The life and legendary influence of Brother Ray
This fall, Clint Holmes, Take 6, Nnenna Freelon and Tom Scott bring Ray Charles’ iconic catalog to Macky
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, on Sept. 23, 1930. When he was still just a boy, Charles lost his younger brother to a drowning accident, his sight to glaucoma, and eventually his mother, leaving him orphaned. Lest these details seem like the start of a story of how one man’s adversity “made” him who he grew up to be, however, throughout his life Charles remained adamant it was not the case. Speaking to the New York Times, he said:
“I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. I played music since I was 3. I could see then—I lost my sight when I was 7. So blindness didn’t have anything to do with it. It didn’t give me anything. And it didn’t take nothing.”
Indeed, it is undeniable that Charles was gifted with innate musicality. Starting first by playing piano at that tender age of 3, he eventually went on to practice the organ, saxophone, clarinet and trumpet while in attendance at the St. Augustine School of the Blind and Deaf, where he also learned to read music in Braille. By the time he was a preteen, he could write arrangements for 17-piece bands. In a word, he was a genius. Who had perfect pitch.
It’s no surprise then, that he left school when he was 15 and began to tour as a professional musician.
Finding his sound
In the years that followed, Charles started to develop a one-of-a-kind sound. Though he was heavily influenced by Nat King Cole, his own style mixed elements of the blues, jazz, country, and—notably—the throaty, vibrant vocals of gospel music. With his breakout hit “I Got a Woman” in 1954, he was dubbed the originator of a brand new genre that combined flavors from all his influences. It wasn’t simply a fusion of what had come before. Ray Charles had birthed soul.
“He started taking these gospel songs and translating them into pop songs,” American author and music critic Anthony DeCurtis said. “He took this music that had been a part of the Black church for generations and put it on the radio.”
Over the years, Charles released hit after hit. From “Georgia on My Mind,” to “What’d I Say,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” he cemented himself as a legend, influencing other artists who wrote pop, rock, country, jazz, big band, string orchestras, jazz trios, and show tunes. Icons like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel and Pink Floyd all credited his work as inspiration; his work was covered by the likes of Elvis and the Beatles. You can still hear his writing on the radio, as it’s often sampled by hip-hop and pop artists like Kanye West.
Using his voice
It would be remiss, however, to suggest that Ray Charles’ cultural impact began and ended with his instruments. Throughout his life, he was vocal about social justice issues. Notably, he rejected Jim Crow laws when touring in the south, refusing to perform in segregated venues, even when it meant being sued for breach of contract. As he once commented in an interview with Terry Gross, “I’ve never understood how somebody can be against me, and yet let me cook their food for them, feed them. You know, don’t make sense does it?”
Later in life, he founded the Ray Charles Foundation, whose continued mission is dedicated to providing support in the area of hearing disorders and the empowerment of young people through education.
Continuing his legacy
Though Ray Charles died in 2004 at the age of 73, today’s audiences have the opportunity to spend an evening with the gifts he left behind. On Nov. 14, fellow award-winning artists Clint Holmes, Take 6, Nnenna Freelon and Tom Scott will perform some of the most popular hits from his catalogue.
“[This] gives me personally a chance to say thank you to an icon,” said Nnenna Freelon. “Someone who opened a door and made it possible for us all to walk through. He’s history. He’s Americana. And he’s ours—Ray Charles is the quintessential American voice.”
It’s a tribute we can assume Charles probably would have loved:
“Look, let’s face it, good music is good music,” he once told the Washington Post. “I don’t care if it’s Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff or one of those cylinders that was made almost 100 years ago; effort went into it, and I can appreciate that. Music’s been around a long time, and there’s going to be music long after Ray Charles is dead. I just want to make my mark, leave something musically good behind.
“If it’s a big record, that’s the frosting on the cake, but music’s the main meal.”
Join us in Macky Auditorium on Nov. 14 for Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles. More information and tickets available at cupresents.org.