Soul brother number one

Ray Charles rules a far-flung kingdom

With "Busted," a litany of troubles goes on and on until the narrator simply has to laugh: "And I was just thinking of calling on you/'Cause I'm busted." Charles can be more obviously funny, too: the outraged hound getting the heave-ho in "Hit the Road, Jack," or punch-line numbers like Percy Mayfield's "Hide 'nor Hair." It's probably this sense of humor--the public projection of a rather shy man--combined with the sheer scope of his achievement that has allowed Charles to get away with or recover from a series of difficulties, any one of which could sink a career. He was a heroin addict for 17 years before kicking cold turkey and had several scrapes with the law because of it. An enthusiastic appreciation of women led him to have nine children with seven women over the course of 26 years and to endure several embarrassing paternity suits. He has shilled for major economic entities, yet his recent Pepsi commercial (and the older Coke jingle that appears unheralded on disc four) end up making him appear cooler for taking the risk, a feat that has eluded Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Little Richard, to name but a few.

There's nothing to mark the little house at 2642 Eugene St. in South Dallas--after all, this is Dallas, where most people think that Blind Lemon Jefferson is some type of fried pie. The place probably looks much like it did (perhaps a bit more timeworn) in 1955 and '56, when a newly wed Ray Charles lived there, playing the old Empire Room over on Hall Street, going with his friends to the Sunday-afternoon jams at the Woodman Hall a few blocks away, and writing and arranging songs that would soon become pop standards: "I Got a Woman," "A Fool for You," "What I'd Say." In 1958 Charles, his wife Della, and young son David moved to Los Angeles, but Charles made it a habit to recruit his band members from the fertile Dallas R&B-jazz scene. Among those he hired were Claude Johnson, Saul Samuels, Leroy "Hog" Cooper, and the great David "Fathead" Newman, who had met Charles when the former was playing with blues great Lowell Fulson's band in the early '50s.

Ray Charles' association with Dallas has been long and colorful. In September 1964, he was supposed to appear at the old Memorial Auditorium, but IRS agents seized the door receipts, reportedly because of a legal situation with the promoter. With no way of getting paid, the band refused to appear, and a riot was sparked that lasted 40 minutes. Four people were arrested, and a cop was hit on the head with a bottle. On a happier note, Charles and his band enjoyed a string of well-received shows at the now-defunct Granny's Dinner Playhouse, and his appearances at the Meyerson--the most recent of which was this February--have been both popularly and critically acclaimed.

A pattern has emerged at the Meyerson shows that is unlikely to vary: Charles, mixing in interesting surprises like a Jacques Brel song with the gotta-play tunes like "Georgia on My Mind," will play for about an hour, then be gone too soon. You may be disappointed, especially when you consider the five discs' worth of material on Genius and Soul. You may even feel yourself tempted to complain, but you won't. Rather, you'll think about the songs you heard, what they represent, and their effect on you, and realize that in many other realms the kings are far less talented and show themselves much less often.

Ray Charles plays the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday, October 23.

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