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Ray Charles 1930-2004

The Genius is gone, but his soul lives on

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The Genius in younger years

The Genius in younger years

In the first golden age of rock and roll, before superstars learned to feed pre-scripted titles to the media, you could always trust a musician by his nickname – meaning that Jackie Wilson WAS exciting and James Brown WAS the hardest worker. But they only called one man The Genius, and that moniker succinctly summed up the essence of Ray Charles' appeal. Lots of folks shifted musical styles when their sales figures or their muses indicated it, but Brother Ray alone knew how to cross so many musical boundaries at once. Not even Elvis Presley at his peak could claim such a seamless blend of pop, country, gospel, and blues.

Born in Albany, Georgia, during the depression, and blind by the age of seven, Ray Charles Robinson certainly had the deck stacked against him from the beginning. But as he himself was known to declare, Ray wasn't good because he was blind; Ray was good because he was good. Influenced by both the pop vocal stylings of crooners like Nat King Cole and the smooth West Coast Blues of Charles Brown, Ray started off cutting rather unadventurous (yet still viscerally exciting) jump blues and R&B in New Orleans.

But it was musical wanderlust that would help form the two great milestones of his career. In 1959, the singer consolidated his gospel and blues influences (which he'd already marshaled on cuts like "I Got A Woman") for a smash raveup called "What'd I Say": it's widely regarded now as the first hit soul record, sophisticated yet sensual, relentlessly secular yet burning with a religious fervor. In 1962, he cemented his legacy by releasing the "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" LP, which somehow infused soul into C&W standards like "Born To Lose" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." Arguably one of the most brilliant interpretive albums ever released, it did more to integrate modern American music than almost any other LP in history.

Charles’ hits dried up in the late sixties, although he tried to stay fresh by covering pop standards by the Beatles and others. Although he settled into an oldies-circuit level of fame after that, he remained an institution for his insistence on carrying different forms of music to places they shouldn’t logically have visited. For changing both colors of pop forever, Ray certainly deserves his title. And considering the hand Brother Ray had in at least midwifing the birth of soul, even a name like “The Genius” can seem somehow incomplete. Perhaps James can afford to give up or turn loose one of his titles.

The following is a collection of the best links about Ray Charles, his life, his music, and his passing. If you think there's a site that should be included here, please feel free to e-mail me!

RIP Brother Ray

  • BBC News The report of Ray's death, and the almost instantaneous clamor for tribute.
  • CNN Praise from his musical peers and descendants, and an excellent bio.
  • AP More backstory on the musical genius of The Genius, and details about his personal life, as well.
  • USA Today An exploration of, among other things, just what made the Ray Charles sound so influential.
  • Chicago Sun-Times A more personal series of recollections.

The Man
  • Ray Charles Online Ray's official site. Personal reflections by Ray and some of the usual artist info, but no guestbook for mourners just yet.
  • The History Of Rock N' Roll The best musical history of Ray Charles on the web.
  • AP Quotes from Charles himself on his life and music.
  • The Gift Of Soul The artist's life from an Afrocentric point of view.
  • Todd's Ray Charles Page A lyrical discography of Ray's greatest hits.
  • NPR.com Stories, audio interview files, and Ray's 20 biggest hits available for listening.

The Music

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