Soul brother number one

Ray Charles rules a far-flung kingdom

He's the man Frank Sinatra called "the only genius in our business." He's written some of the greatest pop songs of our era, yet has never really considered himself a writer, saying that he did it merely to put bread on the table. His history is full of diverse, often contradictory threads: He's played roadhouses where shootings were common and gone on to sing with Cleo Laine on Norman Granz's definitive remaking of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. A world-famous soul artist, one of his most popular albums is a collection of country standards. His songs are on jukeboxes across the country and the basis for a ballet; he's appeared on Hee Haw, and his life inspired an experimental mix of drama and music written by James Baldwin. He closed his most socially involved album, A Message from the People--made in 1972, a turbulent year--with "America the Beautiful"; later, he would play concerts in apartheid-era South Africa in defiance of a United Nations cultural boycott. All of these seeming opposites are essential parts of Ray Charles Robinson (he dropped the last name to avoid confusion with Sugar Ray Robinson), and the way he unites and reconciles them--a fusion seen not only in a just-issued box set but soon live from the stage of the Meyerson Symphony Center--is the spark that burns at the center of his star.

Rhino Records' 50th anniversary, five-disc Ray Charles: Genius and Soul--packaged in matte and glossy black as elegant as a tuxedo--is as thorough an overview of Charles' career as you're likely to find outside of some soul-friendly music-lover's vinyl. Starting with the efforts of an earnest, gifted kid from the sticks (Charles grew up in Greenville, Florida, raised by two mothers: his birth mother and the wife his itinerant father left her for) trying to emulate his heroes, Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, the collection documents not only Charles' early domination of the R&B singles market, but also his jazzy big-band forays, his melding of soul and strings to create virtually a whole new style of pop, and the groundbreaking change of direction that took him into country and western.

The collection comes with a 76-page booklet that features contributions from many who played vital parts in Charles' career--Ahmet Ertgun, David "Fathead" Newman, Jerry Wexler, old friend Quincy Jones--and liner notes by David Ritz. Ritz was the Dallas-based advertising executive and magazine writer who in 1976 chucked the security of a steady paycheck to pursue his dream of writing the definitive Ray Charles story, a dream that became Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story, first published in 1978 and revised in 1992. Willie Nelson even weighs in, with brief comments about both Charles' hit "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Seven Spanish Angels," his contribution to Friendship, Brother Ray's 1985 album of duets, which appears on the box set.

Charles and Nelson have been linked before--The New York Times' Jon Pareles did a major piece in 1993 that examined together new releases from Charles (My World) and Nelson (Borderline)--and though the pairing at first blush doesn't seem the most likely, both men are skilled synthesists. Nelson blended rock and country and founded an entire genre, a hybridization that Charles accomplished several times over. He mixed gospel music and secular words and began turning R&B into soul, most strikingly with "What'd I Say." Based on the church's old-time call-and-response pattern, "What'd I Say" was modified and turned into an impromptu song in order to fill up space at the end of a show when the band had literally run out of songs to play. Its mix of the sacred and the secular outraged many; the song was denounced from pulpits, banned from airplay across the country, and still managed to become a monster hit. When Charles took the string parts he recalled from the Frank Sinatra hits he'd listened to as a lad and put them behind big-band arrangements of soulful ballads (1959's The Genius of Ray Charles), another pop style was born, and he crossed yet another frontier in 1962 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Modern Sounds found Charles' emotional, empathetic delivery and genius for arranging adapting spectacularly to such unlikely numbers as "You Win Again," "I Can't Stop Loving You," and "Bye Bye, Love."

But if there's a lesson lurking between the lines of Genius and Soul, it's that there are very few songs that fall outside of Brother Ray's ken. "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," "You Are My Sunshine," "Eleanor Rigby," and even "My Bonnie" are all taken and transformed, most immediately by Charles' voice. It's a voice that draws its power from the deepest--and most universal--unity of opposites out there: that of joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. Charles has an uncanny ability to inject a bit of hope--or humor--in the saddest song, and to convey through his upbeat numbers a sense of the misery that has at last been banished.

It's a quirky, unconventional instrument, but Charles' voice lends a soulful depth to his songs that goes deeper than able arrangements. Take "You Don't Know Me," from Modern Sounds of Country, and compare it with Eddy Arnold's version of the same song. Arnold co-wrote the song, and sings it smoothly, with a certain sadness, but the pain conveyed by Charles and the gravelly breaks in his voice that punctuate his reading go infinitely deeper. The irony that runs beneath "That Lucky Old Sun" is built into the song, but it has seldom seemed so immediate or human as when Brother Ray sings it. More telling still is the Hammerstein/Kern classic "Ol' Man River." When Paul Robeson sang it, he was the voice of the river, powerful and rolling. When Charles sings it, it's with the voice of a man watching from the riverbank, pondering the irresistible momentum of things far greater than he.

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