Ray Charles: A Farewell To The Genius

Brother Ray: The Genius

tribute by Andrew Darlington

James Brown, of course.
John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye too, obviously.
But Ray Charles is an equally seismic element in the evolution of this thing we call urban R'n'B. The man Stevie Wonder tributes as 'Uncle Ray', he only loses out to their immediacy in the extreme narrow-band view. Always tuxedo'd, sometimes overdosed on orchestration and mass-choirs, he can be a little too sweet, not enough street to be totally cool. But Brother Ray had been there, done it all, and without him doing it first, they wouldn't be doing it now. The Ray Charles legacy, his place in five decades of music, is certain. The indelible images we retain, of permanent wraparound dark glasses over unseeing eyes. Of him rocking compulsively on his piano-stool, his entire upper body tip-tilted back, legs jerking and corkscrewing without warning, sinews wired into the rhythm-pulse exhortations of What'd I Say. Or the streetwise store-owner with a ready trigger-finger aimed at deterring shoplifters in the Blues Brothers movie. Or the deep rasping baritone that comes in alongside Bob Dylan in the final verses of USA-for-Africa's We Are The World, they're all part of the essential iconography of the century. He needs no more.

The result of a brief affair - he hardly ever knew his father who was married elsewhere, Ray Charles Robinson was born in the small town of Albany - a part of racially-segregated Georgia, on the 23rd September 1930. He gradually lost his sight to glaucoma over a period of two years, winding up at St Augustine's School for the Blind and Deaf in Florida at age seven. Here, he not only developed keyboard skills already ignited by the benevolent tutelage of boogie-woogie pianist Wylie Pitman, but learned clarinet, alto sax, and how to create Braille scores. Always too fluid to be accurately nailed down to one definitive category - a one-man genre, Ray's keyboard fluency easily encompasses jazz, just as he infused strong sacred Baptist gospel into the profane Devil's blues, taking it over into the secular pop charts. Talkin' Bout You he re-cast from Talkin' Bout Jesus and This Little Girl Of Minefrom This Little Light Of Mine. He wrote his own R'n'B breakthrough - Hallelujah I Love Her So, soon to be covered by Eddie Cochran who carried its sanctified preachifying rhythm across the spectrum into lewd rock 'n' roll. Just as Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin and Brenda Lee all had hits with What'd I Say, which Elvis Presley then lifted for a 1964 movie-soundtrack. Just as Ray's soulful reinterpretation of Hoagy Carmichael's Georgia On My Mind would be artfully replicated by a yearning Stevie Winwood. The hard-nosed Hit The Road Jack, constructed as a teasing dialogue with his Raelettes back-up singers, was coupled to the ice-cool cocktail-jazz subversion of The Danger Zone.

But even more contradictory was his black take on 'country'. Just as white teens were furtively tuning into the primal lure of black stations, Ray - and later Charlie Pride, was completing the circle by borrowing from what he'd heard on the radio-broadcast Grand Ole Opry, infusing the rawness of such source-material with new emotional depth. Recognising it as 'white man's blues'. His Modern Sounds In Country & Western crossed-over massively, not only topping the American album chart for three and a half months but also gifting him defining hits such as You Don't Know Me, and Don Gibson's I Can't Stop Loving You - his voice breaking "sing the song children" in stark soul contrast against the deluge of pure-white choir back-up. Was there ever a more aching voice? Country proves a lasting association that continues through volume two, with Take These Chains From My Heartand Your Cheating Heart, his 1966 hit with Buck Owen's Crying Time, into the 1980s when he scores country hits with Born To Love Me, as well as duets with George Jones, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr. Born with "music inside him," such impossible style-fusions only become logical through his intuitive head-arrangements, relying on practice and memory to take him where Braille scores cannot.

He'd started by sucking in influences across the widest of wavelengths from the likes of Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Big Boy Crudup, Charles Brown, Hank Williams, Count Basie and Tampa Red, but increasingly modelled his style on the smooth sophistication of Nat King Cole. As dirt-poor as a verse from a blues-song, with both his mother and brother dead before he hit 15, he soon found himself playing single-door fish-fry dance halls in Jacksonville for $4 a night, in borderline poverty in Orlando with the Joe Anderson band, and near-starving in Tampa with the white hillbilly Florida Playboys ("I learned to yodel when I was with them").

"Now it's important that you understand that there were three things I never wanted to own when I was a kid," he explained, "a dog, a cane, and a guitar. In my brain they all meant blindness and helplessness... it wasn't that I wanted to fool myself. Hell, I knew I was as blind as a bat. But, I didn't want to go around limping like I was half dead. I didn't want to depend on anyone or anything other than myself."

Hence, with Joe Ellison's Band he agitated for the chance to perform his own songs. Until, too scared to risk New York or Chicago he scrapes together $500 for the five-day Greyhound coach-haul to Seattle, Washington. Once there he forms a trio, links with writer Bumps Blackwell (who goes on to work with Sam Cooke), and forms a long-term creative friendship with a young Quincy Jones, just two years his junior (Ray's final comeback hit, 1990's I'll Be Good To You duet with Chaka Khan, would be lifted from Quincy's Back On The Block album). Head-hunted after a club gig, Ray records Confessin' Blues as The Maxim Trio for Downbeat Records, in itself a financial setback because, done in defiance of a musician's strike, he's instantly fined $600! Nevertheless he graduates to its successor-label Swingtime for I Love You, I Love You, quickly followed by his debut radio hit Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand, moving to LA for a heavy promotional schedule, hitting the road, hard-touring with Lowell Fulsom, and hitting heroin in a big way around the same time.

The road is never easy. Being blind, and black in the 1950s segregated south doesn't make it any easier. His autobiography - Brother Ray (written with David Ritz, Dial Press/ Macdonald & Jane, 1978), tells it. "I had to make sure I stopped at the right gas stations, where they had restrooms for coloured, and if I was hungry I couldn't stop at just any restaurant to eat... I had to go around to the back door and let them hand me out sandwiches." Even the 'Georgia' he yearns for on record is a place where they're lynching blacks, hanging them like 'strange fruit' from trees. But there are compensations. For Ray, things are moving. He's "in hogs heaven" working with Ruth Brown, Guitar Slim, Betty Carter and MJQ vibist Milt Jackson. And he gets to play the high-prestige Apollo. Plus there's his healthy appetite for women. Two marriages result in nine children, while he pruriently confesses to special 'auditioning' requirements for female backing singers! Then, on 1st September 1952 Atlantic buys his contract from the ailing Swingtime for just $2,500. A move that gives him confidence to step out from behind his Nat King Cole template, determining to "..sink, swim, or die" on his own terms.

He cuts I Got A Woman in an Atlanta radio station - unable to hear playbacks because a news announcer was simultaneously broadcasting from the control-room! It becomes a #2 R'n'B hit in November 1954 (also later covered by Elvis). He then manages two albums in league with Quincy Jones, the all-instrumental The Great Ray Charles, with his bop-tinged gospel-based piano set against big-band riffing for maximum impact. The Genius of Ray Charles with star session-contributions from Zoot Sims, Al Gray and Clark Terry. Plus a number of standout live albums. By February 1959 What'd I Say hits #1 on the R'n'B list, crossing-over to #6 on the pop chart. He'd evolved its blues-shout call-and-response vocals from stage improvisations, spreading the results across both sides of a 45rpm single. Its success helps determine Atlantic's future growth, as the great Jerry Wexler learns as much from Ray as vice versa, a lot of which will benefit future label artists... such as Aretha. But as the year ends Ray trades to ABC-Paramount, a high-risk but consciously astute move away from the strict R'n'B and jazz-specialist market. And a strategy that pays off spectacularly. ABC's superior promotion and distribution, allied to complete artistic control, brings Ray his first European appearances as Georgia On My Mind gives him the first of three national #1s. 1961 sees the launch of his ambitious Big Band, then his album Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz with Ray on organ alongside members of the Count Basie Orchestra, followed by the first of the two-volume Modern Sounds In Country & Western, and his position becomes unassailable. He's unstoppable...

Until he's stopped. A series of earlier minor drug busts culminates in quantities of marijuana and heroin being frisked from his pockets as he lands in Boston, flying in from Canada, December 1966. It yields jail, a $10,000 fine and a five-year probated suspended sentence. He's been a drug-user since 16, but the incident seems to provide impetus enough to kick his junk dependency through a sanatorium-spell. He later claims cigarettes were harder to kick than heroin, yet defiantly emerges from LA's St Francis clinic to chart with Ashford and Simpson's first major composition, Let's Go Get Stoned (which, in Ray Charles' tradition, they recast from Let's Serve The Lord). Inevitably, more was to come. It had to, after all, "music is nothing separate from me. It is me... you'd have to remove the music surgically." Yet there's just a suspicion that with his dependency, his greatest creativity is also behind him. Perhaps the ache behind 'take these chains from my heart' was more cellular than romantic? Yet his celebrity-level now enables him to take a principled stand on civil rights through an association with Martin Luther King, necessarily non-active because "I wouldn't have known when to duck when they started throwing broken bottles at my head." He also adds searing deep-soul vocals over the credits of Rod Seiger and Sidney Poitier's ground-breaking racially confrontational In The Heat Of The Night movie (1967), even as he's ducking out of chart relevance with his final Ray Charles Orchestra hit, a #36 with Booty Butt in May 1971.

Taken up by radical-chic white intelligentsia, he's suddenly trapped on cruise-control in the middle of the road, all schmaltz, swing and inconsistency. Sure, there'd always been mawkish ballads, and sure, James Brown used strings too - without ever blanding out quite so far, but then James Brown never sold across so wide a demographic, and if Ray's balance tilts towards a squandered repertoire coasting on cabaret-safe Beatles tunes and White House engagements, well - you could always find charismatic sparks in there somewhere. It seems churlish to bemoan this decline when, having come through blindness, poverty, racism, narcotics, broken marriages and the cruel fickleness of record sales, few should begrudge him those years in the sun. Those rewards denied to other pioneers and musical revolutionaries.

Sure, his relentlessly upbeat and intimidating talent could be set against his stinginess, harsh disciplinarian treatment of his bandsmen, and even his attempt to kill blind vocalist Al Hibbler by guiding him towards an open elevator shaft! You don't cross Brother Ray! A big, solid man, tetchy with audiences ("I don't take requests, brother. You don't want nobody coming in on your job telling you what to do!"), he had a gruffly contagious sense of humour - recounting that Hibbler anecdote against himself!, but that self-confidence bordering on arrogance was hard fought-for. And after him, using his creative blueprint, came Soul-shouters Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Solomon Burke and his most obvious protégé Stevie Wonder. Then Joe Cocker, 'Righteous Brother' Bill Medley, and Van Morrison (who's No Guru No Teacher No Method album recalls how "I used to gaze out my classroom window and dream/ and then go home and listen to Ray sing 'I believe to my soul' after school").

Eventually, on the 23rd May 2003 in LA Ray played what was billed as his 10,000th concert - surely an impossible total to calculate?, although complications following hip surgery curtail much more. Then there's the diagnosis of liver cancer... but by now, in his own words, "what's done is done. Ain't no taking it back. I can't turn around, and I don't want to - that's not my nature..." By then, Brother Ray had been there, done it all, and without him doing it first, others wouldn't be doing it now. As he dies there's already talk of what they're calling Unchain My Heart - the biopic featuring Jamie Foxx's uncannily accurate portrayal, which premieres in 2005 as the Grammy-winning Ray, and of his interrupted duets recording project with such notables as Norah Jones, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrisson and... er, Elton John's Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (issued posthumously as the Genius Loves Company album), but the Ray Charles legacy, his place in five decades of music, was already certain.

Ray Charles is dead. The man they simply call 'The Genius'. He died in his Beverly Hills home on 10th June 2004, but leaves an inspiring legacy. James Brown, of course. John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye too, obviously. But Ray Charles, particularly...