A look back at Ray Charles' life. Five decades ago, a blind orphan sat at a piano and belted out raw yet sophisticated songs that forever changed music
It’s crying time, again. Brother Ray has left us for good.
Ray Charles, who died at his Beverly Hills home on June 10 of liver failure at age 73, was a genre-bending musical superhero whom fans and fellow musicians viewed with something approaching awe. After all, the man known as the Genius of Soul had a significant hand in inventing modern popular music. ”Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Robert Plant — God knows how many singers have tried to sound like Ray Charles. Maybe more than Elvis,” says Billy Joel, who recorded a duet, ”Baby Grand,” with Charles in 1986. ”Musically, Ray was more important than Elvis.”
Beginning in 1955, when Charles scored his first major hit, the rollicking ”I’ve Got a Woman” (covered by Presley on the King’s first album), the then-25-year-old singer-pianist with the big, gruff voice regularly stunned listeners with a trademark sound that fused disparate styles into something exotic yet instantly accessible. For the next decade, song after song — the driving ”What’d I Say (Parts I & II),” the jokey ”Hit the Road Jack,” the plaintive ”Georgia on My Mind” — expanded the limits of what a pop tune could be. ”He was the first to take the holy music and put the devil’s word to it, coming up with the construct that was later to be called soul music,” says former Atlantic Records exec Jerry Wexler, who worked with Charles on many of his greatest records. ”He was the daddy, the inventor.”
A 1961 Charles album carried the title ”Genius + Soul = Jazz,” but really the equation was both more complex and much simpler than that. ”He could go from blues to jazz to country to rock to gospel [in the same song],” says ’60s soul legend Solomon Burke. Indeed, Charles was that rare musician who earned respect from both rock & rollers and the modern jazz crowd (not to mention those Grand Ole Opry types who snapped up copies of his seminal 1962 albums ”Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” Volumes 1 and 2). ”It’s a big loss,” says longtime friend and collaborator Tony Bennett. ”They’re all dying out now, the Pearl Baileys, Duke Ellingtons, Count Basies. All these great performers are gone, and Ray is joining them. So heaven’s going to have a great time up there with Ray Charles, believe me.”
As influential as his records were, they only hinted at the power of his live act. Even as a septuagenarian, Charles was able to give performances of stunning intensity, whether pounding out a rocker or tinkling away at a ballad. Country singer Kenny Chesney remembers seeing Charles play at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday party last year. ”Willie has seen everything,” says Chesney. ”If anybody has a reason to be jaded about music, it’s Willie. So here is Ray Charles in front of him singing ‘A Song for You,’ and Willie is in tears. Ray moved a lot of people.” Politicians included. Charles died one day before Ronald Reagan was buried, so it was doubly apt that on the day of the President’s funeral, many television stations chose to rerun Charles’ performance of ”America the Beautiful” (which he had played at Reagan’s second inaugural gala in 1985). The song — which, though derided by some when Charles first released it as a single in 1972, now feels absolutely right and definitive — seemed the perfect musical elegy for these two American heroes.