I have been listening to Ray Charles for the past two days after learning of his passing. Ray was a major music figure during my high school years in the early 60s. We used to sing Ray Charles songs, like “Georgia of My Mind,” on the bus and his dance music, like “What’d I Say,” got top play at parties.
Later, in 1968, I saw him perform on a Sunday afternoon as the headliner of the day at the Newport Jazz Festival. I still have the program and the pictures I took that mellow sunny afternoon, recovering from the intense performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk the night before.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll credits Ray with virtually inventing soul music by “...bringing together the fervor of gospel, the secular lyrics and narratives of blues and country, the big band arrangements of jazz, and the rhythms and improvisational possibilities from all of them…” I think this early innovation gets lost, especially when the mainstream media eulogies seem focused on his later years with his version of “America the Beautiful” and younger people know him more for his Pepsi ads.
If you listen to the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, for example, her sound is like Ray Charles. The influence is actually the reverse as Ray was the first to create secular music in the gospel style, a move that generated some controversy at the time. As Aretha Franklin told the Guardian after his death, "He was a fabulous man, full of humour and wit. A giant of an artist, and of course, he introduced the world to secular soul singing."
The Guardian also reported in the same article: “In April Van Morrison paid tribute to Charles in Rolling Stone magazine: ‘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.’
Ray’s influences were complex and his style was inclusive. In 1947 he moved from Florida to Seattle and started as a singer in the Nat King Cole style. He recorded his first hit in LA, “Confession Blues,” in 1951. In 1953, we went to New Orleans and became the piano player for the Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) blues band. Their song, “The Things That I Used to Do” sold a million copies. Ray signed with Atlantic Records in 1954 and his first major hit, “I’ve Got a Woman,” was number two in the R&B charts the next year. It combined gospel, blues, and big band in what became the Ray Charles sound.
According to David Ritz, the co-author of his autobiography, Brother Ray, he was one of the first male singers to have an all female backup group. Ray said he got the idea from gospel groups, liked the idea of being surrounded by women, and the contrast in voices. He asked a female group, The Cookies, to join him as the Raeletts. This idea has been copied by many since.
Ray was always looking for new material. He made one of the first “reverse cross-over” albums by producing, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” in 1962, featuring songs by Hank Williams and other C&W artists, bringing their music to new audiences. This cross-over went both ways as his “I Can’t Stop Loving You” from the album also made the C&W charts.
Earlier, he moved himself into the pop charts, with his “Georgia on My Mind” making number one in 1960. This song became the official state song of Georgia in 1979 and it remains my favorite Ray Charles ballad. My favorite rocker is “Tell the Truth,” a high energy number featuring his gospel style and a wonderful sax solo, likely by Fathead Newman. Although each time I hear another song as I write this post, I say, that’s my favorite.