“What is a soul? It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.”
“The only true genius in our business”.
-Frank Sinatra on Ray Charles
“He wanted to get in touch with the inside of you, not just the outside. Ray had a deep sense of seeing. He could see stuff you couldn’t see.”
-Rickey Skaggs (Country Music HOF)
“When Ray did ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before,” Country Music Hall of Fame member Willie Nelson said in a 2006 Tennessean interview. “He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.”
Blind but Not Bewildered
We’re going to skip the basics of this man’s life because Jamie Foxx has already won an Oscar with his spot-on portrayal in Ray. There’s also a book, Brother Ray, which is a no-holds-barred look at his experiences; good and bad, straight from the man himself. I also don’t think there’s anyone breathing who hasn’t either seen the movie or know the fundamentals of the Ray Charles story. Yes, he became blind at the tender age of seven from glaucoma. Raised in dire poverty way, way, out in the country, Charles studied composition and learned many instruments at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. That’s the beach town south of Jacksonville, FL. Oh, yea, if being blind wasn’t an obstacle enough, Ray’s parents had died by his early teens, and he worked as a musician in Florida for a while before using his savings to move to Seattle in 1947.
He Hit the Road Jack
Sound like a pampered kid yet? According to most knowledgable cultural observers, Ray was the musician most responsible for developing soul music. Now, singers like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson also did a great deal to pioneer the form, but Charles did even more to devise a new form of black pop by merging ’50s R&B with gospel-powered vocals, adding plenty of flavor from contemporary jazz, blues, and (in the early ’60s) country. Then there was his singing; his style was among the most emotional and easily identifiable of any 20th-century performer, up there with the likes of Elvis and Billie Holiday. He was also a superb keyboard player, arranger, and bandleader. However, the brilliance of his 1950s and ’60s work can’t obscure the fact that he made few classic tracks after the mid-’60s, though he recorded many. But that’s a mystery for another day.
Finding His Mojo
According to AllMusic In the early ’50s, “Charles’ sound started to toughen as he toured with Lowell Fulson, went to New Orleans to work with Guitar Slim (playing the piano on and arranging Slim’s huge R&B hit, The Things That I Used To Do), and got a band together for R&B star Ruth Brown. At Atlantic Records, Ray Charles truly found his voice, consolidating the gains of recent years and then some with I Got A Woman, a number-two R&B hit in 1955. This is the song most frequently singled out as his pivotal performance, on which Charles first truly let go with his unmistakable gospel-ish moan, backed by a tight, bouncy horn-driven arrangement.”
He Was Everywhere
The aforementioned Hit The Road Jack was seemingly played everywhere. We had the single. It was played by radio jocks 24/7. Ray’s voice was so cutting, the lyrics so playful, yet forceful, America couldn’t get enough of this mesmerizing song. My mother used to sing the song anytime one of us was out of line. It was the sonic discipline needed to straighten your act up and do your chores.
Hit the Road Jack is a song written by the rhythm and blues artist Percy Mayfield, and first recorded in 1960 as an A capella demo sent to Art Rupe. It became famous after it was recorded by the singer-songwriter-pianist Ray Charles with The Raelettes vocalist Margie Hendrix, and eventually became one of Charles’ signature songs. In fact, the song was so popular it spawned a British TV series and an episode of Night Court.
Charles’s recording hit number one for two weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, beginning on Monday, October 9, 1961. Hit the Road Jack won a Grammy award for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording. The song was number one on the R&B Sides chart for five weeks, thereby becoming Charles’s sixth number-one on that chart.
In April of 1962, Ray recorded his game-changer, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. In this landmark recording, which changed the genre forever as well as capturing an entirely new generation of Ray fans, Charles hit the proverbial ball out of the park. His I Can’t Stop Loving You single, along with this hugely popular album, catapulted Ray to even greater heights. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising; Charles had always been eclectic, recording quite a bit of straight jazz at Atlantic, with noted jazz musicians like David “Fathead” Newman and Milt Jackson. According to music critic Robert Christgau, “the album transfigured pop, prefigured soul, and defined modern country & western music.” It has been called one of the greatest albums of all time by publications such as Rolling Stone and Time. So, long before Lynyrd Skynyrd combined rock ‘n’ roll, the blues, and country music, Ray was altering the sound of country music forever.
Ray Was Everywhere
Charles remained extremely popular through the mid-’60s, scoring big hits like “Busted,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Take These Chains From My Heart,” and “Crying Time,” although his momentum was slowed by a 1965 bust for heroin. This led to a year-long absence from performing, but he picked up where he left off with “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966. Yet by this time Charles was focusing increasingly less on rock and soul, in favor of pop tunes, often with string arrangements, that seemed aimed more at the easy listening audience than anyone else. Charles’ influence on the rock mainstream was as apparent as ever; Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood in particular owe a great deal of their style to him, and echoes of his phrasing can be heard more subtly in the work of greats like Van Morrison.
A Performer for the Ages
Ray Charles was and remains through his recordings and vast influence, an American icon. His story of survival and triumph, against seemingly insurmountable odds, is an inspiration to generations of music lovers and everyone who appreciates his wonderful sound and personal grit.
No Ray Charles
No Stevie Winwood
No King Curtis
No Van Morrison
No Charlie Rich
No Little Milton
No Johnnie Taylor
No Little Willie John
I’ll close with this quote.
“The hit records he made for Atlantic in the mid-’50s mapped out everything that would happen to rock ‘n’ roll and soul music in the years that followed.” -Joe Levy (Music editor Rolling Stone magazine