Blinded at six by glaucoma, schooled in classical, gospel and every form of popular music, he came to Atlantic Records in 1953, when the company’s boss, Ahmet Ertegun, bought Charles’ Swingtime Records contract for $2,500. Ray brought with him a pioneering blend of gospel melodies, rhythm-and-blues raunch, a suavely swingin’ piano groove à la Nat Cole and the imposing sound of a big band behind him (though typically he worked with only six sidemen). Oh, and an epochal vocal style that would make him the 20th century’s dominant and longest-lived emissary of soul music to pop music.
So he graduated, from blues shouter to respected blind musician (along with Al Hibbler and George Shearing) to rock star with his immensely popular touring show; and from the segregated days of pop music, when his picture was kept off album covers so as not to frighten the white folks, to a national icon whose rendition of “America the Beautiful” achieved something like Kate Smith status. Was Charles, as one of his own albums proclaimed, a “genius”? We’ll save that word for Mozart. But he was surely the genie let out of the R&B bottle. The cork got lost, and American popular music was never the same.
Henry Pleasants, in his ear-opening book "The Great American Popular Singers," gets to the heart of Charles’ vocal achievement: “Sinatra, and Bing Crosby before him, had been a master of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm... It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He can’t tell it to you. He can’t even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message.”
Ertegun and house arranger Jesse Stone had to prod the new guy to drop the crooning (on some early recordings, like “It Should’ve Been Me” and “Greenbacks,” he adopts the nasal whisper of a race-track tout) and get forceful. Charles also learned that he was his best composer. His first pieces were primitive and primal. The lyrics to “Don’t You Know” might be maddeningly, mantra-ingly repetitive (“Don’t you know, baby/ Child, don’t you know, baby/ Don’t you know, baby/ Little girl, little girl, don’t you know/ Please listen to me, baby/ Girl, I’m in love with you so”). But those are just words: the first sound on the cut is a wild falsetto field whoop, then a plaintive “well” exactly an octave lower as if he were a woman in ecstasy and a man hurting from its lack. His voice rasps like a man whose heart is in his throat, and it’s just been broken.
After four verses of 12-bar blues, the song rollicks into some of Charles’ swingin’ lounge piano, then returns to the vocal, in a squealing release “Say, have you heard, baby/ Ray Charles is in town/ Let’s mess around till the midnight hour/ See what he’s puttin’ down” that prefigures no fewer than three Atlantic songs: Charles’ own “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Mess Around” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” The song ends with generic barks (“Come on! Come on, child!”) that are pretty much grunts with consonants. A listener needs no English to get the message: a man’s desperate yearning in the tantalizingly remote face of God or Woman.
What’s the difference between religious and sexual ecstasy, between philosophical and emotional anguish? In the First Church of Ray, not much. Several Charles songs were blues adaptations of gospel airs: from “Talkin’ ’Bout Jesus” to “Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” from “This Little Light of Mine” to “This Little Girl of Mine,” from “How Jesus Died” to the Doc Pomus composition “Lonely Avenue.” The first number was Charles’ most popular tune thus far; the second was covered, and nicely revamped as rockabilly, by the Everly Brothers; the third (“My covers, they feel like lead/ And my pillow, it feels like stone/ Well I’ve tossed and turned so every night/ I’m not used to bein’ alone”) stands as the potent plaint of a man bereft.
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Charles’ edge toward popularity in the late 50s coincided with a shift from the 12-bar format to pop’s favorite descending chord pattern (C, C7, F, F-minor) in the choruses of “Ain’t That Love,” “Swanee River Rock” and “That’s Enough” and the release of “This Little Girl of Mine” and his dynamite cover of Sy Oliver’s “Yes Indeed.” Listeners came to expect the revival-show tambourine (rattled by co-producer Jerry Wexler on some sides), the backing girl group (the Cookies, later known as the Raelettes) offer response to his call, the bluesy-jazzy sax solos by David “Fathead” Newman. This was irrepressible, good-timey music, as if the early Charles had been absolved of sin and guilt and was finally permitted to express unmitigated joy. In Charles’ gravelly vocals, joy sounds like the residue of a lifetime of pain. It’s not what’s been gained; it’s what’s left.
In 1959 he got back to basics the 12-bar blues in the uptempo and deathlessly alluring “What’d I Say.” There was nothing revolutionary in the lyric, except its daring to be mildly ribald (“Hey, mama, doncha treat me wrong/ Come and love your daddy all night long,” etc.). Nor was the notion of releasing a jazzy, largely instrumental number in two parts; the year before, drummer Cozy Cole enjoyed a two-sided hit with “Topsy.” What was unusual was the four-part structure: three verses of piano, then four verses of blues patter, then the “What’d I say” chorus, and finally two minutes of boy-call-and-girl-response foreplay leading to the orgasm of the “What’d I say” chorus augmented by horns and the Raelets. After five minutes, what’d you say? Whew! and Wow!
Anyway, that was the reaction of the kids of 1959, who made “What’d I Say” Ray’s (and Atlantic’s) first million-selling single. I like to think they responded as much to the musical craft of the piece as to its hedonistic invitation to “shake that thing.” The song’s break from earlier Charles work was evident from the first note: on an electric piano that sounded like a guitar with a mitten muffling the strings. It was blues, all right, but with a Latin accent, thanks to great cymbal, conga and stick work by Milt Turner. It featured his urgent vocal, but not until almost 50 seconds into the song. The complex simplicity of the number made it seem both roughhouse and pristine.
The success of “What’d I Say” Atlantic issued three or four studio and concert versions of the song, including on an album called “Do the Twist With Ray Charles” should have led the singer into more, much more of the same. It would, but later. Now he had bigger ambitions (as his label-mate, Bobby Darin, would in segueing from the rockin’ “Splish Splash” to the Sinatraesque “Mack the Knife”). Charles issued his really-big-band LP, “The Genius of Ray Charles” (with arrangements by Ralph Burns and the young Quincy Jones). The set teamed him with veterans of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington outfits, and he proved he could play with the big boys, winning their respect after initial skepticism.
The album also showed that Charles could lay his tortured vocal style on such chestnuts as the Arlen-Mercer “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” That’s an amazing cut. Written as a “coon song” (minstrel number) in 1911, Charles made it a black song; he transformed this antique march into a big-band raver. The band (Burns did the brassy, bluesy charts) plays the melody and Charles comes in an antiphonal bar later, bleating "Come on an' hear!" By the end of the chorus he's quoting his own "This Little Girl of Mine" and has the Raelets chirping a descending, exultant "Zander ragtime band!" Great music.
Then he was gone away from Atlantic, off to ABC Paramount, for the life of an interpretive rather than creative artist. Ray Charles sings country? Well, why not? He had a smash with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” the kind of success that can propel an artist (or at least allow him to cruise) toward a career as a non-hit-producing musical treasure. For the next four decades, he toured, guested on TV shows, earned honors galore, including a Presidential Medal and a charter membership in the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame. It was coasting, sure, an oldies act, but Charles always gave the crowd an electrifying evening.
The applause he’d hear would be part nostalgia, part gratitude. Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino were the collective Jackie Robinson of mid-century music. They zapped the poor, wan, white pop tunes of the day with a jolt of sex, anguish and fortissimo pianistry. A thing called soul. That’s a kind of genius, and deserves a half-century of thanks
Part of the piece appeared in a That Old Feeling column on Atlantic Records, posted August 3, 2001