(Read all about Ray Charles after the videos)
Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004), known professionally as Ray Charles, was an American singer, songwriter, musician, and composer. Among friends and fellow musicians he preferred being called "Brother Ray". He was often referred to as "The Genius". Charles was blind from the age of seven.
He pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s by combining blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel styles into the music he recorded for Atlantic Records. He also contributed to the integration of country and rhythm and blues and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his two Modern Sounds albums. While he was with ABC, Charles became one of the first African-American musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company.
Charles cited Nat King Cole as a primary influence, but his music was also influenced by country, jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues artists of the day, including Louis Jordan and Charles Brown. In the late forties he became friends with Quincy Jones, to whom he learned the ropes of arranging jazz music. Their friendship would last till the end.
Frank Sinatra called him "the only true genius in show business", although Charles downplayed this notion.
In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Charles at number ten on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", and number two on their November 2008 list of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time". Billy Joel observed: "This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley".
Life and career
1930–45: Early years
Ray Charles Robinson was the son of Aretha (née William) Robinson, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic, and handyman. When Charles was an infant, his family moved from his birthplace in Albany, Georgia, back to his mother's hometown of Greenville, Florida.
Charles had little contact with his father growing up, and it is unclear whether his mother and father were ever married. Charles was raised by his biological mother Aretha, as well as his father’s first wife, a woman named Mary Jane. Growing up, he referred to Aretha as "Mama", and Mary Jane as "mother". Aretha was a devout Christian, and the family attended the New Shiloh Baptist Church.
In his early years, Charles showed a curiosity for mechanical objects, and would often watch his neighbors working on their cars and farm machinery. His musical curiosity was sparked at Mr. Wylie Pitman's Red Wing Cafe, at the age of three, when Pitman played boogie woogie on an old upright piano; Pitman subsequently taught Charles how to play piano himself. Charles and his mother were always welcome at the Red Wing Cafe, and even lived there when they were experiencing financial difficulties. Pitman would also care for Ray's brother George, to take the burden off Aretha. George drowned in Aretha's laundry tub when he was four years old, and Ray was five. Charles started to lose his sight at the age of four or five, and was completely blind by the age of seven, apparently as a result of glaucoma. Broke, uneducated and still mourning the loss of Charles' brother George, Aretha used her connections in the local community to find a school that would accept blind African-American students. Despite his initial protest, Charles attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945.
Charles began to develop his musical talent at school, and was taught to play the classical piano music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His teacher Mrs. Lawrence taught him how to read music using braille, a difficult process that requires learning the left hand movements by reading braille with the right hand and learning the right hand movements by reading braille with the left hand, and then synthesizing the two parts. While Charles was happy to play the piano, he was more interested in the jazz and blues music he heard on the family radio than classical music. On Fridays, the South Campus Literary Society held assemblies where Charles would play piano and sing popular songs. On Halloween and George Washington's birthday, the black Department of the school had socials where Charles would play. It was here he established "RC Robinson and the Shop Boys" and sang his own arrangement of "Jingle Bell Boogie". During this time, he performed on WFOY radio in St. Augustine.
Aretha died in the spring of 1945, when Charles was 14 years old. Her death came as a shock to Ray, who would later consider the deaths of his brother and mother to be "the two great tragedies" of his life. Charles returned to school after the funeral, but was then expelled in October for playing a prank on his teacher.
1945–52: Life in Florida, Los Angeles, Seattle and first hits
After leaving school, Charles moved to Jacksonville with a couple who were friends of his mother. He played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla for over a year, earning $4 a night. He also joined the musicians’ union in the hope that it would help him get work. He befriended many union members, but others were less kind to him because he would monopolize the union hall’s piano, since he did not have one at home. He started to build a reputation as a talented musician in Jacksonville, but the jobs did not come fast enough for him to construct a strong identity. He decided to leave Jacksonville and move to a bigger city with more opportunities.
At age 16, Charles moved to Orlando, where he lived in borderline poverty and went without food for days. It was an extremely difficult time for musicians to find work, as since World War II had ended there were no “G.I. Joes” left to entertain. Charles eventually started to write arrangements for a pop music band, and in the summer of 1947 he unsuccessfully auditioned to play piano for Lucky Millinder and his sixteen-piece band.
In 1947, Charles moved to Tampa, where he had two jobs: one as a pianist for Charles Brantley's Honeydippers, a seven-piece band; and another as a member of a white country band called The Florida Playboys (though there is no historical trace of Charles' involvement in The Florida Playboys besides Charles' own testimony). This is where he began his habit of always wearing sunglasses, made by designer Billy Stickles. In his early career, he modeled himself on Nat "King" Cole. His first four recordings—"Wondering and Wondering", "Walking and Talking", "Why Did You Go?" and "I Found My Baby There"—were supposedly made in Tampa, although some discographies also claim he recorded them in Miami in 1951, or Los Angeles in 1952.
Charles had always played piano for other people, but he was keen to have his own band. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, and, considering Chicago and New York City too big, followed his friend Gossie McKee to Seattle, Washington in March 1948, knowing that the biggest radio hits came from northern cities. Here he met and befriended, under the tutelage of Robert Blackwell, a 15-year-old Quincy Jones.
He started playing the one-to-five A.M. shift at the Rocking Chair with his band McSon Trio, which featured McKee on guitar and Milton Garrett on bass. Publicity photos of the trio are some of the earliest recorded photographs of Ray Charles. In April 1949, Charles and his band recorded "Confession Blues", which became his first national hit, soaring to the second spot on the Billboard R&B chart. While still working at the Rocking Chair, he also arranged songs for other artists, including Cole Porter's "Ghost of a Chance" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Emanon". After the success of his first two singles, Charles moved to Los Angeles in 1950, and spent the next few years touring with blues artist Lowell Fulson as his musical director.
In 1950, his performance in a Miami hotel would impress Henry Stone, who went on to record a Ray Charles Rockin' record (which never became particularly popular). During his stay in Miami, Charles was required to stay in the segregated but thriving black community of Overtown. Stone later helped Jerry Wexler find Charles in St. Petersburg.
After joining Swing Time Records, he recorded two more R&B hits under the name "Ray Charles": "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951), which reached number five; and "Kissa Me Baby"(1952), which reached number eight. Swing Time folded the following year, and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.
1952–59: Signing with Atlantic Records
In June 1952, Atlantic Records bought Ray's contract for $2,500. Charles' first recording session with Atlantic ("The Midnight Hour"/"Roll With my Baby") took place in September 1952, although his last Swingtime release ("Misery in my Heart"/"The Snow is Falling") would not appear until February 1953. He began recording jump blues and boogie-woogie style recordings as well as slower blues ballads, in which he continued to show the vocal influences of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown. "Mess Around" became Charles' first Atlantic hit in 1953; the following year he had hits with "It Should Have Been Me" and "Don't You Know," which became his first chart success for Atlantic. He also recorded the songs "Midnight Hour" and "Sinner's Prayer." Some elements of his own vocal style were evident in "Sinner's Prayer," "Mess Around," and "Don't You Know".
Late in 1954, Charles recorded his own composition "I Got a Woman"; the song became one of his most notable hits, reached number two on the R&B chart. "I Got a Woman" included a mixture of gospel, jazz and blues elements that would later prove to be seminal in the development of rock 'n' roll and soul music. In 1955, he had hits "This Little Girl of Mine" and "A Fool for You". In upcoming years, he scored with "I'll Drown in My Own Tears" and "Hallelujah, I Love Her So." By 1959, Ray Charles reached the Billboard Top Ten with "What'd I Say" which made him a major figure in R&B.
Parallel to his R&B career, Charles also recorded instrumental jazz albums such as 1957's The Great Ray Charles. During this time, Charles also worked with jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson, releasing Soul Brothers in 1958 and Soul Meeting in 1961. By 1958, Charles was not only headlining black venues such as The Apollo Theater and The Uptown Theater, but also bigger venues such as The Newport Jazz Festival (where he would cut his first live album). In 1956, Charles recruited a young all-female singing group named the Cookies, and reshaped them as The Raelettes. Up to this point, Charles had used his wife and other musicians to back him on recordings such as "This Little Girl of Mine" and "Drown In My Own Tears". The Raelettes' first recording session with Charles was on the bluesy-gospel inflected "Leave My Woman Alone".
1959–67: Crossover success
Charles reached the pinnacle of his success at Atlantic with the release of "What'd I Say", a complex song that combined gospel, jazz, blues and Latin music, which Charles would later claim he had composed spontaneously as he was performing in clubs and dances with his small band. Despite some radio stations banning the song because of its sexually suggestive lyrics, the song became Charles' first ever crossover top ten pop record. Later in 1959, he released his first country song (a cover of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On"), as well as recording three more albums for the label: a jazz record (later released in 1961 as The Genius After Hours); a blues record (released in 1961 as The Genius Sings the Blues); and a traditional pop/big band record (The Genius of Ray Charles). The Genius of Ray Charles provided his first top 40 album entry, where it peaked at No. 17, and was later held as a landmark record in Charles' career.
Charles' Atlantic contract expired in the fall of 1959, with several big labels offered him record deals; choosing not to renegotiate his contract with Atlantic, Ray Charles signed with ABC-Paramount Records in November 1959. He obtained a much more liberal contract than other artists had at the time, with ABC offering him a $50,000 annual advance, higher royalties than before and eventual ownership of his masters—a very valuable and lucrative deal at the time. During his Atlantic years, Charles had been heralded for his own inventive compositions, but by the time of the release of the instrumental jazz LP Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960) for ABC's subsidiary label Impulse!, he had virtually given up on writing original material, instead following his eclectic impulses as an interpreter.
With "Georgia on My Mind", his first hit single for ABC-Paramount in 1960, Charles received national acclaim and four Grammy Awards, including two for "Georgia on My Mind": Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track, Male and Best Performance by a Pop Single Artist. Originally written by composers Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael, the song was Charles' first work with Sid Feller, who produced, arranged and conducted the recording. Charles earned another Grammy for the follow-up "Hit the Road Jack", written by R&B singer Percy Mayfield.
By late 1961, Charles had expanded his small road ensemble to a full-scale big band, partly as a response to increasing royalties and touring fees, becoming one of the few black artists to crossover into mainstream pop with such a level of creative control. This success, however, came to a momentary halt during a concert tour in November 1961, when a police search of Charles' hotel room in Indianapolis, Indiana, led to the discovery of heroin in his medicine cabinet. The case was eventually dropped, as the search lacked a proper warrant by the police, and Charles soon returned to music.
In the early 1960s, whilst on the way from Louisiana to Oklahoma City, Charles faced a near-death experience when the pilot of his plane lost visibility, as snow and his failure to use defroster caused the windshield of the plane to become completely covered in ice. The pilot made a few circles in the air before he was finally able to see through a small part of the windshield and land the plane. Charles placed a spiritual interpretation on the event, claiming that "something or someone which instruments cannot detect" was responsible for creating the small opening in the ice on the windshield which enabled the pilot to land the plane safely.
The 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and its sequel Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, helped to bring country into the musical mainstream. Charles' version of the Don Gibson song I Can't Stop Loving You topped the Pop chart for five weeks, stayed at No. 1 in the R&B chart for ten weeks, and also gave him his only number one record in the UK. In 1962, he founded his own record label, Tangerine Records, which ABC-Paramount promoted and distributed. He had major pop hits in 1963 with "Busted" (US No. 4) and Take These Chains From My Heart (US No. 8).
In 1965, Charles' career was halted once more after being arrested for a third time for heroin use. He agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time, and eventually kicked his habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. After spending a year on parole, Charles reappeared in the charts in 1966 with a series of hits composed with the fledgling team of Ashford & Simpson, including the dance number "I Don't Need No Doctor", and "Let's Go Get Stoned", which became his first No. 1 R&B hit in several years. His cover of country artist Buck Owens' "Crying Time" reached No. 6 on the pop chart and helped Charles win a Grammy Award the following March. In 1967, he had a top twenty hit with another ballad, "Here We Go Again".
1967–83: Commercial decline
Charles' renewed chart success, however, proved to be short lived, and by the late 1960s his music was rarely played on radio stations. The rise of psychedelic rock and harder forms of rock and R&B music had reduced Charles' radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of contemporary rock and soul hits, since his earnings from owning his own masters had taken away the motivation to write new material. Charles nonetheless continued to have an active recording career, although most of his recordings between 1968 and 1973 evoked strong reactions: people either liked them a lot, or strongly disliked them. His 1972 album, A Message from the People, included his unique gospel-influenced version of "America the Beautiful", as well as a number of protest songs about poverty and civil rights. Charles was often criticized for his version of "America the Beautiful" because it was very drastically changed from the song's original version. The common argument against this is that the words are scattered and changed, but the music in the background remains beautiful and untouched. Many people believed that this was a perfect representation of the freedom Americans are given, free to do what they want, so long as they follow the laws (music) that we are given.
In 1974, Charles left ABC Records and recorded several albums on his own Crossover Records label. A 1975 recording of Stevie Wonder's hit "Living for the City" later helped Charles win another Grammy. In 1977, he reunited with Ahmet Ertegün and re-signed to Atlantic Records, where he recorded the album True to Life, remaining with his old label until 1980. However, the label had now begun to focus on rock acts, and some of their prominent soul artists such as Aretha Franklin were starting to be neglected. In November 1977 he appeared as the host of NBC's Saturday Night Live. In April 1979, Charles' version of "Georgia On My Mind" was proclaimed the state song of Georgia, and an emotional Charles performed the song on the floor of the state legislature. Although he had notably supported the American Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, in 1981 Charles was criticized for performing at South Africa's Sun City resort during an international boycott of its apartheid policy.
1983–2004: Later years
In 1983, Charles signed a contract with Columbia Records. He recorded a string of country albums, as well as having single hits with duet singers such as George Jones, Chet Atkins, B.J. Thomas, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Jr., Dee Dee Bridgewater ("Precious Thing") and lifelong friend Willie Nelson, with whom he recorded the No. 1 country duet "Seven Spanish Angels".
Prior to the release of his first Warner release, Would You Believe, Charles made a return to the R&B charts with a cover of The Brothers Johnson's "I'll Be Good to You", a duet with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones and singer Chaka Khan which hit number-one on the R&B charts in 1990 and won Charles and Khan a Grammy for their dual work. Prior to this, Charles returned to the pop charts in another duet, with singer Billy Joel on the song "Baby Grand". In 1989, he recorded a cover of the Southern All Stars' "Itoshi no Ellie" for a Japanese TV advert for the Suntory brand, releasing it in Japan as "Ellie My Love" where it reached No. 3 on its Oricon chart.
Charles's 1993 album, My World, became his first album in some time to reach the Billboard 200, whilst his cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" would give him a hit on the adult contemporary chart as well as his twelfth and final Grammy. By the beginning of the 1980s, Charles was reaching younger audiences with appearances in various films and TV shows. In 1980, he appeared in the film The Blues Brothers. Charles' version of "Night Time is the Right Time" was played during the popular Cosby Show episode "Happy Anniversary", although he never appeared on the show in person. In 1985, he appeared alongside a slew of other popular musicians in the USA for Africa charity recording "We Are the World". Charles's popularity increased among younger audiences in 1991 after he appeared in a series of Diet Pepsi commercials, where he popularized the catchphrase "You Got the Right One, Baby". Two more slickly-produced adult contemporary albums followed, Strong Love Affair (1996) and Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again (2002) although both failed to chart and were soon forgotten.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, he made appearances on the Super Dave Osbourne television show, featuring in a series of vignettes where he was somehow driving a car, often as Super Dave's chauffeur. During the sixth season of Designing Women, Charles himself sang "Georgia on My Mind" in place of the instrumental cover version which had featured in the previous five seasons. He also appeared in 4 episodes of the popular TV comedy The Nanny, playing Sammy in Seasons 4 & 5 during 1997–98. From 2001–02, Charles appeared in commercials for the New Jersey Lottery to promote its "For every dream, there's a jackpot" campaign.
Charles appeared at two separate Presidential inaugurations, performing for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985, and for Bill Clinton's first in 1993. On October 28, 2001, several weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Charles appeared during Game 2 of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees and performed "America the Beautiful". In 2003, Charles headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, DC, attended by the President, First Lady, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Also in 2003, Charles presented one of his greatest admirers, Van Morrison, with his award upon being inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the two sang Morrison's song "Crazy Love" (the performance appears on Morrison's 2007 album The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3). Lastly in 2003, Charles performed "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful" at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, D.C. His final public appearance came on April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as a historic landmark in Los Angeles.
In 2003, Charles had successful hip replacement surgery and was planning to go back on tour, until he began suffering from other ailments. He died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, on June 10, 2004, surrounded by family and friends, as a result of acute liver disease. He was 73 years old. His funeral took place on June 18, 2004, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles with numerous musical figures in attendance. B.B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder and Wynton Marsalis each played a tribute at Charles's funeral. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
His final album, Genius Loves Company, was released two months after his death, and consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B.B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Johnny Mathis. The album won eight Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones, and Best Gospel Performance for "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight; he also received nods for his duets with Elton John and B.B. King. The album included a version of Harold Arlen's and E.Y. Harburg's "Over the Rainbow" sung as a duet with Johnny Mathis, which was played at Charles' memorial service.
Two more posthumous albums were released: Genius & Friends (2005), a selection of duets recorded from 1997 to 2004 with artists of Charles' choice, including "Big Bad Love" with Diana Ross; and Ray Sings, Basie Swings (2006), which combined archive Ray Charles live vocal performances from the mid-1970s recorded from the concert mixing board with new instrumental tracks specially recorded by the contemporary Count Basie Orchestra and other musicians, to create a "fantasy concert" recording.
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