recordings by black artists. Elvis Presley had helped to erode racial barriers and, in fact, was somewhat of a Ray Charles fan. However, despite the fact that Atlantic executives wished to pursue sales in the white pop marketplace, Ray refused to compromise his musical style with the simpler beat, adolescent lyrics, and smoother singing. He continued on with his soulful music, and his recordings continued to sell, albeit largely among the black community. Atlantic continued to support Ray in his endeavors, hence, his soul music was undiluted and some of his landmark songs from this time were even more soulful than his earlier recordings, including Come Back Baby, Drown In My Own Tears, and Hallelujah I Love Her So.

Interestingly enough, Ray does not see his pivotal role in the creation of soul music. He said, When people ask me what I think about soul music.... I think all these terms are names that the media give the music in order to try to describe what they mean. I dont know the difference between rhythm and blues, soul music, and the black version of disco; the rhythm patterns are the same, recalled Robert Palmer. Ray also shied away from taking credit for the creation of rock and roll, feeling that his music was more adult and filled with despair, considering rhythm and blues as genuine down-to-earth Negro music. Of all his tunes from the mid-fifties, only Swanee River Rock remotely resembles rock and roll, and it became Rays first significant pop hit, reaching number 34 on the Billboard chart. In Jazz Masters of the 50s, Ray speaks of his work in this way, The things I write and sing about concern the general Joe and his general problems. 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 Im singing about,... I sing with all the feeling I can put into it, so that I can feel it myself.

Luckily for Ray his band was flexible, extemporaneous, and talented enough to accommodate his sense of musical perfection. Until 1959, Rays band had two saxophonists, with him playing a third, alto sax. He realized a stroke of luck when, around this time, baritone saxophonist Leroy Hog Cooper joined the band. The band now consisted of Hank Crawford on alto, Newman on tenor, and Cooper on baritone sax. There were also two trumpeters, Joe Bridgewater and Marcus Belgrave, with William Peoples as the primary drummer and Roosevelt Sheffield as bassist. Between 1957 and 1959, with the expansion of his band, Ray delved into greater musical forays, including an extended interest in country and western music. From here, he recruited three female singers to contrast against his voice, reminiscent of traditional call-and-response gospel singing. The female singers included Mary Ann Fisher, Darlene McRae, and Margie Hendrix. Thereafter, the chorus became known as the Raeletts. The hit single, What Kind of Man Are You is a splendid example of the intense, spiritual feel provided to Rays music with the addition of the Raeletts. His musical scores continued to expand and I Want A Little Girl, swing oriented, Yes Indeed, with jazz elements, and I Had A Dream with rich gospel sounds, all came out of this time. Whatd I Say? his first million-seller song, was one of the finest renderings of the call-and-response pattern between Ray and his new girls. The suggestion of sex in this particular song, however, resulted in its first being played only by black radio stations until it was covered by Elvis Presley, at which time the white radio stations also picked it up.

Despite his past inconsistencies in terms of concert arrival times, drug abuse, and temperamental ways, Ray has always been a superb musician and gracious performer who captivates his audience. Fortunately, Atlantic records took advantage of Rays live audience appeal, recording two in-person appearances, Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles In Person, where the live vocals take on a quality not easily captured in the studio. It was the Atlantic executives who first recognized Ray as a genius, not hesitating to call him such, as they considered Rays whole approach to music as very different from anybody elses. Despite his denial of same, he pioneered a style of music during the 1950s like no other up to that time. During his final days with Atlantic, Ray experimented musically with a passion, leaving Atlantic with his final recording, The Genius of Ray Charles which decidedly freed him from the stereotype of rock n roll singer and sealing him firmly as Mr. Soul to use one artists words. Ray had a large hand in the arrangement of this album, resulting in three triumphant singles, Dont Let The Sun Catch You Cryin, Am I Blue, and Come Rain or Come Shine. When Rays Atlantic contract expired in late 1959, ABC-Paramount made him a rare and generous offer and he moved on.

A New Direction

In 1961 Ray and Betty Carter collaborated on an album that produced the hit, Baby Its Cold Outside. While Atlantic felt a terrible loss when Charles left, ABC was well satisfied as Ray churned out one mega-hit after another, including, Georgia on My Mind (1960) and Hit The Road Jack in 1961, thereby establishing himself as an international artist. In 1962, Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music was released to massive sales. A single from this album, I Cant Stop Loving You, sold three million copies. Though Rays crossover into country music caused significant controversy, the popularity of his recording spawned a second volume under the same name with several more hits. He did not become mainstreamed like most black country artists, but rather, retained his gospel-blues sound. Ray changed stylistically somewhat, though, in 1961, as he moved from a blues shouter to a crooner of soul, achieving a phenomenal sweep of four Grammy awards on April 21, 1961 for Best Vocal Performer (male); Best Single (Georgia on My Mind); Best Album (The Genius of Ray Charles); and Best Song (Let the Good Times Roll).
While Ray was an unquestioned success, he was also a long-term drug user. On November 14, 1961, Ray was arrested on a narcotics charge in an Indiana hotel room, where he awaited to perform. The detectives seized heroin, marijuana, and other items. Ray, then 31-years-old, stated that he had been a drug addict since the age of 16. While the case was dismissed because of the manner in which the evidence was obtained, his situation did not improve until a few years later. Individuals who cared for Ray, such as Quincy Jones and Reverend Henry Griffin, felt that those around Ray were responsible for his drug use, as he was unable to obtain or administer drugs to himself, given his blindness. By 1964 Rays drug addiction caught up with him and he was arrested for possession of marijuana and heroin. Following a self-imposed stay at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, California, where he kicked his drug habit in 96 hours, Ray received five years probation. From the mid-60s on, he stuck to relatively popular tunes, though there were exceptions, including, I Dont Need No Doctor, Lets Go Get Stoned, and the release of his first album since kicking his heroin habit, the impassioned Cryin Time.

The Legend Lives On

By the late 1970s Rays 20-year marriage to Della Robinson ended. His lengthy absences and womanizing were contributing factors to the breakdown of the marriage. Rays work in the 1980s included more country music as well as a cameo appearance in the film, The Blues Brothers. However, it is his powerful performance on the USA for Africa release We Are the World in 1985 which fans recall most. Come the 1990s, Ray is still going strong, continuing with live performances, accompanied by his 17-piece band and the now five members of the Raeletts. Rays continual rearrangements of old favorites such as I Feel So Bad and Just for a Thrill, cement his reputation as The Genius of Soul. Ray was selected by Pepsi-Cola to act as their spokes-singer with a catchy Uh-Huh theme that resulted in one of the most likeable and memorable advertisement campaigns of 1991. Additionally, he was featured on public televisions American Masters on January 3, 1992 in Ray Charles: The Genius of Soul In this documentary, written, directed, and narrated by Yvonne Smith, Ray is touted as a national treasure. The documentary celebrated the his legendary career through his battles with drugs, notorious pursuit of women, and marriage of 23 years. Through it all, Ray is a survivor. The documentary showed him as the driven, complicated, exceptionally talented individual and musician which he remains.

Rays My World, released in 1993 by Warner Brothers, was his first major encounter with programmed percussion, a great difference for the artist so used to fine tuning his own musicians. Nonetheless, My World proved to be one of Rays finest releases in years, with a return to his earlier form. At 62 years of age, he continued to transform ordinary songs with powerful ingenuity. Ray can change the harmony, phrasing, lyrics, tempo, or whatever works for him, while performing a song, causing his tunes to touch the listeners heart. On October 7, 1993, President Clinton honored 18 distinguished Americans, including Ray Charles, with a silver medal for contributions to our nations cultural life. As quoted in The New York Times, Clinton recognized Ray and others with these words, These extraordinary individuals have made a gift to American cultural life that is beyond measure. In 1995, at age 64, Ray performed at the Avery Fisher Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival and showed that he was able to stir emotion within his audience, this time through the famous, Georgia on My Mind. Ray remains one of Americas greatest singers and The New York Times reports that, Behind his comedy, there [is] melancholy; behind the melancholy, resilience. Author Goldberg shares Rays own words, All music is related... if you feel and believe in your music, that conviction carries over to the public. You can create a very strong emotional bond between yourself and your listener that way. At 66 years of age, Ray Charles endures.

Selected discography

Hallelujah I Love Her So aka Ray Charles (Atlantic)
Soul Brothers (Atlantic)
Ray Charles at Newport (Atlantic)
Yes Indeed (Atlantic)
Ray Charles (Hollywood)
The Fabulous Ray Charles (Hollywood)
Whatdl Say (Atlantic)
The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic)
Ray Charles in Person (Atlantic)
Genius Hits the Road (ABC-Paramount)
The Genius After Hours (ABC-Paramount)
The Genius Sings the Blues (Atlantic)
Soul Meeting (Atlantic)
Do The Twist With Ray Charles (Atlantic)
Dedicated To You (ABC-Paramount)
Genius + Soul = Jazz (Atlantic)
Modern Sounds in Country and Western (ABC-Paramount)
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Vol. 2 (ABC-Paramount)
Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul (ABC-Paramount)
Sweet and Sour Tears (ABC-Paramount)
Have A Smile With Me (ABC-Paramount)
Live In Concert (ABC-Paramount)
Country and Western Meets Rhythm and Blues aka Together Again (ABC-Paramount)
Cryin Time (ABC-Paramount)
Rays Moods (ABC-Paramount)
A Portrait of Ray (ABC/TRC)
Im All Yours Baby! (ABC/TRC)
Doin His Thing (ABC/TRC)
The Birth of Soul (Atlantic)
My World (Warner)



The African American Almanac, 6th edition. Gale Research, 1994, 7th edition, 1995.
Goldberg, Joe. Jazz Masters of the Fifties. The MacMillan Co.; New York, 1965.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Vol. 1, edited by Colin Larkin. Stockton Press, New York, 1995.
Palmer, Robert. The Birth of Soul (discography booklet insert). Atlantic Records, New York, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. Edited by Jon Pereles and Patricia Romanowski. Rolling Stone Press: New York, 1983.
White, Timothy. Rock Lives. Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1990. pp. 27-31.


New York Times, Jan 3, 1992, p. B13; February 14, 1992, p. D19; August 4, 1993, p. C17; October 10, 1993, p. C3; June 26, 1995, p. C11.
Washington Post, August 22, 1991, p. D3; November 8, 1991, p. WW20; March 3, 1996, p. B2; April 4, 1993, p. D7.


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