In the latest instalment of our ‘Soul Revisited’ features we celebrate the birthday of the late great Ray Charles, one of the most important figures in popular music history.
Few figures are as important as Ray Charles is in the development of soul music, and popular music more generally. The son of a repair-man and a sharecropper, Ray Charles Robinson was born in 1930 into an America segregated by race, where African-Americans were treated as second class citizens at best. His career would help to transcend artificially constructed racial boundaries, with his music helping to unite people of all races not just in America but also around the world. For little Ray Robinson, tragedy stuck early on in his life: he was playing with his younger brother George when George drowned in their mother’s laundry tub; then his eyesight began to fail, and by age seven was completely blind. His mother Aretha saw it that her son would overcome the painful loss of his brother and his vision, sending him to a school in Florida designed for the blind and deaf.
Despite the circumstances of his upbringing, Charles developed a love of music early on, being taught first by Wylie Pitman’s, the owner of the local Red Wing Café, and would later learn classical music at school. It was his admiration of the blues and jazz singers of the ‘40s that caught Charles’ attention: stars like Nat King Cole and Charles Parker. Soon, he left Florida for Seattle where he befriended a local 15 year-old by the name of Quincy Jones; at that time Jones was trying to make it as trumpeter, and the two quickly became lifelong friends.
1953 proved to be a critical year for Charles when he released his first major single release, the timeless joy of ‘Mess Around’. Founder and visionary Ahmet Ertegun signed him to the fledging Atlantic Record label, and Charles became the label’s leading R&B star. A year later the star courted controversy with his now considered classic ‘I Got A Woman’. The song was built on a gospel song entitled ‘It Must Be Jesus’, but Charles added jazz and blues to the mix. For some this was sacrilege and marked the inevitable decline in American morality; for others it was a brilliant record. Charles took the criticism in his stride, and churned out several well known hits such as the harrowing ‘Drown in My Own Tears’, ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’, and of course ‘Hit The Road Jack’.
1957 also proved to be a big year for Charles with the creation of ‘What’d I Say’, a seminal recording in the development of soul music. It would draw critical acclaim and would crossover, exposing Charles to a whiter audience than he had before. In 1959, despite the productive relationship with Atlantic Records, Charles negotiated an unprecedented deal for an African-American artist with ABC Records. Here he was guaranteed artistic freedom, resulting in the beautiful rendition of ‘Georgia on my Mind’ and the epic ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’.
After brushes with the law over drug possession, Charles struggled to achieve commercial success again. By the sixties, soul acts has taken Charles place, building and re-inventing his music. He continued to record and tour with his big band, selling out concert halls across the world right up until his death in 2004. He would experience a comeback with a younger audience in the wake of his hilarious appearance in the 1980 classic film The Blues Brothers, and was given a significant verse to sing in the Quincy Jones produced ‘We Are The World’, America’s response to Britain’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ charity single. He also appeared at Ronald Reagan’s second presidential inauguration, as well as Bill Clinton’s first, and kept a busy tour schedule right through into the new millennium.
In June 2004 at the age of 73 Ray Charles passed away. His contribution to popular music is immeasurable, and he was one of the prime architects of the soul music genre. Over sixty years since he first recorded his classic songs, they remain as fresh and as enjoyable as ever – a reminder of his vision and genius. It is a testament to the man that he continues to inspire today both musically, and as a man who overcame immense tragedy and suffering to become one of the greatest musicians to ever perform.
In honour of the late great Ray Charles we’ve picked out some of finest performances, some of his rare recordings, and some of our favourites.
Let The Good Times Roll – The Genius of Ray Charles, 1959
Charles take on the Louis Jordan blues standard is, as you would expect, brilliant. The horn arrangement is a delight, and Charles is in his prime vocally. Many, many recordings of this song exist, but few can convey the neither the excitement nor brilliance of Charles’ version.
Living For The City, with Stevie Wonder
When Stevie Wonder was first discovered by Motown they didn’t really know what to do with him: he was a great live performer and could play lots of instruments, but his voice was about to go through puberty and Motown could not decide on a musical direction for the young boy post-‘Fingertips’. Motown, in its musical and business wisdom, took the obvious root: a Stevie Wonder tribute to ‘Uncle Ray’. The album featured Wonder singing Charles’ hits such a ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ and ‘Ain’t That Now’.
In 1975 Charles returned the favour, recording a version of Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’ on his Renaissance album; whilst the album may not have sold well, this cover won Charles a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance. Then, in an unknown year, the two collaborated together on an epic live reading of the song. It is a mystery that these two never collaborated in the studio.
Georgia On My Mind – Live with the Edmonton Symphony, 1981
By 1981 Charles was releasing new music but he was best known as a performer. As this performance shows, its understandable why. Here the Edmonton Symphony backs him superbly on this live reading of ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Born in Georgia, the song clearly has special resonance with Charles: in 1979 the State Legislature of Georgia invited Charles to perform the song, and declared his version to be the state song. For those of us who never got to see Charles perform, this is the closet you’ll get.
I’ll Be Good To You – Quincy Jones featuring Ray Charles and Chaka Khan, Back on the Block, 1989.
In 1989 Quincy Jones assembled a whole host of old and new talent for his comeback record Back on the Block. The album sounds a bit dated now, but some songs are still nonetheless enjoyable such as the version of ‘Birdland’, featuring George Benson on guitar. One of the highlights of the album however is the duet between Charles and the brilliant Chaka Khan on ‘I’ll Be Good to You’, originally recorded by The Brothers Johnson, and produced by Quincy Jones. The vocal chemistry between Charles and Khan is wonderful, and despite the eighties synth sound of the track, the two soul icons make this a brilliant song.
All She Wants To Do Is Love Me, Strong Love Affair 1996
Whilst the hits more or less dried up for Charles after the sixties, he never stopped recording. In 1996 he released a fairly decent album entitled Strong Love Affair, which saw Charles mix his classic big-band arrangements with some newer recording techniques, including the use of a drum machine. This song is an absolute treat. It’s an up-tempo number with an infectious lyric that Charles delivers superbly; his voice is a little deeper and slightly more gritty but he nonetheless sounds brilliant.
A Song For You, Live in Concert, 1998
Whilst Charles’ ability to craft his own songs was brilliant, his ability to remake the compositions of others was equally impressive. This is certainly true of his recording of the Leon Russell classic ‘A Song For You’, a song that has been covered by everyone from Beyoncé to The Temptations. Charles is simply stunning on the 1993 album version, but even more so on this live recording taken from 1998.
What’d I Say – Live at the Olympia, 2000
In November 2000 Charles was due to perform in Paris at the Olympia with his full big band and his backing singers The Raelettes. Thanks to an air traffic controllers strike, however, only his rhythm section and Charles made it to Paris on time: they worked on a new show the day before, and were late on stage as a result of working out the new arrangements. Yet when they performed, Charles delivered one of the best performances he ever delivered. The minimalist band allowed Charles to experiment, and demonstrate that he was just as comfortable improvising on stage as he was working with set arrangements with his big band. This version of ‘What’d I Say’ is particularly impressive. Attendees of this show certainly were given the show of a lifetime that night.
America The Beautiful, 2001
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York, the World Series of Major League Baseball was delayed. Ray Charles was invited to perform at the next game, and he delivered a beautiful reading of ‘America The Beautiful’ prior the game’s commencement. The crowd’s response to Charles incredible performance of the song is a delight, proving once again that through his music, Charles could unite people together.
Oh What A Beautiful Morning – With the Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Sings, Basie Swings, 2006.
When Concord Music Group purchased the catalogue of Fantasy Records, A&R man John Burk came across some Ray Charles tapes. These tapes had been made in the 1970s and were entitled ‘Ray Charles and Count Basie’: sadly they weren’t the two acts playing together, but separate sets performed in Europe. Moreover, while the tapes had great recordings of Charles vocals, the recordings of his accompanying band were less great. Somewhere along the way it was decided to get the new Count Basie Orchestra (a version continued after Basie’s death and performs today) to record new instrumentation, and overlay with Charles’ vocals. An ambitious project that could have backfired pretty quickly, Concord Records actually released something brilliant. The whole album is ace, but this version of ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ is simply delightful; Charles is in a playful mood, and the new accompaniment from the Count Basie Orchestra is wonderful.
Ain’t But The One, With Aretha Franklin Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, 2007
The Genius of Soul and the Queen of Soul performed live on several occasions, notably on Franklin’s ‘Spirit in the Dark’ on her live album. Yet the two did record together in the sixties when both were signed to Atlantic Records. This song was the focus of an earlier ‘Rare Cut’ feature here on The Funk & Soul Revue, so we won’t go into this song in depth. Safe to say, the two giants of soul music duet incredibly well together and it’s a both a shame and another mystery that this was never released at the peak of their careers.