Biography of Singer Ray Charles Part 2

About the famous blues and soul singer Ray Charles, biography and history of the performer.


RAY CHARLES (b. 1930)

Charles lived briefly with friends of his family, then struck out on his own, determined to become a professional musician. He played jazz and rhythm-and-blues "juke joints" all over Florida; for example, he played piano briefly for the Florida Playboys, a white hillbilly band. Ray had listened to the country-music radio showcase Grand Ole Opry since childhood and loved country-western music as much as he did jazz or R and B. In 1948, desperate for a change but unwilling to move to New York or Chicago and be swallowed up, he asked a friend to draw a line on a map to the U.S. city farthest from Florida. The line ended in Seattle, Wash., and Ray Charles arrived there on a bus shortly thereafter.

He was soon working steadily, fronting a trio who played the smooth "pop" style of his current idol, Nat "King" Cole. He signed a recording contract with a small West Coast label, Swingtime Records, and in 1951 had a Top Ten rhythm-and-blues hit, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand." The next year, Atlantic Records, a larger and more innovative label, bought out his Swingtime contract. According to Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler: "Ray seemed to be just another rhythm-and-blues singer. But suddenly he broke out of a cocoon that we didn't even know he was weaving."

It was one glorious break. Ray Charles completely dropped the "pop" mannerisms and returned--with a vengeance--to the music he had grown up with, gospel and rhythm and blues. His first big hit for Atlantic in 1954, "I Got a Woman," was firmly rooted in gospel music. He forgot about trying to sing like Nat "King" Cole and opened up with both barrels; his voice rasped, growled, and slid up into falsetto. Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy was rather outraged: "He's crying sanctified. He should be singing in church!" (Charles didn't see it that way at all. A few years later, when the president of ABC Records told him he could make a million dollars if he would cut an album of gospel music, the singer refused because he believed that it was improper to "tamper" with religious music. Fortunately, he had no such compunctions about borrowing from the form.)

During the next five years he cut a series of equally remarkable records for Atlantic, culminating in his first million-seller, "What'd I Say," in 1959. It was a landmark performance, with Charles's female backup group, the Raelets, "testifying" gospel-style to his undeniably secular lyrics (so secular, in fact, that the record was banned on a number of radio stations). Charles broke new musical ground by employing the electric piano, an instrument that few musicians took seriously.

Not long after "What'd I Say," Charles left Atlantic for the more commercial ABC-Paramount label. He won greater financial freedom as the result of his contract with ABC, reportedly one of the most lucrative in the industry at that time, which he negotiated himself. He was promised more artistic freedom as well, but ABC executives balked when Charles wanted to do an album of country music in 1962. He ignored them and did it anyway. Modern Sounds in Country Music became a million-seller; one single from it, "I Can't Stop Loving You," sold 3 million copies.

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