Ray Charles Helped Bring Black Music to World

09:45:16 AM
11 2004

Ray Charles Helped Bring Black Music to World

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Ray Charles was one of American music's great innovators, blending the gospel of the black church with the sensuality of the blues to create an emotionally raw genre called soul.

He died on Thursday morning at his home in Beverly Hills, California at age 73 after a long battle with liver disease.

"The only genius in the business," Frank Sinatra once said of Charles.

Charles' response: "(Jazz pianist) Art Tatum, he was a genius, and Einstein. Not me."

Whether singing the blues or playing jazz, crooning a ballad or yodeling country and western, Charles combined the raw emotions of black gospel with the sophistication of classical training.

Blind since the age of six, Charles battled childhood poverty and later heroin addiction to become one of the world's most enduring performers.

Drawing on influences as diverse as Chopin and Sibelius, Tatum, Artie Shaw and Nat "King" Cole, Ray Charles helped revolutionize popular music in the 1950s, leading the way for such performers as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke and what was to become rock 'n' roll.

His "I Got A Woman," is widely considered to be the key that opened the door for a crossover of the black musical heritage into the white American musical mainstream.

By taking the traditional gospel "My Jesus Is All The World To Me," and adding secular lyrics, Charles came up with a song that, though not a chart hit, was popular on both sides of the racial divide in 1954.

"For blacks it served as unabashed celebration of negritude without religion; to whites it opened doors that had always been shut," said Peter Guralnick, a music writer and historian.

A recent magazine article noted resurgence in absolute standards in American culture. While not returning to the old, hardheaded rigidity of yesteryear, people are coming around to the idea that some things apply across the board. There is such a thing as good and bad, especially when it applies to abstract concepts like aesthetics.

The “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” axiom still holds, but in every field, art, fashion, music there are some things that are of such undeniable quality that there’s no room for discussion or interpretation. The artistry of Ray Charles is one of those things.

“In music you just can’t escape when something is beautiful,” said the legendary singer/pianist/composer. “Like a good song, you can’t get away from a good song. You have a good song, and it will still be beautiful, even when somebody with a bad voice sings it. I love the old writers, who wrote beautiful love songs. I came up on those kinds of songs. But I have just as much love for blues and jazz too. It’s like Duke Ellington said; there are only two kinds of music - good and bad. And you can tell when something is good.”

That observation can apply to anything in Charles’ extensive catalog. From country to blues to jazz to R&B and even funk, the 71-year old Charles has set the aesthetic standard for more than 50 years, earning fans across the globe and setting standards that his legion of fans " in and out of the entertainment industry aspire to. More often than not he isn’t called by his name " or even his longtime nickname “Brother Ray” his is simply “The Genius.”

His career has borne that title out. He has won 12 Grammys, and garnered a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. He has been inducted into numerous music Halls of Fame- Jazz, Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, a testament to his inescapable influence on all genres. Few artists, living or not, can claim to have had such a wide ranging impact on the music we love, and even fewer have altered the course of so many musical streams " from his soul-jazz combos to his crucial R&B bands, to his landmark country music recordings “Modern Sounds in Country Music.”

That tradition continues with "Thanks for Bringing the Love Around Again," his first release of new material in six years. Charles produced the new album, as he does most of his projects (though he has worked with other producers in the past, like Quincy Jones). "Love" is being released on Charles own label, Crossover Records. He started the label, originally called Tangerine Records, back in the '70s.

“I decided to change the name, because I liked the idea of doing different kinds of music on the label, instead of it being just a blues or jazz or a soul label. I wanted to include everything.”

Dissatisfied with the promotional push he received for his past projects, Charles decided to revive the label and go it alone. “Working with big companies, they pay you, but they don’t promote you like they should” he said.

“That is my assessment. So I thought, I had that record company back about 30 years ago, why not re-open it? That way I could do my own promotions and everything, and if it works, it works.”

Only modesty keeps him from saying the obvious " that his name sits at the top of the soul singers list. Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia on September 23, 1930 (he shares a birthday with another musical icon, John Coltrane).

Charles was not born blind " he lost his sight to undiagnosed glaucoma at age seven. He enrolled in the St. Augustine (Fla) School for the deaf and blind, where he developed his enormous musical gift. After his mother’s death, he set out as a solo act, modeling himself after Nat “King”: Cole. Soon he found himself in Seattle, Washington, where he met a young Quincy Jones, and established a name for himself in clubs.

It was then that he dropped the “Robinson” from his name to avoid confusion with the legendary boxer. Starting his recording career in 1949, Charles soon began experimenting, mixing genres. That came to the head in 1955, when he released “I Got a Woman.” Charles reworded the gospel tune “Jesus is all the World to Me” adding deep church inflections to the secular rhythms of the nightclubs, and the world was never the same. That song is widely credited as being the first true “soul” record.

“You can’t run away from yourself,” Charles said. “What your are inside is what you are inside. I was raised in the church and was around blues and would hear all these musicians on the jukeboxes and then I would go to revival meetings on Sunday morning. So I would get both sides of music. A lot of people at the time thought it was sacrilegious but all I was doing was singing the way I felt.”

That wellspring of deep emotion " tempered by one of the 20th century’s most keen musical minds " long ago made Charles an American cultural icon. He’s an artist instrumental in the creation of rock and roll yet just as home with the music of Gershwin.

And the new album is a summation of Charles’ legendary career, from jazzy blues (Mr. Creole) bouncing soul-funk (“Can You love Me Like That”) to love ballads (the title track). The disc kicks off with a re-tooled version of his classic hit “What I Say?,” a standard for life.

“I used an arrangement that a gentleman named Jerry Hey did for a Japanese beverage commercial back in 1997. They liked that arrangement so much it turned out to be a hit. Even though they owned that tune they were nice enough to let me use it on my album.”

Then there is the heart wrenchingly soulful “Mother.”

“And surely I still do miss my mother doesn’t matter how old that I grow/Mothers’ love will stay with me all through life no matter where I go.” Everyone that has heard that song has sworn that it is a hit,” Charles said. “We played that song at a meeting and grown people just started crying when they heard it. That caught me off guard, because these were some hard nosed people and they just don’t cry over anything.”

But that’s the effect a real soul singer has.

“Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight or Stevie Wonder " the ones who make you feel something when you hear them sing.”

Everyone remembers Charles singing “Georgia” “Born To Lose”, “Hit the Road Jack, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Or, the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rugby” and “Yesterday.” Even more remember his epochal rendition of “America The Beautiful.”

Now with his new label, Charles is planning to add some more embellishment to his permanent bust in the American cultural pantheon.

“Right now it’s just me on the label. As far as anything else, like signing other artists, well, I’ll just wait to see how the album does. And if it does the way I feel it will, then I will go to Plan B.”

In other words, yet another chapter in the ongoing story of a musical legend, Ladies and Gentlemen --- Ray Charles.

courtesy of Solters & Digney PR

when I was a kid three years old, I was already trying -- whenever I heard a note -- I was already trying to involve myself with it. There was this wonderful man named Wylie Pitman who was one of the first people to encourage me. As a youngster I would jump in the chair next to him and start banging on the piano keys while he was trying to practice. And he would say, "Oh no, son, you don't play like that; you don't hit the keys with all your fingers at one time. I'm going to show you how to play a little melody with one finger." He could have easily said, "Hey kid, don't you see I'm practicing? Get away, don't bother me." But instead he took the time to say, "No, you don't do it that way." When Mr. Pitman started playing, whatever I was doing I'd stop to go in and sit on that little stool chair he had there.

Things started changing fast shortly after that. I guess the first major tragedy in my life was seeing my younger brother drown when I was about five years old. He was about a year younger, and a very smart kid. I remember that well; he was very bright. He could add and subtract numbers when he was three-and-a-half years old. The older people in the neighborhood, they used to say about him, "That boy is too smart. He's probably not going to be very long on this earth." You know old folks, the superstitions they have.

Anyway, we were out in the backyard one day while my mom was in the house ironing some clothes. We were playing by a huge metal washtub full of water. And we were having fun the way boys do, pushing and jostling each other around. Now, I never did know just how it happened, but my brother somehow tilted over the rim of this tub and fell down, slid down into the water and slipped under. At first I thought he was still playing, but it finally dawned on me that he wasn't moving, he wasn't reacting. I tried to pull him out of the water, but by that time his clothes had gotten soaked through with water and he was just too heavy for me. So I ran in and got my mom, and she raced out back and snatched him out of the tub. She shook him, and breathed into his mouth, and pumped his little stomach, but it was too late.

It was quite a trauma for me, and after that I started to lose my sight. I remember one of the things they tried to save my sight for as long as they could was to have my mama keep me away from too much light. It took me about two years to completely lose all sight, but by the time I was seven, I was completely blind. That's when I went to St. Augustine's school for the blind.

Strangely enough, losing my sight wasn't quite as bad as you'd think, because my mom conditioned me for the day that I would be totally blind. When the doctors told her that I was gradually losing my sight, and that I wasn't going to get any better, she started helping me deal with it by showing me how to get around, how to find things. That made it a little bit easier to deal with. My mother was awful smart, even though she'd only gotten to fourth grade. She had knowledge all her own; knowledge of human nature, plus plenty of common sense.

Reuters / --

Source by Rockitalia

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