Spectropop remembers

RAY CHARLES (1930 - 2004)

The Man Who Invented Soul: The Times Obituary

There is hardly a strand of modern popular music the course of which has not been affected by the colossal and unique talent of Ray Charles. A musician who defied categorisation, he was fluent in all three of the basic musical forms of black America - jazz, blues and gospel - and, by welding them into a new, coherent whole, he created the genre that became known as soul. That taken care of, he turned his attention to the notoriously closed world of country, which he cracked apart with the truly remarkable 'Modern Sounds in Country Music', a million-seller in 1962.

The singular authority of his rough-hewn, R'n'B vocal style had an immense impact on the English and Irish pop singers of the 1960s - Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison and Eric Burdon of the Animals were among those who cited him as a formative influence - while his songs were recorded by artists like the Rolling Stones ('I'm Movin' On') and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton ('What'd I Say'). As recently as January 1990, Charles was to be found riding high in both the UK and US charts with the single 'I'll Be Good To You', a collaboration with Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan.

The obstacles to such a long and distinguished career were formidable. He was born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Virginia, the result of an extra-marital affair conducted by his father Bailey Robinson. When Robinson Sr flew the coop soon afterwards to marry yet another woman, responsibility for the care of his infant son was divided between his former wife and his former lover. Glaucoma rendered Charles blind at the age of six, though not soon enough to spare him the trauma of seeing his younger brother drown in a washtub accident the year before. At seven, and now living in Greenville, Florida he was sent to Florida's State School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. While there he developed a keen interest in music, consolidating an early skill on the piano and learning to play the clarinet, saxophone and trumpet as well as how to read and write music in braille.

When he was 15 his mother died suddenly and Charles struck out from school and home with the intention of making a living as a musician. "Times and me got leaner and leaner", he later recalled, "but anything beats getting a cane and a cup and picking out a street corner." After various cross-country swings he moved to Los Angeles in 1949, where, with mixed results, he made his first recordings, adopting the professional name of Ray Charles in order to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Despite some early successes in the R'n'B chart with 'Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand' (1950) and 'It Should Have Been Me' (1953), it was with the release in 1954 of 'I Got A Woman' that Charles began an epoch-making series of recordings, including 'Hallelujah I Love Her So', 'This Little Girl of Mine', '(Night Time Is) The Right Time' and 'Drown In My Own Tears'.

By applying a searing dose of gospel spirituality (what was known as his "sanctified" singing style) to a decidedly secular line of lyrics, while honing some of the hottest jazz-blues keyboard riffs ever committed to vinyl into concise three-minute statements, Charles reshuffled the deck of popular music idioms with results that were no less revolutionary that those achieved when Elvis Presley first mixed up elements of rockabilly, country and R'n'B to create rock'n'roll.

Once he had cracked the American pop Top 10 with his call and response classic 'What'd I Say' in 1959, Charles enjoyed many spectacular successes including the No.1 hits 'Georgia On My Mind' (1960) and 'Hit The Road Jack' (1961). His spell of greatest popular acclaim in Britain came during the country period that followed, and included a No.1 in 1962 with 'I Can't Stop Loving You' (also No.1 in America) along with appreciable chart success for 'Your Cheating Heart' (1962) and 'Take These Chains From My Heart' (1963).

Such richly rewarding adventures did not keep Charles away from the jazz arena. He made two celebrated recordings with vibraharpist Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet - 'Soul Brothers' (1958) and 'Soul Meeting' (1962). An album recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra minus Basie in 1961, 'Genius + Soul = Jazz', provided further confirmation of a supreme talent that knew no boundaries.

Sadly, like so many gifted musicians before and since, Charles saddled himself with a heroin addiction, and on December 3, 1966 he was convicted on charges of possessing both heroin and marijuana and given a five-year suspended prison sentence, a $10,000 fine and put on probation for four years. It was around this time that the magic began to fade. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had spearheaded a British rock invasion of the American charts, while a new wave of soul stars, all of them influenced by Charles's example, had risen in his wake, among them Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and the inimitable James Brown. Charles stepped back from the cutting edge, becoming more of a mainstream cabaret entertainer. He enjoyed hits with lush arrangements of the Beatles' tunes 'Yesterday' and 'Eleanor Rigby', and invariably turned his concert performances into bland extravaganzas featuring a huge orchestra and all the Las Vegas trimmings.

Charles starred in the 1964 movie 'Ballad In Blue'. A cameo appearance in 'The Blues Brothers' in 1980 re-opened his account as an actor, and throughout the Eighties he guested on several American television series, including 'Moonlighting', 'St. Elsewhere' and 'Who's The Boss'. At the start of the decade, his renewed enthusiasm for country music led to a recording contract with the Nashville division of Columbia. But his versatility remained such that in 1983, the year he scored a big country hit with his album 'Wish You Were Here Tonight', he also headlined the 30th Kool Jazz Festival in New York alongside Miles Davis and BB King. In 1985 he played a leading role, together with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and most of the American popular music elite, in the recording of the USA For Africa's 'We Are The World'.

By the time President Clinton awarded him with a National Medal of Arts in 1993 for his contribution to American cultural life, Charles was a distinguished and decorated music business, as well as a millionaire with a mansion and even a private jet. On a less exalted but more pervasive level, his singing was featured in an advertising campaign for Diet Pepsi, and in 1994 he was signed up as the star of a series of car adverts, which gave rise to the bizarre sight of a smiling, blind man in a bright red convertible, confidently making his driving debut at the age of 63 (albeit amid the deserted terrain of the Great Salt Lake in Utah).

Although his record output dwindled, he continued to tour throughout the 1990s, cutting a fragile but spry figure on stages around the world. He made regular visits to Britain, sharing a bill with Van Morrison at Wembley Arena in 1996 and playing a one-off show at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2001. A tour in 2002 took him to France, Estonia and Russia, and a new record, 'Thanks For Bringing Love Around Again', appeared the same year on Charles's own label, Crossover Records. Late last year he gave $1 million to Dillard University in New Orleans to endow a black culture programme, and a Hollywood film based on his life was recently completed.

At the time of his death, Charles was working to complete an album of duets with such talents as Elton John, Willie Nelson, Johnny Mathis and Norah Jones. It is due to be released later this year. Despite some loss of strength in the upper register, the rich and expressive timbre of his voice and the perfection of his timing remained to the end, testament to the enduring talent of a performer who was so clearly in a class of his own.

Ray Charles (Robinson), musician: born September 23, 1930 - died June 10, 2004