The Genius of Brother Ray

  • When Ray Charles could see, he saw nothing but trouble. As an infant, he could see, if not understand, his father walking out on him and his teenage mother Aretha. At 6 months, he and his mother moved from his birthplace, Albany, Ga., to Greenville, Fla., where all he saw was poverty, with his family being even poorer than most, "nothing below us 'cept the ground," as he put it. At age 5, he saw his younger brother George drown in a washtub. At about that time Ray developed what may have been glaucoma. He soon found he could stare straight at the sun. By the time he was 7, the sun stopped coming out.

    Ray Charles, who died last week at 73, was born with the last name Robinson but dropped it to avoid being confused with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. The two had a lot in common — Charles had taken as many hits in life as any pugilist. According to Jet magazine, Ray's mother told him, before she died when he was 15, "You might not be able to do things like a person who can see. But there are always two ways to do everything. You've just got to find the other way."

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    From an early age, he was searching. Wylie Pitman, a shopkeeper from round the way in Greenville, had a piano and a jukebox, and he used to invite young Ray to play them both. On the jukebox, Ray would hear blues from Tampa Red, jazz from Count Basie and pop from Nat King Cole; other times he listened to the box's country or classical selections. On some days, Pitman let Ray bang the keys of his piano. "That's it, sonny, that's it!" Pitman would cry, when Ray was on to something good. At 7, Charles enrolled in the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine as a charity student and learned to read music in Braille. "In Braille music, you can only read so many bars at a time," he once told PEOPLE. "You can't play it and see it at the same time, so your memory and understanding expand." By the time he was 12, his were elastic enough that he could arrange Big Band and orchestral music. Three years later he hit the road as a singer and pianist.

    He found his sound along the way. Back in Greenville, his mother had taken him to New Shiloh Baptist Church every Sunday. By the time he was signed by Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles was ready to preach. On I Got a Woman (1955), he used gospel yelps and yowls for secular purpose. On What'd I Say (1959), he employed the call-and-response of church choirs to generate musical momentum and sexual tension: "Uhhhh!" "Ohhhh!" He didn't need words to get across what he meant, but music writers had a word for his music: soul. "I got criticism from the churches, and from musicians too," he once said. "But I kept doing it, and eventually, instead of criticizing me for it, the people started saying I was an innovator."

    Charles has been called the father of soul, but that title is at once too broad and too limiting. He wasn't the first to combine gospel and the blues — but he did it so winningly, you could be sure he wouldn't be the last. He didn't add sex to church music — he just stopped denying it was there. But he was more than a soul provider. Throughout his career, he explored a variety of genres, including jazz and country, imbuing each with his singular grit and charm. His 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music topped the charts for 14 weeks.

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