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Potholes on memory lane: The life and times of Ray Charles


Ray Charles made making music seem like slicing butter with a hot knife. For most of us laymen, the craft of songwriting is mystic alchemy, but Ray Charles seemed to be able to whisk up a classic with the ease of a bird taking to flight. Briskly waltzing around the piano keys, like a summer stroll in the park, he exuberantly followed his whims into whatever genre they strayed, and he happily picnicked on the joyous sound therein, propagating his diverse wizardry for an ever-growing array of fans in every realm of music. The way that he bestrode the sonic battle of songwriting with a sanguine stride is symbolic of the breezy conquests over adversity that he accomplished throughout his often troubled but always triumphant life. 

“It was so normal for me, so natural to me, even when I was three years old, I would jump on the piano stool and hit all the keys with my fingers and everything,” Ray Charles once said of his early start in music. Born in Georgia in 1930, Charles went blind at the age of seven owing to chronic glaucoma and the upheaval that caused was cushioned by the protective force that his Mother proved to be.

Tragedy then struck again when his brother drowned at the age of four. Once again, his mother’s perseverance and refusal to yield to the harrows of despair proved to be a guiding light for Charles. “She saved me from a lot of trauma that I probably would’ve had,” he said, “because she knew I was going to lose my sight, so she started preparing me.”

Tragically, his mother then passed away when Charles was only 14 and, from that moment, he left his musical studies at the St Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind and pursued the dream of music. Music had given him hope throughout his life, from the ethereal reveries of his hero Nat King Cole to the earthy spit and sawdust exultation of his delta roots, when tragedy befell him once more, he saw no other way than to reach out and try to impart that same salvation. “I’ve always had this little thing in the back of my mind that I can do it, I can make,” he said, “It may take me a little time and I might not do it today, but I can make it.”

Like many before him, his initial grasp at the floating firmament of dreams left him clutching the coattails of the celestial Nat King Cole. His initial foray was a sorry imitation, but if it is true that good artist copy and great artists steal, it has to be said that the very finest creators turn the theft itself into an art form that transforms the loot into a brand-new bounty, and very soon Ray Charles was marching to his own beat. 

For all his love of Nat King Cole’s silken ways, he imbued the storyteller’s rapt ruminations with the heartfelt realism of his own salt of the earth gospel youth. ‘I Got A Woman’ typified this – it couldn’t possibly be more gospel if it tried in terms of its swinging singalong chorus, but the secular lyrics were anything but fit for a church. This 1955 hit became the realisation of that vague dream he had when he left school with a pocketful of dollars at the age of 14 in 1945. It may have taken him 10 years, but he achieved what he set out to do, and moreover, he achieved it in a style that was entirely his own. 

Ray Charles performing live. (Credit: Heinrich Klaffs)

After a string of successes mingling flavours of gospel, jazz and blues in an R&B stew that brought his ecstatically atmospheric musicianship to the fore, he then bounded into jazz with The Great Ray Charles record in 1957, took the plunge into soul with Milt Jackson on the album Soul Brothers in 1958, and he even finished his first decade in music with the 1959 country hit ‘I’m Movin’ On’ covering Hank Snow. Thus, by the time of the swinging sixties, Ray Charles was an ever-present in record collections all around the world regardless of usual genre preferences. 

This prominent rise to success was then suddenly halted in November 1961 when police searched his hotel room and found heroin. The search had been conducted without an official warrant, so Charles was fortunately spared jail. However, similar incidents would blight his career. In his 1978 autobiography Brother Ray: Ray Charles Own Story, he discusses vices that bedevilled his life since he lost his virginity at the age of 12 to a 20-year-old woman: “Cigarettes and smack [heroin] are the two truly addictive habits I’ve known,” he writes. “You might add women. My obsession centres on women—did then and does now. I can’t leave them alone,” he added.

Despite these harrowing tragedies and afflicting addictions that howled around him, Charles managed to harness a flame of hope both in his music and his outward upbeat appearance. Even when the mother of his child, Margie Hendrix, died of an overdose in 1973, he tried to remain buoyant and transfigure his grief into soulful music. He departed his record label the year after the tragedy to set up his own label for more creative control, taking dominion over his whims and, as ever, expressing himself with unfettered ease, giving voice to the rush of creativity rising from the void that never abandoned him from his childhood days right up until his final record in 2004 having crafted 55 studio albums in total. 

His music had soul, and that always remained, regardless of genre or circumstance. As he said himself, “What is a soul? It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.”

Perhaps most notable in retrospect, however, was that he was always a profoundly progressive artist. His sexually suggestive lyrics in a time of stuffy conservatism subversively snook liberation in through the front door of the masses. Having been the benefactor of music’s soul salvation throughout his tragic life he knew the importance of using it as a unifying force and this came to the fore on July 1st 1973 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, when James Baldwin collaborated with Ray Charles, Cicely Tyson, and others in a performance of musical and dramatic pieces which Baldwin titled, ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ in a bid to revive the fading force of the Civil Rights Movement. An unearthed archived review of the show by the Manchester University Press, describes the lights dimming and with unabashed brilliance Charles blasting the Baldwin-curated show off to a thunderous start with his classic ‘Sweet Sixteen Bars’ that sent those in attendance into an almost immediate rapture.

With his ubiquity, having conquered music in all of its guises and unified nebulous genre divides in a blanket swathe of sui generis brilliance, he influenced an entire generation. As Tom Waits once said, “I knelt at the altar of Ray Charles for years. I worked at a restaurant, and that’s all there was on the jukebox.” It is an alter that many others have knelt at and sadly received the salvation that came at such a cost to Ray Charles but was dispensed with such joyful ease.