The 1998 Polar Music Prize goes to pianist, singer, arranger and composer Ray Charles, one of the leading figures of soul music and an important stylistic innovator with an unusual diversity of musical roots – tapping the principal genres of American music. Ray Charles has inspired and guided succeeding generations of musicians in a way which few can rival. The importance of his artistry can be summed up in many ways: compelling, expressive and versatile singer and pianist, charismatic stage artist and crowd-puller, ingenious music-maker….But no epithet, probably, could be more accurate and profoundly honourable than that which he has personified throughout his career, namely “Father of Soul.”
Man of soul, jazz, blues, pop, country
Ray Charles was a pioneer in developing soul music – by bringing together blues, gospel and country, the big-band arrangements of jazz and the rhythms of all of them, making music that was both sophisticated and spontaneous. He came out of poverty, became blind as a child, but lifted himself with music and great talent. His voice was among the most emotional and easily identifiable of the 20th century. He was a superb keyboard player, arranger and bandleader. Although his greatest musical achievements were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, his brilliant career spanned over six decades.
“I was born with music inside me. That’s the only explanation I know.”
A tough start
Ray Charles Robinson was born on February 21, 1930, in Albany Georgia, the son of Aretha, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a mechanic and handyman. When Ray was an infant his family moved to the poor black community on the western side of Greenville, Florida. His musical curiosity was sparked at Red Wing Café, where owner Mr. Wiley played boogie woogie on an upright piano. Charles started playing the piano before he was five. He contracted glaucoma, which went untreated and left him blind at seven. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945 where he developed his musical talent.
He studied composition, writing music in Braille, and learned to play the alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and organ. His father died when he was 10, his mother five years later, and he left school to work in dance bands around Florida – dropping his last name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
In 1947, 16 years old and having lived and played in most cities and towns around Florida, Charles decided to use his savings and move elsewhere in the U.S. But he thought Chicago and New York were too big, so he chose Seattle, Washington. There he met Quincy Jones, 14 at the time, and many other musicians on the city’s hot and lively jazz scene. They played the supper clubs during the early evenings and the clubs, like Rocking Chair, the Black & Tan and the Washington Educational & Social Club, later at night. Ray started recording, first with a trio for Down Beat label, where he got his first hit “Confession Blues” which soared to number two on the national R&B charts in 1948.
Down Beat turned into Swing Time Records and “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” (1951) reached no.5 and “Kissa Me Baby” (1952) no. 8 on the R&B charts. The following year, Swing Time folded and Ahmet Ertegün signed Ray Charles to Atlantic Records.
The Atlantic years
It was at Atlantic Records that Ray Charles truly found his voice. His sound started to toughen in the early ‘50s as he toured nationwide with blues singer Lowell Fulson, went to New Orleans to work with Guitar Slim and got a band together for R&B star Ruth Brown. The song “I Got A Woman,” performed with a seven-piece band fronted by Ray’s pounding gospel piano and new raspy, exuberant vocal sound, became his first national hit.
Throughout the decade he appeared regularly on the R&B charts as he synthesized more and more styles and was nicknamed the “Genius.”
It wasn’t called “soul” at the time, but he paved the way for soul by presenting a form of R&B that was sophisticated without sacrificing any emotional grit. He had a number of hits, but it wasn’t until “What’d I Say” in 1959 that he really captured the pop audience. It was a wild blues/gospel/latin mix and became Ray Charles’ first million seller. Shortly after that he left Atlantic for ABC.
In 1962, he surprised the pop world by turning his attention to country & western music, topping the charts with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and making the hugely popular album Modern Sounds in Country and Western.
But Ray Charles had always been eclectic. He recorded straight jazz music at Atlantic in the late ‘50s, records that were released in the early sixties. In 1963 he had major pop hits with “Busted” and “Take This Chain From My Heart” and in 1965 with “Crying Time.” But by then younger soul performers like James Brown, Otis Redding and Motown singers such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had appeared. From the mid ‘60s, Ray focused less on rock and soul music and more on pop tunes, often with string arrangements. In 1965 he got arrested a third time for heroin, and agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time.
At the top
Ray Charles continued to be a concert draw through the late ‘60s and ‘70s and for the rest of his career. But his albums were not big sellers and he wasn’t played much on the radio. That was partly due to the rise of psychedelic, harder rock, modern soul and new artists, but also because of his choice of style and repertoire. He recorded pop standards and covers of then-modern day rock and soul hits. He didn’t write new material, maybe because he owned his own masters and earned a lot from them.
Also, his love of jazz and country was evident. But he was still, and continued to be, a major influence on other artists. His reputation was at the top. In 1984 he had a hit with the song “Seven Spanish Angels” – a country duet with Willie Nelson. In 1985 he participated in the USA for Africa recording “We are the World” (together with Polar Music Prize Laureates Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Bob Dylan, Sting and Paul Simon) and in 1990 he returned to the R&B charts with “I’ll Be Good To You” – a duet with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones and singer Chaka Khan.
During the ‘90s Ray Charles recorded three albums for Warner Bros. In 2002 he released Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again on his own label Crossover.
In 2003 he started recording an album of duets, featuring BB King, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald and James Taylor. The recordings were interrupted because of a hip replacement surgery. He scheduled a tour the following summer but was forced to cancel an appearance in March 2004. Three months later, on June 10, 2004, he died of a liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 75. The duets album, Genius Loves Company was released two months after his death.