The hoarse voice, the wide smile, the dark glasses, and the music that can pierce a soul or rock a full house--a sound that evolved from the foot-stomping, storefront flavor that revolutionized American popular music between 1954 and 1959 and continues to be a major influence. These are some of the components of the phenomenon known as Ray Charles.
Ray Charles, singer, pianist, saxophonist, composer, and band leader, is a towering figure in popular music. He not only defined modern soul music but also helped escape country music and influenced dozens of rock singers. He performs with a gospel fervor that brings to his concerts the atmosphere of a revival meeting. He commands a huge and widely diversified audience ranging from adolescents to foreign jazz connoisseurs and critics, primarily because he started in rhythm and blues, moved on into jazz, and then entered popular music. He has been successful with ballads, blues, gospel music, rock 'n' roll, and Broadway show tunes and still remains true to a tradition rooted in the blues, spirituals, and Baptist gospel music of the Deep South.
When Charles was a small child, his family moved to Greenville, FL, where at the age of five, he started to go blind as a result of glaucoma. He lost his sight completely within two years and was placed in the St. Augustine (FL) School for Blind, a state institution where he learned to read in Braille, to play the piano and clarinet and to memorize music. He discovered mathematics and its correlation to music and learned to compose and arrange music in his head.
From St. Augustine's he went on to working with "traveling hillbilly bands" and rhythm and blues combinations throughout the South as pianist, clarinetist, and saxophonist. He also taught himself to arrange and compose music, both in Braille and by singing the parts to a musician who would write them down.
Moving to the west coast "around 1950," Charles worked as a singer-pianist-arranger and began to absorb the influences that eventually formed the basis of his own uninhibited style. In 1954, he formed his own band and put his sound on record. At what is now considered to be an "historic" recording session, he merged gospel with blues in a secular version of the old gospel tune "My Jesus Is All the World to Me." His recording of "I Got a Woman" subsequently caught on, and his first really big hit record, "Georgia on My Mind" in 1959, won a Grammy Award.
Within two years, John S. Wilson, jazz critic of the New York Times, reported that "almost every aspect of non-classical" music was being "blanketed" by "the varied talents of a man named Ray Charles." He cited him as a "pianist of exceptional range who can move skillfully from basic, root blues to a modern linear style." He also noted that the small Ray Charles band had developed intro "one of the best jazz groups played today" and that Charles' voice "worn through years of whooping and hollering in his blues performances, shows a rough, leathery quality in his relaxed approach."
His numerous subsequent hit recordings include "Hit the Road, Jack," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Crying Time" and "Living for the City," all of which won Grammy Awards. His albums were also hits: "Genius of Ray Charles," also a Grammy winner, "Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz" and "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" are among them. Other major hits include "Busted," "Hard Times," "Ruby," "The Right Time," "Let the Good Times Roll," "What'd I Say?" and "Hallelujah I Love Her So." Many of the tunes he records and most of those he plays before live audiences are numbers that he has composed.
Charles, also an internationally famous concert performer, has appeared on stages ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Grand Ole Opry and in countries from those of Scandinavia to England, Italy, Spain, and India. He is noted for having been the first musician to break the previously impenetrable barriers among soul, jazz, gospel, and pop. In 1964, he completed an around-the-would tour that included 90 concerts in nine weeks, playing to some 500,000 spectators from Japan to Algeria. In the autumn of 1961, Charles made history in Memphis, TN, when for the first time an integrated audience attended his performance at the municipally owned and operated city auditorium. He also has to his credit such films as "Blues Brothers" and a variety of television appearances, including "Country Comes Home," "Ray Charles--A Man and His Soul," "A 40th Anniversary Celebration," and "A Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.--A Celebration of His Life."
"His niche is difficult to define," noted Thomas Thompson in his 1966 profile of Charles in Life magazine. "The best blues singer around? Of course, but don't stop there. He is also an unparalleled singer of jazz, of gospel, of ballads, even unlikely enough, of country and western. He has drawn from each of these musical streams and made a river which he alone can navigate."
"Look, let's face it," says Charles, simply. "Good music is good music. I don't care if it's Beethoven,. Chopin, blues, rock. Music's been around a long time, and there's going to be music long after Ray Charles is dead. I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind. If it's a big record, that's the frosting on the cake. But the music's the main deal."