The battle between sin and salvation, between Saturday-night revels and Sunday-morning sanctity, rages at the heart of American popular music, But for Ray Charles, those combating urges were one and the same, and he made the music to prove it. Beginning in 1954 with his R&B hit “I’ve Got a Woman,” Charles set tales of desire, longing and lust to the propulsive rhythms of gospel, breaking the ground for what would soon be called soul music. A simple change of lyrics — from “this little light of mine” to “this little girl of mine,” for example — often made all the difference.
The impact was immediate and cataclysmic. While audiences thrilled, the religious community was horrified. “People said it was sacrilegious,” Charles said in 1991. “I got letters from preachers saying I was bastardizing the hymns. Then the next thing I know, four or five years later it became soul music, and everybody was doing it.”
That boundary-shattering breakthrough alone would have warranted the innumerable distinctions earned by Ray Charles, who at seventy-three died of liver cancer on June 10th at his home in Beverly Hills. Charles was among the inaugural inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Among his many other honors were twelve Grammys and a Presidential Medal for the Arts.
Such accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the crushing poverty of his childhood and the blindness, seemingly caused by the glaucoma he contracted at age six. Born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, he grew up in Greenville, Florida. His mother insisted that there was nothing he could not do if he set his mind to it, telling him, “You’re blind — you ain’t stupid.” She sent him to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. The vicious racism of the segregated South did not escape him there. “Imagine separating kids according to color when we couldn’t even see each other,” he said later. “Now ain’t that a bitch!”
Using Braille, Charles learned to read and write music at the school, and he became proficient on piano, clarinet, trumpet and saxophone. In 1945, Charles left St. Augustine and began his quest to become, as he put it at the time, a “great musician.” He made one promise to himself: “No dog, no cane, no guitar. I associated those things with helplessness and begging.” Soon he was a fixture on the Florida club circuit, with a style that drew heavily on Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown.
Florida could not contain Charles’ ambitions, however, and — after asking a fellow musician which American city was the farthest from Tampa — he lit out for Seattle. He got a recording contract there and released his first single, “Confession Blues,” in 1949. Atlantic Records signed him in 1952 and offered Charles the freedom he needed to develop his sound, allowing him to produce his own sessions and to work with top-flight musicians. “I realized the best thing I could do with Ray Charles was leave him alone,” said Jerry Wexler, one of the heads of Atlantic, in his memoir Rhythm and the Blues. Wexler’s faith proved well-placed as Charles unleashed landmark recordings such as “I’ve Got a Woman” and “Drown in My Own Tears.” Continuing to refine his approach, Charles added female background singers — the Raeletts — as a sassy counterpoint to the knowing masculinity of his baritone. He had once again borrowed from gospel, this time charging the call-and-response vocals of church music with erotic tension, a technique that attained its electrifying apex on his 1959 single “What’d I Say.” The song, which mimicked what Charles called “the sweet sounds of love,” generated outrage among the prudish — and became the singer’s first million-seller.
Charles left Atlantic in 1959 when ABC offered him a $50,000 annual advance and eventual ownership of his masters — an extraordinary deal at the time. His rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” reached Number One in 1960. Released in 1962, his two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music included masterful versions of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” and Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” and, in yet another liberating stroke, obliterated the lines between country, pop and R&B. A 1964 arrest for possession of heroin provided the low point of his career. He took a year off to kick his habit and rarely discussed it afterward.
Charles remained consistently active after that epic period, onstage and in the studio. But having helped draw the map of contemporary music, he seemed content to take a comfortable place within it. His influence on subsequent generations of singers — including Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker and Billy Joel — had been decisive. He recently finished an album of duets with the likes of Norah Jones, James Taylor and Willie Nelson, and a film about his life, starring Jamie Foxx, is headed for release. Twice divorced, Charles is survived by twelve children, twenty grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
In 1991, Charles was asked what he would like listeners to take from his music. “What would please me,” he replied, “is if people would say, ‘One thing about Ray’s music, it’s sincere. You may not like everything he does, but it’s real. It’s always genuine.’ If I got that kind of accolade for the rest of my career, or even after I’m dead, that would please me very much.”