Ray Charles Robinson, better known as Ray Charles, is a singer, songwriter and pianist from Greenville, a rural town in northern Florida. A great American success story, he experienced tragedy in early life, but also benefited from a loving family and community who cared for him and encouraged his musical ability. His story is well documented in the 2004 movie “Ray”. At the age of five, he lost his younger brother in a drowning accident, and also started to lose his sight, probably due to glaucoma. Despite a warm and loving environment at home, his mother thought it best to send her gifted son to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, where he attended for eight years and became the school’s premier musician. Ray was trained as a classical pianist, but he also liked jazz and blues music, and began to play piano and sing songs at school social events.
Ray’s mother Aretha died when was fifteen, and he dropped out of school and moved to Jacksonville, where he lived with family friends, and ingratiated himself with the local jazz and blues musicians. A year of seasoning in Jacksonville, followed by a year in Orlando and one more in Tampa, and Charles made the bold decision to move to Seattle, Washington. He quickly established himself on the west coast, and after about three years and a couple a regional hit songs (“Confession Blues”, “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand”), received his big break when Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun signed him to New York City’s Atlantic Records in 1952. The Ertegun brothers gave Charles free reign in the company studios, and during this period Ray “found his voice” and became a key figure in the integration of blues, country, gospel and jazz music. “I Got A Woman” was the first big hit, and “What’d I Say” gave him widespread national exposure. Although his fifties rhythm and blues career with Atlantic may be the most fertile, Charles is best known for his big band interpretations of popular songs with ABC-Paramount Records, especially country and western standards. Throughout he is largely responsible for orchestral arrangements of both the small combo and big band performances; during his later career he collaborated with Sid Feller and other arrangers. Nicknamed “The Genius”, Ray Charles is a self-described “utility player” who produced a diverse and influential library of music.
To write this summary, I used Wikipedia liberally, because it is concise and well done. While reviewing Ray Charles music, I enjoyed reading the biography “Brother Ray” by Ray Charles and David Ritz.
Everyone Is Not Going To Like You!
The British Broadcasting Corporation (“BBC”) produced a fine documentary on American soul music. Episode 1 of “Deep Soul” devotes considerable attention to Ray Charles’s music and influence. It is a fine documentary, though a bit dismissive of rock and roll as not distinct from its predecessor, rhythm and blues music. Thanks to my friend R.S. for finding this documentary. I would include a link for purchasing this documentary, but I cannot find it for sale anywhere.
Parts 5 and 6 of the documentary are here:
I particularly liked two of the interview clips with Ray Charles. The first occurs around 39:30, when Charles describes the difference between rock and roll and rhythm and blues. It is a short segment, but I noted his ability to get me laughing early in a story. I occasionally have experiences at the movies, where I’ll be the only one laughing in the theater five to ten seconds before the punch line. I love those moments, feeling I’m somehow gifted and different, able to see the tension build first. There’s that sense of urgency and playfulness as Charles winds up the listener with his thoughts. For the few people in his inner circle, I’m guessing Ray Charles could be very funny company, using his sense of drama and timing to tell a story.
Around 47:20, Charles defends the song “I Got A Woman”, which is a hybrid of gospel and blues music. Charles’ song was not universally well liked; in particular, many religious people considered it irreverent. He offers a simple defense of the song, saying that “you do what you do” and “I’m just being myself”, and then says his mother taught me well, and to remember that “everyone is not going to like you!”. He punctuates the point by leaning back in his chair, smiling with his head held high. I found this very moving, and watched it several times over. I waste so much time worrying about what others think, and here is this fearless blind musician, raised in poverty, telling me something I need to remember on a daily basis.
The Expert Opinion
A few nights ago, we were on our way for supplies when number one daughter asks if Grandma and Grandpa can take care of the eight year old twins tonight. It was a festive evening; we were listening to some of Ray Charles’s biggest hits on the way there. I announce it is time for the twins to hear Ray Charles on the way home, something I rarely impose on the family. I’m thinking this should be, at a minimum, funny.
I start out by quietly playing “What’d I Say” as we head back home. About 20 seconds into the song, twin T. makes the call:
“Grandpa John, I think I like this music.”
“Me too, T. This is one of Grandpa’s favorites.”
I turn up the music, and six minutes of bouncing and twisting follows, with Grandpa singing, and the smiling twins receiving an early lesson in call and response. It went so well we also tried and succeeded with “Hit The Road Jack”, another easy one to sing along with. It was great to see the universal appeal. In fifteen, maybe twenty years, I’ll explain what these songs mean, if anyone asks.
There are stories of Ray Charles’s intellectual prowess, like his ability to type eighty words a minute while in grade school, or the sense other musicians had that Charles would see right through them, into their souls. He had simple goals — making love, making music, taking care of business, and getting high, when he wanted, on his terms. His music reflects that simplicity. With only a few exceptions, Ray Charles songs are about love and heartbreak. Some of these songs are quite simple; the beauty lies in the sounds: the use of syncopation and volume, different instruments, and especially his expressive singing voice.
Is Ray Charles a true genius? I like the way he thinks. A few simple things in life, music and sports and someone warm to snuggle up with, and during some periods of life a bit of partying. Doing things well takes hard work, plus the ability to be happy and productive when you’re all by yourself. My month long education in Ray Charles has been a revelation.
Ray Charles Song Notes:
1. All of these songs are available at the iTunes Music Store. The oldest Ray Charles songs, before signing with Atlantic Records, can be found as follows:
“Confession Blues” by Ray Charles & The Maxin Trio can be found on The Best Of The Blues, Vol. 1.
“Kissa Me Baby” can be found on several compilations, including Greatest R&B Hits of 1952, Vol. 7.
“Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” can be found on several compilations, including Greatest R&B Hits of 1951, Vol. 4.
2. Atlantic recordings can be found on Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959).
3. The ABC Paramount recordings from the sixties are presented less coherently, and some may not be available on iTunes. Try the album called Genius Of Soul for most of the big hits.
4. As usual, I focused my attention on the artist’s early career. There are few if any songs recorded after 1970.
5. I recommend the following individual CDs and albums:
Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music
Ray Charles In Person
The Genius Sings The Blues
6. I am particularly pleased with the related song list, which is quite elegant, and shows the breadth of Ray Charles’s influence and central position in 20th century popular music.
Ray Charles Songs:
What’d I Say, Ray Charles ★★★★★
I Got A Woman, Ray Charles ★★★★
Hit The Road Jack, Ray Charles ★★★★
I’m Movin’ On, Ray Charles ★★★★
Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Ray Charles ★★★★
The Right Time, Ray Charles ★★★★
What Kind Of Man Are You, Ray Charles ★★★★
Lonely Avenue, Ray Charles ★★★★
I Believe To My Soul, Ray Charles ★★★
Hard Times, Ray Charles ★★★
Early In The Morning (Alt), Ray Charles ★★★
Georgia On My Mind, Ray Charles ★★★
I Don’t Need No Doctor, Ray Charles ★★★
Careless Love, Ray Charles ★★★
Busted, Ray Charles ★★★
I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles ★★★
Losing Hand, Ray Charles ★★
Mess Around, Ray Charles ★★
Mary Ann, Ray Charles ★★
Drown In My Own Tears (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Hallelujah I Love Her So, Ray Charles ★★
Leave My Woman Alone, Ray Charles ★★
Rockhouse Parts 1 & 2, Ray Charles ★★
Talkin’ About You, Ray Charles ★★
I Want a Little Girl, Ray Charles ★★
You Be My Baby, Ray Charles ★★
Early In The Morning, Ray Charles ★★
Joy Ride, Ray Charles ★★
Unchain My Heart, Ray Charles ★★
Born To Lose, Ray Charles ★★
Crying Time, Ray Charles ★★
Let’s Go Get Stoned, Ray Charles ★★
That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day), Ray Charles ★★
You Are My Sunshine, Ray Charles ★★
Makin’ Whoopee (Parts 1 & 2) (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Let The Good Times Roll, Ray Charles ★★
Night Time Is The Right Time (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Drown In My Own Tears (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Tell The Truth (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Tin Tin Deo, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Hard Times, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Willow Weep For Me, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Hallelujah I Love Her So, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson ★★
Talkin’ About You (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Drown In My Own Tears, Ray Charles ★★
Confession Blues, Ray Charles ★
Kissa Me Baby, Ray Charles ★
Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand, Ray Charles ★
Roll With My Baby, Ray Charles ★
Heartbreaker, Ray Charles ★
Don’t You Know, Ray Charles ★
Nobody Cares, Ray Charles ★
Ray’s Blues, Ray Charles ★
A Fool For You, Ray Charles ★
This Little Girl Of Mine, Ray Charles ★
What Would I Do Without You, Ray Charles ★
Ain’t That Love, Ray Charles ★
Swanee River Rock, Ray Charles ★
Someday Baby, Ray Charles ★
X-Ray Blues, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson ★
One Mint Julep, Ray Charles ★
You Don’t Know Me, Ray Charles ★
Your Cheatin’ Heart, Ray Charles ★
Baby Don’t You Cry, Ray Charles ★
Take These Chains From My Heart, Ray Charles ★
Them That Got, Ray Charles ★
Don’t Set Me Free, Ray Charles ★
At The Club, Ray Charles ★
America The Beautiful, Ray Charles ★
The Danger Zone, Ray Charles ★
Blackjack, Ray Charles ★
I Had A Dream, Ray Charles ★
Fathead, Ray Charles & David Newman ★
The Genius After Hours, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson ★
Bag’s Guitar Blues, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson ★
What’d I Say, Lyle Lovett ★★★
What’d I Say, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers ★★
I Got A Woman, Jimmy Smith ★★
I Got A Woman (Live), The Beatles ★
I Got A Woman, Booker T. & The M.G.’s ★
I’m Movin’ On. Hank Snow & His Rainbow Ranch Boys ★★★
I’m Movin’ On No. 2, Homer & Jethro ★★★
Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Homer & Jethro ★★★
Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Johnny Mercer, Margaret Whiting & Paul Weston & His Orchestra ★★★
The Night Time Is The Right Time, Creedence Clearwater Revival Band ★
Lonely Avenue, Van Morrison ★★
Hard Times, Tom Jones & Jeff Beck ★★
Hard Times (Live), The Crusaders ★★
Georgia On My Mind, Hoagy Carmichael ★★★★
Georgia On My Mind, Willie Nelson ★
I Don’t Need No Doctor, Humble Pie ★
Careless Love Blues, Josh White Trio ★
Careless Love, Ottille Patterson & Chris Barber’s Jazz band ★★
Busted (Live), Johnny Cash ★
I Can’t Stop Loving You, Don Gibson ★★★
I Can’t Stop Loving You (Live), Van Morrison ★★
Drown In My Own Tears, Lulu ★★★
I Want A Little Girl, Big Joe Turner ★★★
I Want A Little Girl, Clark Terry & Oscar Peterson Trio ★★
I Want A Little Girl (Take 2), Kansas City Six ★★
That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day), Johnny Cash ★★
Let’s Go Get Stoned, Joe Cocker ★★
You Are My Sunshine, Jimmie Davis ★★
You Are My Sunshine, Albert Ammons ★★★
Makin’ Whoopee, Eddie Cantor ★★★
Makin’ Whoopee, Gerry Mulligan Quartet ★★★
Makin’ Whoopee, Nat King Cole Trio ★★
Let The Good Times Roll, Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five ★★★
Tell The Truth, The “5” Royales ★★
Tin Tin Deo, Dizzy Gillespie ★★★
Willow Weep For Me, Art Tatum ★★
Willow Weep For Me, Stanley Turrentine ★★
Willow Weep For Me (Live), Sarah Vaughan ★
This Little Girl Of Mine, The Everly Brothers ★★
Trouble No More, Muddy Waters ★★★★
Trouble No More, The Allman Brothers Band ★★★
Trouble No More (Live), The Allman Brothers Band ★★★
Someday Baby, Bob Dylan ★★★★
Your Cheatin’ Heart, Hank Williams ★★★