Ray Charles

'Father of soul' whose music evolved from foot-stomping gospel fervour to defy categorisation

Ray Charles Robinson (Ray Charles), singer: born Albany, Georgia 23 September 1930; twice married (12 children); died Beverly Hills, California 10 June 2004.

Frank Sinatra called Ray Charles "the only true genius in the business".

Charles will not only be remembered for his strikingly versatile voice, which could move effortlessly from a powerful, soulful, sandpapery quality, to the heartrending. His stage presence - his bobbing head at the piano, a wide crocodile smile of teeth and huge dark glasses - ensured that he remained a memorable music icon as a performer.

He has been hailed as one of the most important artists in the history of black music since the Second World War, defining a style that has had a wide-ranging influence on contemporary soul and blues. Writing in Black Music magazine in 1974, the respected British music critic Tony Cummings wrote: "Everyone does - or should - know that Ray Charles is the father of soul, a living legend, the first soul brother, a genius."

Charles may have been the "father of modern soul", but he is also often referred to as a vocalist "beyond category". He fused gospel music with the blues and created a sound peculiar to himself that evolved from a foot-stomping gospel fervour, reminiscent of the atmosphere of revivalist meetings, to a style which embraced a range of expression and shadings. Many British vocalists of the Sixties were influenced by him: Eric Burdon (formerly of the Animals) and Joe Cocker in particular.

Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, Ray Charles Robinson became permanently blind from glaucoma when he was seven. He grew up in Greenville, Florida, where he was taught classical and jazz piano and clarinet, at Florida's State School for the Deaf and Blind. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic; his mother, Aretha, worked in a sawmill. Ray was one of two children; when he was five he saw his younger brother drown. His mother died when he was 15.

Charles formed his own band at 17, the Maxim Trio, with G. D. McGhee on the guitar and Milton Garred on bass. They played in a light blues and jazz mode, taking the music of Charles Brown and the Nat King Cole Trio as models for their early style. Moving to Seattle in 1948, Charles billed himself as R.C. Robinson. The band worked regularly both on the West Coast and in Washington, making a number of recordings for independent companies. In 1949 the trio signed with Downbeat records and released one of Charles's own compositions, "Confession Blues".

To avoid becoming confused with the boxer (also a singer) Sugar Ray Robinson, he changed his performing name to simply Ray Charles. Downbeat Records became Swingtime Records and released a series of his compositions - titles such as "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" and the much- covered "See See Rider".

He had his first chart success in January 1951 with an R&B entry, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" (very Nat Cole-influenced), followed by "Kiss-A-Me-Baby". During these years he toured as a musical director for the R&B artist Lowell Fulson. But, in June 1952, he came to the attention of the Atlantic Records' boss, Ahmet Ertegun, who bought his contract from Swingtime for $2,500 and released "Roll With Me Baby". Ertegun was to have a significant influence upon Charles's career, as he wrote Charles's first uptempo hit in a previous jazz- ballad repertoire, "Mess Around". This was released in 1953 and became an R&B classic.

In the same year Charles produced and was featured as a musician on Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do". He formed his own line-up of David "Fathead" Newman on tenor sax, bass, drums, two trumpets and saxes (as well as his own piano). This was to be the classical line-up for the great R&B bands.

Ray Charles probably made his most significant contribution to modern music in the years which immediately followed, when he toured almost constantly. His experience of working in New Orleans and the South, and in particular of its gospel-style singing and chordal piano playing, deeply affected his own emerging style. His first Atlantic hit was the novelty song "It Should Have Been Me" (1954).

His performances in those years helped make possible the emergence of soul music as a regular chart proposition. He adapted the gospel style to secular lyrics - "You Better Leave That Woman Alone" had originally been "You Better Leave That Liar Alone". The famous and often covered songs "Lonely Avenue" and "Talkin' 'Bout You" (recorded in the Sixties by the Animals) all shared their origins in familiar gospel tunes.

His hit singles culminated in 1959 with the R&B showstopper "What'd I Say?", which was a classic example of the gospel call-and-response antiphonies of a preacher. In Martin Scorsese's series of documentaries, The Blues, currently showing on the BBC, "What'd I Say" has been hailed as one of the all-time great R&B influences on many British blues stars. A staple inclusion of many stage sets, it was perhaps most memorably covered by the UK "Blues Godfather" John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers, with a young Eric Clapton.

In later years Ray Charles added a female vocal trio, the Raelettes, led by Margie Hendrix. These developments marked Charles's move to a more popular musical style. In the same year as the success of "What'd I Say" he recorded ballads with a string accompaniment on the album The Genius of Ray Charles. He also covered Hank Snow's country-and-western song "I'm Movin' On", a direction he was later to take again. He switched label to ABC/Paramount, where his chart success continued with such now famous standards as "Georgia on My Mind" (1960, a cover of Hoagy Carmichael's slow ballad and his first No 1 hit), and "Hit the Road Jack" (1961, again, gospel call-and-response).

In 1962 he went off on a completely new musical tangent and alienated much of his hard-core R&B followers, with the album Modern Sounds in Country and Western. Many feared that Charles was abandoning his musical roots, but he was expanding on them. The album sold millions of copies and provided the hugely successful hit single Hank Williams's and Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You". In 1962 alone, Charles had sold in excess of $8m-worth of records.

Towards the middle Sixties, Charles's records appeared on his own label, Tangerine, distributed by ABC until 1973. He produced 10 albums during this period, all of them concept albums. He also demonstrated his ability as an interpretative singer by recording a highly charged emotional version of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" (1967).

Charles responded enthusiastically to his fame and wealth and his stage show took on a much grander character. He formed his own orchestra and developed his girl backing group.

In 1964, however, he was arrested on a drugs charge. He interrupted his touring schedule to overcome his addiction to heroin. He came off his habit whilst in prison, but emerged a chastened and isolated figure. He had, however recorded the very humorous Harlan Howard-penned song "Busted".

Between 1973 and 1977 his albums appeared on his own label, Crossover. He bought up all his old tapes, including his major early releases. The indulgence of his stage show continued but his music never quite recaptured the earlier brilliance, his songs becoming vehicles for anthems to America ("America the Beautiful") and professions of faith to his God.

In 1980 he appeared in the John Belushi/Dan Ackroyd cult movie The Blues Brothers, but during the Nineties, although he continued to tour, he made little impact on the recording scene with new work. He wrote for television commercials (including a Coca-Cola advertisement) and sang theme songs for The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). His most important recordings included: What'd I Say (1959), The Genius of Ray Charles (1959), Modern Sounds in Country and Western (1962) and Ray Charles Live (1973).

In recent years, Ray Charles's talents have been rediscovered, giving him due recognition. This is particularly demonstrated by Martin Scorsese's acclaimed documentaries, released on seven DVDs - as Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues - in March. One of the series, Piano Blues, features Charles in a relaxed mode with Clint Eastwood, himself a Honky Tonk piano enthusiast.

The introduction of Super Audio CD (SACD Surround sound) has also triggered the release at the end of August of Ray Charles's first new studio album for some time. Ray Charles Duets will feature the singer with BB King, Willie Nelson, Diana Krall and Van Morrison amongst others. "I am working with some of the best artists in the business," said Charles, "as well as some of my dearest friends."

A film of Charles's life, Unchain My Heart, starring Jamie Foxx as Charles and directed by Taylor Hackford, has been finished and is provisionally scheduled to open in October.

On 30 April this year, Ray Charles's Los Angeles recording studios, a two-storey building in West Washington Boulevard, built by Charles himself in 1964, were declared an official historic building with "Landmark Status". Classics such as "Rainy Night in Georgia", "Hit the Road Jack" and "America the Beautiful" were recorded there, and artists such as Johnny Cash, BB King and Quincy Jones often used the studios. The ceremony was attended by Mayor Jim Hahn, and Clint Eastwood, who unveiled the plaque.

Laurence Staig

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