Ray Charles (1930-2004)
EMMA Lifetime Achievement Award 2002 (Joint Award)
Poor, black and blind in the American South of the 1930s -- not the greatest start one could have in life during that era, but one that Ray Charles transformed by becoming a living legend. Throughout his illustrious career he won twelve Grammy Awards, had countless hits, and proved to be a major influence spanning generations of diverse top artists from the Beatles to Quincy Jones.
Michael Lydon, a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine and author of the recent biography Ray Charles: Man and Music, describes him as a ‘titan’ of black American music: “Genius is the one word that sums him up. In doing his story and studying him I found him to be unbelievably intelligent. He has an artistic brain like Picasso or Vladimir Nabokov. He has an extraordinarily capacious intellect that he’s poured into music. The single force in his life, the biggest drive in his life is to be a great, great musician, it’s a non-stop ambition his always reaching.”
He wrote many of the most covered songs in music history from I’ve Got a Woman to What’d I Say. One of the earliest homemade recordings of the Beatles is a cover of the Ray Charles song Hallelujah I Love Her So. The cover was recorded in Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool home in 1960, the crude recoding for all its static and hiss unmistakably capture the young group’s developing style and the enthusiasm with which they sing their hero’s song.
McCartney remains an admirer to this day: “It was Ray Charles who turned me on to rock n’ roll. I remember listening to What’d I Say played by David Jacobs on the radio. It was really cool because he played both sides. I always aspired to be like Muddy Waters and Ray Charles. I want to keep rocking on and follow in their footsteps and keep going despite the advancing years just like them.”
Top musicians across the world have spoken of the genius of his arrangements, his mastery of the keyboard, but it’s his voice that stops you dead in your tracks. Cuffing through your daily defensive layers, he sings directly to your emotions, he digs deep into your soul.
“Life experience, the love of the music — the desire to share my musical passion with others around the world,” is what Ray Charles attributes to such depth of feeling.
Ray’s singing captured every human passion going – from the celebratory joy of Hallelujah I Love Her So, to the sexiness of Night Time is the Right Time, from the honey-sweetness of Come Rain or Come Shine to the stark despair of The Sun Died. The literal bearing of a complex soul, his music is imbued with the intensity of a man who has been through it all.
Born Ray Charles Robinson, his early years were blighted by tragedy. When he was five he saw his younger brother drown, and months later he started to go blind. By the age of seven he had totally lost his sight but his mother Retha was a strong character and she had already started teaching her son how to manage in a world of darkness. Acutely familiar with the grinding poverty of the Depression Era, she was determined to give her remaining child a future. He was showing an early aptitude for music and Retha managed to send him to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine.
“I was born with music inside me,” he says. However, it was at St. Augustine that his gift was nurtured and advanced though, ironically, the school was rigidly segregated. He was taught to read Braille and studied classical music. He also learnt to play the piano by reading a few bars of music at a time with his fingers, then playing and memorising it before moving on to the next few bars. He excelled at his studies, but at age fifteen tragedy struck again when his mother died. All alone and marked by an unfathomable sense of loss, he hit the road as a musician soon after and never turned back.
Commenting on his contribution to music, radio broadcaster and TV presenter Trevor Nelson says: “There would be no music without the likes of Ray Charles and guys like him. He left a lasting impression. He overcame incredible racism. Imagine being disabled and black in America at that time – It must have been incredibly hard and you must have been incredibly good to be relevant. Like Stevie Wonder, they were so gifted they couldn’t be ignored, and white America fell in love with them.”
Along with his success, Ray Charles is noted for his relentless productivity and his “spine-tingling” live performances. He can detect the sound of a single flat instrument within an orchestra, and he can dictate the notes each instrument plays after hearing a record. He fought against segregated audiences and fought off an addiction to heroin. He raised money for Martin Luther King and supported black talents like Quincy Jones when he was first starting out.
Lydon points out that Ray Charles is also a very shrewd businessman. He was the first artist at ABC-Paramount to extract a deal that allowed him to have ownership of his master tapes.
“He was a bold entrepreneur. He controlled his music and business and made it possible for others to do the same thing. Young black artists might take that for granted today but they are working in a space that Ray has cleared for them.”
Leading British R&B singer Beverley Knight acknowledges that current black artists owe a debt to the creators of soul: “Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and others instigated the passionate way all soul, R&B and country singers express themselves. They were the first to bring their idiosyncratic vocal styles to popular music and they injected heart into music.”
There’s never been a better time to be a black artist than today. In celebrating the current achievements of the black music industry, let us not forget the brilliant and dedicated artists who got it all started, Ray Charles is one of them. Speaking of the EMMAS and his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, Ray Charles said: “To be honoured by your own countrymen is one thing, but to be recognised elsewhere in the world is a terrific honour and to follow in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela makes the award even more special.”
Ray Charles died on the 10th June 2004, at age 73. Singer Aretha Franklin said, "A great soul has gone on." However, the music and legacy of the man known to many simply as ‘Genius’ will live on forever.