Born Horace Charles Robinson, 23 September 1930, Greenville, Madison County, Florida
Singer / pianist / songwriter / arranger / bandleader / multi-instrumentalist
Only recently was it revealed (by blues researcher Eric LeBlanc) that Ray Charles's real name was not Ray Charles Robinson, but Horace Charles Robinson and that he was not born in Albany, Georgia, but in Greenville, Florida.
Nicknamed The Genius, Charles is one of the leading figures in the history of popular music. He virtually invented soul music by blending blues, gospel jazz, pop and even country music into a whole new genre. His influence has been immense.
Ray became progressively blind from the age of five, possibly from untreated glaucoma. From 1937 until 1945 he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind at St. Augustine, where he learned to read and write music in braille and became proficient on several instruments, though the piano has always been his main instrument. Both his parents had died by the time he was fifteen. In 1946 Ray started a career in show business, picking up work where he could. Around 1949 he moved from Tampa, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, where he formed the Maxine Trio with G.D. McKee and Milt Garred. His earliest recordings (for Downbeat and Swingtime, 1949-51) reveal a heavy debt to Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. Ray's very first record (with the Maxine Trio), "Confession Blues", was a # 2 R&B hit in the spring of 1949. In 1952 Atlantic Records purchased his Swingtime contract for $ 2500. The first Atlantic recordings were very jazzy and "cool". Label boss Ahmet Ertegun groomed him for the R&B mainstream and wrote the jumping "Mess Around" for him (not a hit, but a great record). Charles began writing more and more of his own material. Late in 1953, Ray went to New Orleans and became pianist and arranger for Guitar Slim, whose big 1954 hit "The Things That I Used To Do" was arranged by Charles. The earthier style of Guitar Slim carried over to Ray's own work and set the tone for his subsequent direction, experimenting with a blues-gospel fusion. This effect was fully realized in "I Got A Woman" (late 1954), which was based on "It Must Be Jesus" by the Southern Tones (Duke 205, recorded in the summer of 1954) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDoEhA6jh6I
"I Got A Woman" was a # 1 R&B hit and some white customers also began to take notice of Ray, including Elvis Presley who covered the song at his first RCA session. Charles would record other secularized versions of (retitled) gospel songs, like "This Little Girl Of Mine", "Lonely Avenue" and "That's Enough". The years 1955-56 brought him two further number one hits, "A Fool For You" and "Drown In My Own Tears" and in 1957 he had his first pop hit (# 34) with "Swanee River Rock". By this time he used a female quartet, the Raelettes, a group that would continue to work with him until the 1980s, albeit with often changing personnel. ("You couldn't be a Raelette unless you let Ray ...".) In spite of 18 Top 20 R&B hits on Atlantic, until mid-1959 he remained an R&B singer with a limited audience, which is also reflected in the fact that he didn't have a UK release until December 1958 (the instrumental "Rockhouse, Parts 1 & 2", London HLE 8768).
The record that would catapult him to international stardom was the call and response number "What'd I Say" (# 1 R&B, # 6 pop, summer 1959), divided over two sides. This acknowledged classic is one of the all-time great encore numbers performed by countless singers and bands in stadiums, clubs and bars all over the world. But not long after this success, Ray Charles left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount. It was the greatest disappointment of Ahmet Ertegun's life. Ray was the artist Ahmet loved and respected above all others. ABC promised him more financial and musical freedom plus the right to retain ownership of his own recordings at the end of the association.
From a commercial point of view, his ABC tenure was very successful, with 64 entries in the pop charts between 1960 and 1973. Still, many critics feel that much of the passion and fire of the Atlantic period was lost at ABC. There were # 1 pop hits in 1960 ("Georgia On My Mind"), 1961 ("Hit the Road Jack") and 1962 ("I Can't Stop Loving You"). The latter (also a # 1 in the UK) was drawn from an LP called "Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music", which topped the album charts for 14 weeks and also included the # 2 hit "You Don't Know Me". Still, these recordings, as well as Ray's later hit versions of country songs like "Take These Chains From My Heart" (# 8, 1963), "Busted" (# 4, 1963) and "Crying Time" (# 6, 1965-66) had nothing to do with country and western in the traditional sense and were not listed on the country charts (unlike Ray's Columbia recordings from 1983-86, mostly duets, which did feature a traditional country accompaniment).
In 1963 Ray formed his own record label, Tangerine, which was distributed by ABC-Paramount. He toured the world, took some time off in 1965-66 to cure himself of a long-term drug addiction, won several Grammies and made a cameo appearance in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. After leaving ABC in 1973, he returned to Atlantic where he also got his own label, Crossover. From that point he was more oriented to "easy listening" music, and, later, in the 1980s, to country (and still later, jazz).
In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, followed by a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. His last pop hit was "I'll Be Good To You" (# 18, 1989), credited to "Quincy Jones, featuring Ray Charles and Chaka Khan", on the Qwest label.
In 2003, while undergoing hip-replacement surgery, he was found to have a failing liver. He died at his home in Beverly Hills on June 10, 2004 (aged 73), surrounded by family and friends.
The biopic "Ray", released four months after his death, portrays his life and career between 1930 and 1979 and stars Jamie Foxx as Charles. Foxx won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role.
More info : http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-911
CD recommendations :
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/rcharles.htm
Acknowledgements : several encyclopedias, Eric LeBlanc, Wikipedia, Joel Whitburn.
Mess Around (live) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3T8dJk8LjE
Dik, July 2013
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