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The Genius of Ray Charles - Father of Soul

Published:Sunday | September 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Ray Charles

Last Tuesday (September 23) marked the 84th anniversary of the birth of Ray Charles Robinson, dubbed the blind genius and the father of soul music. The year 2014 also marks a decade since the wily genius passed away. These important milestones revive memories of the man, who many claim invented soul music, and provides us with an opportunity to recapitulate his contribution to the development of post-war black music which, to say the least, was limitless.

Born sighted and into extreme poverty on September 23, 1930 in the American state of Georgia, Robinson, who later dropped his last name to avoid confusion with a similarly named boxer, hit the road before he was a year old, moving with his family to nearby Greenville, Florida, during the depression years. While there and still sighted, he received informal piano lessons from a friend, while becoming exposed to the rhythm and blues music around him. In addition, he sang with the congregation at the Baptist church in his community, and it provided him with an opportunity to become absorbed in gospel, which is one of the rudiments of soul.

Music has always been a part of Charles from birth. It was the single most important driving force that catapulted this poor, blind, black, orphaned youth from almost nothing to the heights of stardom. Writing in his autobiography, Charles remarked: "I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of. Music was one of my parts, like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water. You'd have to remove the music surgically."


Charles' early road to stardom was filled with tragedies. He was only five years old when he witnessed the drowning of his younger brother in a metal washtub, as both played in the family home, and then the sad news shortly after by doctors, that he would gradually loose his sight through glaucoma. He was completely blind by age seven. According to him, his biggest tragedy was not his blindness, but the loss of his mother when he was 15 years old.

"That was the most devastating thing in my whole experience, bar nothing, period," he bemoaned. His mother, Aretha Robinson, who had given him the inspiration to continue life, despite his adversities, began preparing him for his impending ordeal, by teaching him how to get around and enrolling him in the St Augustine School for the Blind. There he learnt Braille, typing, and developed his great musical gift.

By the time he left school, he had mastered several instruments and again hit the road, becoming an itinerant in search of work and food. Among other odd jobs, he joined an all-white Hillbilly band as pianist in 1948, when he first donned his trademark dark glasses, dark suit and skinny tie. When the group disbanded, he drifted to Seattle, and became a minor celebrity in local clubs. It was the turning point in his life.

He made his first set of recordings in 1949, one of the earliest pieces being Confession Blues. Moving to Los Angeles around 1950, he began working with a number of labels, scoring a pair of soulful R&B hits with Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand and Kiss Me Baby in 1952. These early recording did not make much of an impact, until his self-penned song, I Got A Woman - a raw mixture of gospel and R&B, inventing what was later called 'soul'. It gave Charles his first big hit in November 1959, and shortly thereafter he was being hailed as the genius, and was playing at well-established places like Carnegie Hall.


Learning from his astute-minded mother that he should never be sorry for himself, the blind genius, a singing pianist, of whom Stevie Wonder was his protégé, erased musical boundaries with songs like What'd I Say, a call-and-response classic that became his first major pop crossover hit; Hit The Road Jack; and the melancholy ballad, Georgia On My Mind, which became the official state song of Georgia in 1979. But Charles made his biggest impact in the 1950s by blending the spirituality of gospel music, which he learned in the black churches during his childhood, with the sensuality of the blues, to create an emotionally charged genre called 'soul'. The soul of Ray Charles, in many cases, mirrows his tragic childhood experiences, and is perhaps best reflected in recordings like Born To Lose, in which he confesses:

"I've lived my life in vain.

Every dream has only brought me pain.

All my life I've always been so blue.

Born to lose and now I'm losing you."

The melancholy song, Crying Time, creates a similar mood as Charles sings:

"Oh it's crying time again, you're gonna leave me,

I can see that faraway look in you eyes.

I can tell by the way you hold me darling

that it wont be long before its crying time."

One of the unique features of Charles' recordings was his backup chorale which he appropriately named The Raelettes. Originally 'The Cookies', Charles hired them, renamed them Raelettes and moulded them into church-like shouters for his backup section. Their contribution is perhaps most noticeable in Charles' best-known song, I Can't Stop Loving You, in 1962.

After tackling jazz in 1959 with the album The Genius of Ray Charles, he shocked his black fans in 1962 with the Country-meets-R&B, triple million-selling album, Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, which contained top sellers like I Can't Stop Loving You, You Don't Know Me, Born To Lose and Worried Mind. In addition, Charles won some 12 Grammy awards, nine of them between 1960 and 1966. He consolidated his position with Unchain My Heart (1961) and Busted (1963).

Ray Charles, the man who demonstrated extraordinary resilience by overcoming the adversities of poverty, blindness and orphanage, died of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home in California on June 10, 2004.