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Charles, Ray (1930—)

Charles, Ray (1930—)

Musician Ray Charles is generally considered a musical genius, and is so in many fields. He has had enormous success in jazz, blues, soul music, country and western, and crossover pop. Acknowledged as an expert vocalist, pianist, saxophonist, and all-around entertainer, Charles first burst into popular attention in the 1950s as the virtual inventor of soul music.

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930, and raised in Greenville, Florida. A neighbor gave Charles piano lessons after Charles had taught himself how to play at the age of three. This neighbor owned a small store that served as a juke joint as well. Charles not only took piano lessons in the juke joint, he also absorbed the blues, jazz, and gospel music on the jukebox.

When he was six, Charles lost his sight to glaucoma. He continued his music studies at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, where he studied for nine years, learning composition and a number of instruments. Upon leaving the school, he worked in a

Ray Charles number of settings with many different groups in the Florida area. Eventually, he moved to California and recorded with a trio very much in the style of Nat King Cole.

In 1952, Charles signed with Atlantic Records in a move that greatly aided both parties: Atlantic gave him free artistic reign, and Charles responded with a string of hits. These included songs that have become classic rhythm and blues features: "I Got a Woman," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "Drown in My Own Tears," and "What'd I Say." Charles described his music at the time as "a crossover between gospel music and the rhythm patterns of the blues." This combination violated a long-standing taboo separating sacred and secular music, but the general public did not mind, and soul music, a new musical genre, was born. Many of his fans consider this Atlantic period as his greatest.

Charles once stated that he became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement when a promoter wanted to segregate his audience. Charles, an African American, said that it was all right with him if all the blacks sat downstairs and all the whites in the balcony. The promoter said that Charles had it backwards; his refusal to perform the concert eventually cost him a lawsuit, but he was determined to support Martin Luther King openly and donated large sums of money to his cause.

Charles later moved to ABC/Paramount and branched out into country and western music. In 1962, his country and western album was number one on the Billboard list for fourteen weeks.

Charles's mastery of a number of musical genres and ranking among the very best of America's vocalists (such as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole) is amply demonstrated by the fiftieth-anniversary collection. Although containing songs even his strongest fans will not like, there are great moments on every tune no matter what the genre. Ray Charles became more than just another singer; he became a representative of his times.

—Frank A. Salamone, Ph.D.

Further Reading:

Alkyer, Frank. "Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection." Down Beat. Vol. 65, No. 1, January 1998, 54.

Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (sound recording). Rhino.

Sanjek, David. "One Size Does Not Fit All: The Precarious Position of the African American Entrepreneur in Post-World War II American Popular Music." American Music. Vol. 15, No. 4, Winter 1997, 535.

Silver, Marc. "Still Soulful after All These Years." U.S. News & World Report. Vol. 123, No. 11, September 22, 1997, 76.

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