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OBITUARY: Ray Charles (1930-2004)

By Eamon Graham

Music fans around the world were shocked last month to learn of the death of legend Ray Charles on 10 June due to liver disease. Surrounded by family and friends, Mr. Charles passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California. A pioneer of R&B, Mr. Charles injected much needed soul - both in the musical and artistic senses - into the entire spectrum of music, from rhythm and blues to country and pop.

Born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia on 23 September 1930, Mr. Charles began going blind around the age of five and had become totally blind by the age of seven, possibly due to glaucoma. Mr. Charles said "Strangely enough, losing my sight wasn't quite as bad as you'd think, because my mom conditioned me for the day that I would be totally blind. When the doctors told her that I was gradually losing my sight, and that I wasn't going to get any better, she started helping me deal with it by showing me how to get around, how to find things. That made it a little bit easier to deal with. My mother was awful smart, even though she'd only gotten to fourth grade. She had knowledge all her own; knowledge of human nature, plus plenty of common sense."

Attending the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida, Mr. Charles learned to read Braille as well as to play and write music. A fan of Artie Shaw, Mr. Charles would take up the clarinet before beginning piano lessons.

By the time he was 15, Mr. Charles had lost both of his parents and a brother. Being taken in by a family friend in Florida, he began working as a musician in back-up bands for musicians such as Henry Washington before moving to Seattle in 1947. His first hit was "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" in 1951.

His early influences were Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, and his first recordings have been considered imitations of their work. Mr. Charles would grow in to his own style quickly. He once said, "When I started to sing like myself — as opposed to imitating Nat Cole, which I had done for a while — when I started singing like Ray Charles, it had this spiritual and churchy, this religious or gospel sound. It had this holiness and preachy tone to it. It was very controversial. I got a lot of criticism for it." Indeed, the South and its African Church culture is easy to see in Mr. Charles's style.

Mr. Charles joined Atlantic Records in 1952 and his style clearly began to resemble a secular Gospel music featuring urban, jazz and rhythm and blues influences. Many of his hits in this era would be based on Gospel or blues tunes with secular lyrics. His broad synthesis would make his sound appealing to fans of many musical styles such as blues, country and jazz, and indeed his mainstream success came after his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

After moving to ABC Records in 1959, Mr. Charles would reach a more poppish sound and a broader audience. In the early sixties, Mr. Charles would release the Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album, further proving the range of his style.

In 1965, Mr. Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug which ran deep in the jazz and blues culture of the time, as seen in the lives of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. After serving a year sentence, he released the song "Let's Go Get Stoned" by songwriting team Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford.

The late 60s and early 70s has been described as a "hit-or-miss" period in Mr. Charles's career with some songs becoming huge hits or absolute flops, but the late 70s and early 80s would see new success for Mr. Charles. In 1979 he performed Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael's song "Georgia on My Mind" on the floor of the Georgia State Legislature leading to its adoption as the Georgia state anthem on April 24th of that year. Consequently, it is his version of the song that is familiar around the world.

In spite of his support of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Ray Charles shocked many people in the early 80s by defying a UN-sponsored sports and cultural boycott of South Africa by performing at infamous Sun City in pseudo-independent Bophuthatswana.

The 80s and 90s would find a new generation of people discovering Mr. Charles, often thanks to his influence on the more recent African American musicians of the time. This was also the time of his refreshingly unique and poignantly bittersweet version of "America the Beautiful." Of note to fans of the Outlaw movement in Country music was his 1984 duet with Willie Nelson in the song "Seven Spanish Angels," now a classic and typical of the Outlaw mythology with its tale of the last stand of a pair of Mexican lovers. The presence of Mr. Charles - and everything he symbolises, musically and otherwise - on this track represents the defiance of the Outlaw movement in the face of the Nashville Country conservatives.

Continuing to perform throughout the 90s and early 21st century, his final appearance was on 30 April 2004 when his music studio in Los Angeles was dedicated as an historical landmark.

A complex person who combined musical soul and heartfelt kindness, Mr. Charles could be rough with his back-up musicians and was given to excess and was known as a womaniser in addition to being a heroin abuser. Much greater than this, he will be remembered as the kind, energetic and jolly musician who gave a powerful musical voice to African American and Southern life while totally erasing boundaries of musical and racial prejudice.

Musical legend Ray Charles, dead at the age of 73.

Copyright © 2004 by Eamon Graham. May not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
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