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.
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.
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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.