His swaying, ecstatic demeanor, the laugh, the smile, the sunglasses and the music. The human incarnation of purely American soul has found his way to Fort Collins.
Ray Charles, the living legend, is treating sold-out audiences to his mastery of soul all of this week at the Lincoln Center on Mulberry.
“I am what I am, and you’ll just have to stick with that,” said Charles with a modest candor during his show on Monday.
But what is he? Beyond the awards and honors, beyond the fame, Ray Charles is an innovator, Ray Charles is a champion of adversity, and Mr. Charles, of course, is a musician.
“Music is nothing separate from me. It is me…You’d have to remove it surgically,” states Charles in his autobiography.
His music repertoire is timeless, trend-less, and endless. He has crossed the boarders of nearly all American traditional music genres to create a synthesis of progressive musical sounds that led to the foundation of such genres as soul music, modern country-western, and rock and roll.
“His niche is difficult to define,” wrote Thomas in this 1966 Life Magazine profile of Ray Charles. “The best blues singer around? Of course, but don’t stop there. He is also an unparallel singer of jazz, of gospel, of country and western. He has drawn from each of these musical streams and made a river which he alone can navigate.”
In its universal and blended approach, the music of Ray Charles reflects the diversified nature of American life. Perhaps the reason for this parallel lies in the roots of Charles’ own life.
Ray Charles’ life is the epitome of the American dream. His story, one of rags to riches, discrimination to congratulation, and sadness to success, is the story of a man’s journey from sight to blindness and then to vision.
Born poor during the height of the depression on Sept. 23, 1930 in the strictly segregated south, Ray Charles Robinson was the first child of Aretha and Baily Robinson. At the age of five, shortly after watching his younger brother drown, Charles began to loose his sight to glaucoma. The boy, who always loved watching lightning strike and the sun high in the sky, could do nothing to save his vision.
At the age of seven, with a mind full of images of country roads, the American South, and the most important figure in his life, his mother, Charles’ world went completely black.
Charles was then accepted into St. Augustine’s, The Florida state school for the deaf and blind, as a charity student as his family was too poor to educate him otherwise.
“You hear folks talking about being poor,” Charles recollects in his biography. “Even compared to other blacks, we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground.”
At St. Augustine’s Charles learned to read Braille, type, and weave baskets. Most importantly, however, he was able to discover his gift of music.
“Music was one of my parts…like my blood,” says Charles in his autobiography. “It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.”
As he experimented on the piano, Charles began to examine the correlation between math and music and he eventually began composing and arranging music.
“Learning to read music in Braille and play by ear helped me develop a damn good memory,” says Charles. “I can sit at my desk and write a whole arrangement in my head and never touch the piano. I know how I want it to sound, and I can hear it in my head. But I have to remember what I had the reed section doing, what I had the trumpet section doing, and so on. If you’re going to write an arrangement you’ve got to remember all those things…”
Charles remained at the school for the deaf and blind until the death of his mother when he began his early life on the road as a struggling musician.
After a difficult beginning in the south, Charles decided to seek success somewhere else. He asked a friend to find him the farthest point in the U.S. from where he was; Ray Charles would travel to Seattle, Wash.
Starting anew on the west coast would be a pivotal change in the life of the young musician. Charles began playing regularly at a few venues in Seattle and became a minor celebrity. While making a name for himself in Washington, Charles met another musician younger than he, Quincy Jones. Jones got into the business while under Charles’ wing and their legendary careers of musical genius would intertwine for the rest of their lives.
While in Seattle, Ray Charles saw his first true professional milestone when, in a band with musician Gossady McGee in 1948, Charles became part of the first black group to have a sponsored television show in the Pacific Northwest.
Since then, Ray Charles career success increased exponentially. He began to tour the nation with Lowell Fulsom and his band and eventually began his own band with Ruth Brown.
Charles and his band played the Apollo, which was the time’s showcase for black talent, and put out his first hit record, “I Got a Woman.”
By the early 1960s, thirty years into his life, Ray Charles had overcome the poverty and adversity and finally reached his goal and come of age as a musician.
With his music climbing to the top of the charts and with shows at Carnegie Hall and around Europe, the world was beginning to notice the genius of Ray Charles, the blind poor boy who rose from the ashes of a difficult childhood.
Upon attaining success and respect within the music world, Charles set out to change American music forever.
Combining gospel traditions with jazz music, Charles created a new, powerful, heartfelt genre, soul music. He also began exposing the world to what was then frowned upon and known as “race music” and what is now celebrated and known as rhythm and blues. Through his careful ear and innovative arrangement, modern country-western became popularized and adapted for an international audience. Ray Charles, also an innovator during the invention of rock and roll music.
Through his six decades in the music business, Ray Charles has been the recipient of countless honors including 12 Grammy’s, the Horatio Algers award, Kennedy Center Honors, and a National Medal of the Arts. He was among the original inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has a star on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame” dedicated to him.
Charles has lived a life immersed in music. He continues, even now at nearly 72 years of age, to select and produce all of his own music from the “attic of his mind.”
And, though he does not work as often as he used to, Ray Charles, a true American treasure, remains a delight to listeners around the world with his tremendous genius and expression of musical soul.
“I was born with music inside me,” said Charles, “that’s the only explanation I know of.”