DEAD AT 73
- Friday 11th June 2004
Charles, the Grammy-winning crooner who blended gospel and blues in such
crowd-pleasers as "What'd I Say" and ballads like "Georgia on My Mind,"
and placed 13 songs on the country music charts between 1980 and 1987,
died Thursday, a spokesman said. He was 73.
Charles died at his Beverly Hills home surrounded by family and friends,
said spokesman Jerry Digney.
Charles' last public appearance was alongside Clint Eastwood on April
30, when the city of Los Angeles designated the singer's studios, built
40 years ago in central Los Angeles, as a historic landmark.
Blind by age 7 and an orphan at 15, Charles spent his life shattering
any notion of musical boundaries and defying easy definition. A gifted
pianist and saxophonist, he dabbled in country, jazz, big band and
blues, and put his stamp on it all with a deep, warm voice roughened by
heartbreak from a hardscrabble childhood in the segregated South.
"His sound was stunning -- it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel,
it was swing -- it was all the stuff I was listening to before that but
rolled into one amazing, soulful thing," singer Van Morrison told
Rolling Stone magazine in April.
Charles won nine of his 12 Grammy Awards between 1960 and 1966,
including the best R&B recording three consecutive years ("Hit the Road
Jack," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Busted").
His versions of other songs are also well known, including "Makin'
Whoopee" and a stirring "America the Beautiful."
Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell
wrote "Georgia on My Mind" in 1931 but it didn't become Georgia's
official state song until 1979, long after Charles turned it into an
"I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know
of," Charles said in his 1978 autobiography, "Brother Ray." "Music was
one of my parts ... Like my blood. It was a force already with me when I
arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water."
Charles considered Martin Luther King Jr. a friend and once refused to
play to segregated audiences in South Africa. But politics didn't take.
He was happiest playing music, smiling and swaying behind the piano as
his legs waved in rhythmic joy. His appeal spanned generations: He
teamed with such disparate musicians as Willie Nelson, Chaka Khan and
Eric Clapton, and appeared in movies including "The Blues Brothers."
Pepsi tapped him for TV spots around a simple "uh huh" theme, perhaps
playing off the grunts and moans that pepper his songs.
"The way I see it, we're actors, but musical ones," he once told The
Associated Press. "We're doing it with notes, and lyrics with notes,
telling a story. I can take an audience and get 'em
into a frenzy so they'll almost riot, and yet
I can sit there so you can almost hear a pin drop."
Ray Charles in concert in 2000.
Charles was no angel. He could be mercurial
and his womanizing was legendary. He also struggled with a heroin
addiction for nearly 20 years before quitting cold turkey in 1965 after
an arrest at the Boston airport. Yet there was a sense of humor about
even that -- he released both "I Don't Need No Doctor" and "Let's Go Get
Stoned" in 1966.
He later became reluctant to talk about the drug use, fearing it would
taint how people thought of his work.
"I've known times where I've felt terrible, but once I get to the stage
and the band starts with the music, I don't know why but it's like you
have pain and take an aspirin, and you don't feel it no more," he once
Ray Charles Robinson was born September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia.
His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his
mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill.
His family moved to Gainesville, Florida, when Charles was an infant.
"Talk about poor," Charles once said. "We were on the bottom of the
Charles saw his brother drown in the tub his mother used to do laundry
when he was about 5 as the family struggled through poverty at the
height of the Depression. His sight was gone two years later. Glaucoma
is often mentioned as a cause, though Charles said nothing was ever
diagnosed. He said his mother never let him wallow in pity.
"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," he said in the
autobiography. "That made it a little bit easier to deal with."
Charles began dabbling in music at 3, encouraged by a cafe owner who
played the piano. The knowledge was basic, but he was that much more
prepared for music classes when he was sent away, heartbroken, to the
state-supported St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind.
Charles learned to read and write music in Braille, score for big bands
and play instruments -- lots of them, including trumpet, clarinet,
organ, alto sax and the piano.
"Learning to read music in Braille and play by ear helped me develop a
damn good memory," Charles said. "I can sit at my desk and write a whole
arrangement in my head and never touch the piano. ..
There's no reason for it to come out any different than the way it
sounds in my head."
His early influences were myriad: Chopin and
Sibelius, country and western stars he heard on the Grand Ole
Opry, the powerhouse big bands of Duke
Ellington and Count Basie, jazz greats Art
Tatum and Artie Shaw.
By the time he was 15 his parents were dead and Charles had graduated
from St. Augustine. He wound up playing gigs in black dance halls -- the
so-called chitlin' circuit -- and exposed
himself to a variety of music, including hillbilly (he learned to yodel)
before moving to Seattle.
He dropped his last name in deference to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson,
patterned himself for a time after Nat "King" Cole and formed a group
that backed rhythm 'n' blues singer Ruth Brown. It was in Seattle's red
light district were he met a young Quincy Jones, showing the future
producer and composer how to write music. It was the beginning of a
Charles developed quickly in those early days. Atlantic Records
purchased his contract from Swingtime
Records in 1952, and two years later he recorded "I Got a Woman," a raw
mixture of gospel and rhythm 'n' blues, inventing what was later called
soul. Soon, he was being called "The Genius" and was playing at Carnegie
Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.
His first big hit was 1959's "What'd I Say," a song built off a simple
piano riff with suggestive moaning from the
Raeletts. Some U.S. radio stations banned the song, but Charles
was on his way to stardom.
Veteran producer Jerry Wexler, who recorded "What'd I Say," said he has
worked with only three geniuses in the music business: Bob Dylan, Aretha
Franklin and Charles.
"In each case they brought something new to the table," Wexler told the
San Jose Mercury News in 1994. Charles "had this blasphemous idea of
taking gospel songs and putting the devil's words to them. ... He can
take a gem from Tin Pan Alley or cut to the country, but he brings the
same root to it, which is black American music."
Charles released "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volumes 1
and 2" in the early '60s, a big switch from his gospel work. It included
"Born to Lose," "Take These Chains From My Heart (And Set Me Free)" and
"I Can't Stop Loving You," some of the biggest hits of his career.
He made it a point to explore each medium he took on. Country sides were
sometimes pop-oriented, while fiddle, mandolin, banjo and steel guitar
were added to "Wish You Were Here Tonight" in the '80s. Jones even wrote
a choral and orchestral work for Charles to perform with the Roanoke,
Charles' last Grammy came in 1993 for "A Song for You," but he never
dropped out of the music scene. He continued to tour and long treasured
time for chess. He once told the Los Angeles Times: "I'm not
Spassky, but I'll make it interesting for
"Music's been around a long time, and there's going to be music long
after Ray Charles is dead," he told the Washington Post in 1983. "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."
- Ray Charles
- By TIM GHIANNI
and BRAD SCHMITT
Country icon George Jones calls Ray Charles ''the real godfather'' of
several types of music.
That one of them is country isn't really all that odd.
Charles, who died Friday 11th June 2004 at age 73 , first heard the sounds of
Nashville when he was a child in Greenville, Fla., and listened to the Grand
Ole Opry. ''I felt it was the closest music,
really, to the blues — they'd make them steel guitars cry and whine, and it
really attracted me,'' Charles said, according to The Encyclopedia of
Charles played piano in a country band early on and he even recorded a
version of the Hank Snow classic I'm Movin' On
Jones recalls the duet he did with Charles for Friendship, a 1984 album that
included duets with 10 country stars. ''It was We Didn't
See A Thing and it went No. 1,'' Jones said yesterday afternoon.
Jones learned of Charles' death from CNN Headline News after a fan club
function at his home. ''It's an awful thing to have to happen to such a
radiant entertainer. We all have to go, though. ''He was the best at what he
does. He had a lot of soul.''
While peers like Jones relished their time with Charles, younger country
artists fell under his spell.
''Ray Charles taught all of us how to sing with emotion, heart and
passion,'' a shaken Kenny Chesney said
yesterday. ''To me, he is the definition of soul.''
Kix Brooks called Charles ''a true icon of
contemporary American music.'' The partner in duo Brooks & Dunn said that
''no matter where you look, no matter what you listen to, Ray Charles
touched that genre.
Another duet partner was country hit-maker Travis Tritt.
In 2002, Charles and Tritt paired up for a CMT
Crossroads taping. In an interview published on the day of the taping,
Charles told Tennessean music writer Peter Cooper that the pairing was
hardly unlikely. ''I heard him. See, I listen to people and what I'm
listening for is how he got my heart.''
Willie Nelson was hit hard by yesterday's news: ''I lost one of my best
friends, and I will miss him a lot,'' he said in a statement.
''Ray could kick my a.. any
day in a chess game. He gloated over that. Last month or so, we got together
and recorded It Was A Very Good Year, by Frank
Sinatra. It was great hanging out with him for a day.''
In the Tennessean interview two years ago, Charles said what he was looking
for in contemporary music and in duet partners was relatively simple and
increasingly rare: originality. ''Maybe I'm wrong, but I think a lot of the
artists that come along try to sound like whoever had the last hit. I look
for people who have a true sound that belongs only to them.''
- Tennessean music writer Peter Cooper contributed to this story.