When Ray Charles died in June at the age of 73, few members of the post- Baby Boomer generations had any real understanding of his musical greatness. For them, Ray Charles was best known for his cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers and as the spokesperson for Diet Pepsi, the pitchman who sang, “You’ve got the right one, baby, uh huh,” and who smiled and mugged his way through a series of campy commercials. Fun, but hardly the stuff of legend. But the greatness was assuredly there, and it was hard-earned.
It began in the Depression era in the American deep South. Ray Charles started out with two strikes against him, but indomitable will and nascent genius combined to intervene. Blind from early childhood, an orphan in his early teens, raised in an environment of grinding poverty, Ray Charles could have accepted the boundaries and limitations that life set before him.
But Ray Charles was never interested in boundaries—cultural, musical or otherwise. Consigned to life at the St. Augustine, Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, Charles hightailed it to the farthest point imaginable—Seattle, Wash.—where, as a teenager, he first appeared in nightclubs, imitating the smooth, urbane sounds of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown.
He found his signature sound—a velvet rasp that could alternately caress or roar—in New York in the early 1950s. The R&B recordings Ray made for Atlantic Records during the ’50s have been compiled on an essential boxed set called The Birth of Soul. For once, the title is not hyperbole; it’s an accurate assessment of the genesis of a new art form and the pivotal role Ray Charles played in that process. This is where soul music first took shape and soared, where gospel intensity and church-soaked vocals first meshed with secular themes and the rhythms of a jumping swing band. They called him Brother Ray out of deference to those gospel roots, and you can hear the sacred and profane collide to spectacular effect throughout this set in iconic songs like “Lonely Avenue,” “The Night Time is the Right Time” and the 1959 call-and-response classic “What’d I Say.” It’s simply some of the greatest American music ever recorded.
The hits flowed in rapid fashion during the early ’60s—“Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The latter, a cover of a Don Gibson country weeper, established Ray Charles at the forefront of a music scene that had previously been dominated exclusively by whites. ABC Records, Charles’ label at the time, fought long and hard against the idea of the move to country music. Ray told the label president, “If I do this right, I think I’ll gain more fans than I lose.” He did it right, and he reached an entirely new audience.
An unstinting eclecticist, Charles’ reach spanned across many musical forms—from the great ’50s soul recordings to jazz and blues, and country and western (his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is still considered one of the hallmarks of the genre), from Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin pop standards to masterful covers of then-modern contemporaries like The Beatles. The common ingredients were his masterful phrasing and signature voice. The songs for which he’s best known — “What’d I Say,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack”— have almost nothing in common, stylistically, and only one the first was written by Ray himself. But it doesn’t matter. They’re all his, every one of them, because a Ray Charles version of a song is almost always the best version of that song. Frank Sinatra, no slouch himself, called him “the only true genius in our business.” The genius could do it all.
Ray capped off two decades of that genius with what might have been the best performance of his career. In 1972, Charles recorded “America the Beautiful,” a performance so soulfully incandescent and uplifting that it was enough to turn the most hardened political cynic into a hand-over-the-heart, flag-waving patriot. It may have been written by the now-obscure Katharine Lee Bates, but Ray Charles owned it, made it his own, and it may be the only version of a patriotic song worth tracking down for its own merits. What many don’t know is that the song comes from an album, Message from the People, that contains its share of songs that were critical of the United States, including “Abraham Martin and John” and “There’ll Be No Peace Until All Man Is One.”
That patriotic/critical juxtaposition was no accident. Ray Charles knew racism firsthand, grew up in the segregated South at a time when Jim Crow was an all-too-pervasive reality. He was anything but a naïve romantic, and he understood well the conflicted ambivalence that writer W.E.B. DuBois once called the “two-ness of being black in America.” In commenting on Message from the People, Charles once told an interviewer, “What I wanted to say was like what a mother would say, ‘My kids got their faults; they’re not perfect. I have to now and then chastise them, but I love them to death.’ That’s why ‘America the Beautiful’ is on this album.”
It turned out to be a musical farewell of sorts; Charles coasted through most of the last 35 years of his life. By the mid-’60s he was a certifiable icon, as recognizable and beloved a musical presence as Presley, The Beatles or Sinatra. Aside from “America the Beautiful” and those campy film and commercial roles, he didn’t really add much to his impressive body of work. But he didn’t need to, either. He’d already invented soul music, brought the church to the barroom, the honky tonk to a previously unreached audience, and one of the world’s greatest voices to every song he ever sang.
That was the magic of Ray Charles. That was the nature of the genius: whatever he sang, he owned. He left a musical imprint stretching from Motown to Memphis and beyond, from all the classic soul singers of the ’60s to artists diverse as Joe Cocker, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood and Van Morrison, all of whom cite Charles as a primary influence on their work. Whatever the genre, he made transcendently great American music, and this American will always cherish his genius.