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'As Frank Sinatra said, he was the only true genius in our business'

Charles Shaar Murray
Friday 11 June 2004 00:00 BST
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For all practical purposes, Ray Charles invented modern soul music. By fusing the sensual and secular preoccupations of the blues and the galvanic fervour of gospel, he created a sublime blasphemy which was at once the initiation of one of the past century's most vital music forms, and a potent metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle: that spiritual passion can righteously be applied to secular ends.

For all practical purposes, Ray Charles invented modern soul music. By fusing the sensual and secular preoccupations of the blues and the galvanic fervour of gospel, he created a sublime blasphemy which was at once the initiation of one of the past century's most vital music forms, and a potent metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle: that spiritual passion can righteously be applied to secular ends.

Ray Charles, according to blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, should have been singing in church. He had, Broonzy accurately observed, a "church voice". And what a voice it was: a rich baritone grained like vintage leather; wracked with experience; soaked in the cadences of the Southern Baptist tradition; narrow in physical range but with an unparalleled capacity for exploration of each and every nuance of a song.

He was, said Frank Sinatra, "the only true genius in our business". His arrangements and performance were full-on gospel leavened with jazz but the lyrics were gritty and funky and decidedly unsanctified. "I Got A Woman" was a massive rhythm-and-blues hit in 1955. "I got a woman/way cross town," he sang, to the tune of a gospel standard which proclaimed, "I got a saviour/in Jesus". It was the first of many hits which cemented Brother Ray as "The High Priest Of Soul". During the 1950s, he had alternated his pop recordings with jazz albums showcasing his formidable keyboard skills; in the 1960s he cast his net still wider, recording two albums of country songs and concentrating on his gifts as an interpretative singer. You may feel that you never want to hear "Imagine" or "Yesterday" ever sung again by anybody other then John Lennon or Paul McCartney, but only if you never heard Ray Charles sing them.

He was as defining a figure for soul music as Elvis Presley was for rock; he had one of the most instantly recognisable voices ever recorded, and it is inconceivable that the vernacular music of the past half-century would have been what it was without Ray Charles.

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