The American jazz musician Ray Charles (born 1932) was widely admired as a singer, pianist, and composer. He combined elements of jazz, gospel and rhythm-and-blues to create a new kind of African-American music, known as soul.
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1932. His father, Bailey Robinson, worked as a mechanic and handyman; his mother, Reather Robinson, worked in a sawmill. In order to avoid being confused with boxing champion Ray Robinson, he dropped his last name and was known as Ray Charles.
Suffered Blindness and Loss
The family moved from Albany, Georgia, to Greenville, Florida, when Charles was still a child. In Greenville, at the age of five, he began to go blind. At the age of seven, his right eye was removed, soon after which he became totally blind. At the Saint Augustine School for the Blind, in Florida, he learned to read Braille and began his musicianship as a pianist and clarinetist/saxophonist. His blindness required that he exercise his formidable memory for music aided by his gift of perfect pitch.
At 15 years of age, Charles lost his mother; two years later his father passed away. Suffering, somehow, always produces the greater artist. Charles, early orphaned and blind, suffered and grew in the capacity for emotion which infused his music.
Began Career With Country/Western Bands
Upon graduation from the Saint Augustine School, Charles traveled with country/western road bands—an experience he was to capitalize on later when he added country/western songs to his repertoire. Shortly afterwards, he began touring with rhythm-and-blues bands, working as a pianist, clarinetist, saxophonist, arranger, and composer.
As a singer, Charles was early influenced by blues singers Guitar Slim and Percy Mayfield. At the piano he was influenced by the jazz arrangements of Lloyd Glenn. Forever present in his style was the idiom of gospel music, sometimes subsumed by the other styles he sang; sometimes emerging in his pronunciation; sometimes predominating, as soul music. Charles' romantic ballad singing continued fundamentally in the suave Nat Cole school, but was embellished by deep-throated gospel growls and phenomenal falsetto which was frequently mistaken for a female soprano voice. The texture of his voice, his mixing of styles, his consummate musicianship, his versatile falsetto range, and his emotional appeal produced a unique vocal artistry which crossed even language barriers, but for an English-speaking audience his story-telling power added the dimension of meaning that provided a totally emotional experience not often equaled in any quarter of musical art.
In 1954 an historic recording session with Atlantic records fused gospel with rhythm-and-blues and established Charles' "sweet new style" in American music. One number recorded at that session was destined to become his first great success. Secularizing the gospel hymn "My Jesus Is All the World to Me," Charles employed the 8-and 16-measure forms of gospel music, in conjunction with the 12-measure form of standard blues. Charles contended that his invention of soul music resulted from the heightening of the intensity of the emotion expressed by jazz through the charging of feeling in the unbridled way of gospel. When "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing" combines with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," the result is a beat hard to beat, and Charles never sang a note that was not perfectly on pitch or did not swing in his exceptional rhythmical contexts.
In 1959, on the ABC-Paramount label, Charles recorded his legendary "Georgia on my Mind." In 1961 he won the first of five consecutive polls conducted among international jazz critics by Downbeat magazine. Charles won several Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. His virtuosity was internationally recognized. In 1976, he recorded songs from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Cleo Laine.
A Pepsi endorsement in the 1990s ensured that Charles would be known to a new generation of music lovers. He kept the albums coming, including My World, The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years, and Love Affair, and he even had a cameo in the 1996 movie Spy Hard.
Views on Elvis
In 1994, Charles appeared on the NBC news show "Now," admitting that "I'm probably going to lose at least a third of my fans," but telling interviewer Bob Costas that Elvis imitated what African-American artists were already doing. "To say that Elvis was … 'the king,' I don't think of Elvis like that because I know too many artists that were far greater than Elvis." While this statement caused a stir, it was known that rock-and-roll, especially in the early years, was heavily rooted in blues, and many rock artists performed and popularized music that originally belonged to African-American blues singers.
Although described by Nat Hentoff as living within "concentric circles of isolation," Charles was married to the former Della Altwine, herself a gospel singer, with whom he had three children. He was also known to enjoy good friendship with Stevie Wonder and other musicians. Yet there was a loneliness in his music, a kind of self-intimacy which was, perhaps, best reflected in his 1961 recordings with Betty Carter and his recordings from Porgy and Bess.
Of course, loneliness is inherent in the blues, but so much in the art depends upon the feelings of the interpreter that it is clear that there was a kind of loneliness inherent in Charles, himself; a loneliness that we are reminded that we share whenever we hear him sing. There is no more existential art than the art of music, which exists as creative experience only in the time of its performance. As Charles best put it himself, in a 1989 Downbeat interview with Jeff Levinson:
And then you have another kind of person like myself, for whom music is like the bloodstream. It is their total existence. When their music dies, they die. That's me. That's the difference.
How can you get tired of breathing? Music is my breathing. That's my apparatus. I've been doing it for 40 years. And I'm going to do it until God himself says, "Brother Ray, you've been a nice horse, but now I'm going to put you out to pasture."
Further Reading on Ray Charles
There is no full-length biography of Ray Charles at this time. Information can be found in Downbeat (January 1989); Ebony (April 1963); New York Post (January 4, 1962); New York Times (October 8, 1961); Newsweek (November 13, 1961); Saturday Evening Post (August 24, 1963); Show Business Illustrated (March 1962); TIME (May 10, 1963); Leonard Feather, Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960); American Heritage (August-September, 1986); Esquire (May, 1986); Rolling Stone (February 13, 1986); and Jet (July 25, 1994).