After Ronald Reagan’s death, Ray Charles’s version of “Amazing Grace,” one of Reagan’s favorite songs, kept popping up on radio and TV. Why not? At the 1984 Republican convention, Charles sang “America the Beautiful,” which he originally cut in 1972 for an album called A Message From the People. Then on June 10, Charles himself died at age 73 of liver problems–the final echo from seventeen years of heroin addiction in his younger days.
Brother Ray really was a Great Communicator, a shining example of pop culture as melting pot. In that way and others–his fierce individuality and self-reliance and drive to electrify mass audiences with his art–he was one of Louis Armstrong’s truest heirs. Like Armstrong, Charles mingled art and entertainment so gracefully that he seduced fans into listening to stuff they never would have otherwise. And with his daring synthesis of gospel and secular music, he changed the way America sang, starting in 1955, when his leering “I Got a Woman” scorched America’s airwaves and got him excoriated by churchgoers across the land for turning a spiritual into a sexual paean. Over the next few years, he forged soul music’s erotic foreplay out of country-blues hollers and gospel’s repentant moans and joyful cries. That made him a rebel hero to a generation of multicolored Americans.
He was as American as a taco. It’s impossible to imagine what the past fifty years would sound like without him.
Born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, and raised in tiny Greenville, Florida, Ray Charles Robinson started banging on piano at 3, at 4 saw his brother drown in the tub and went blind at 7. His tough-loving, self-reliant mother sent him to St. Augustine, to a free state school for the deaf and blind segregated by race and gender; in his eight years there he learned to play a handful of instruments. Teachers introduced him to Chopin; older kids turned him on to Art Tatum, which awakened his lifelong passion for jazz. (“I love Charlie Parker’s dirty drawers,” he once told James Austin–a typically pungent Charles-ism.) When his mother died, he was 14; the village matriarch shook him out of his funk and he began the itinerant musician’s life. When his woman got pregnant, he moved cross-continent to Seattle (an endless procession of women passed through his life).
In 1951 he became music director of singer-guitarist Lowell Fulson’s band; he’d already cut his first sides as leader imitating Nat King Cole. In 1953 he worked with the New Orleans-based Guitar Slim, whose raucous guitar and powerful singing catalyzed Charles’s soul and unfettered his voice, turning him back toward the country blues and Baptist church of his boyhood.
That year, Charles signed with Atlantic Records, the hippest postwar r&b label, which tried to plug him into their winning formula–jazz musicians plus first-rate charts plus singer equals good music and hits. Despite modest success, Charles itched to take a more radical turn. You can hear him erupting into rough-edged outbursts on 1954 cuts like “Come Back Baby.” But only working with his touring band could fully unleash his glorious, possessed flights. In 1955 he told Atlantic’s honchos, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, he wanted to record live with his road band at an Atlanta radio station. They agreed. They didn’t produce Ray Charles, they have said–he produced himself. “I Got a Woman” was the first result.
From then on, he pretty much ran his own show. He hired his sidemen, wrote and commissioned band arrangements, oversaw his business, owned much of his publishing rights and kept his fingers all over the Ray Charles pie. Sam Cooke was among the earliest r&b stars to follow his lead. In the early 1960s, near the zenith of his success, Charles opened his headquarters in a two-story shuttered oasis in central Los Angeles. (He worked hard to have it declared a historic landmark earlier this year.) There he zipped around corridors with the coiled intensity and barely contained energy audiences glimpsed when he threw himself around the piano stool onstage. He recorded nearly constantly, toured ten months a year and plotted his business life with the same shrewd instincts he brought to his favorite game, chess. He kept his eye equally focused on the bottom line and artistic excellence.
His mother would have been proud. Little deterred him, because his sense of himself was so certain, his conviction in himself so powerful. He had a shrewd sense of his audience: Like Armstrong, Charles reached mainstream America while translating thousands of pages from the American songbook into his polyglot idiom. His raw, explosive vocals provided the sure touch of the unpredictable, the fervid improvisation of gospel jazz, whether backed by a funky roadhouse septet, a boppish jazz combo, the Count Basie big band or a shimmering curtain of Muzaky strings. (Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection, a five-CD set from Rhino, is the best Charles overview out there.)
When the hits tailed off the touring didn’t–the big band, his favorite setting, worked, as Duke Ellington’s had, to pay for itself. In 1984 he re-entered the top ten singing “Seven Spanish Angels” with Willie Nelson; it was the first of many collaborations. Nelson, who wrestled with Charles at chess, once said, “With his recording of ‘I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,’ Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.”
Going to a Ray Charles concert was like going to church, even after the 1970s, when his machine-tooled shows often ran on autopilot. Just when you started to get bored, Charles unloosed that voice’s clawing, ecstatic glory on whatever was at hand. His timing was impeccable: The audiences loved responding to his calls. With the accrued skill of a performing lifetime, Charles always acted deep in the moment. It was an awesome performance even when the shows weren’t.
Sonny Rollins once told me, “Jazz isn’t a thing. It’s what you do.” Brother Ray not only bequeathed a trove of undeniable gems; he cauterized dreck with his voice’s essential honesty. “I’m a singer,” he’d say when interviewers asked why he didn’t write more songs. “As long as I can find songs I can do something with, I don’t have to write.”
A colleague wrote me the day after his death: “I spent most of the evening with Brother Ray playing and remembering: listening to him punctuate the story of his life with raunchy asides and nearly falling off his chair with laughter at his own punch lines; watching him run his fingers across his pegged chessboard and laying wily defensive traps for his opponents; riding with him in a funky old Datsun to visit his barber in Watts and then marveling at the crinkly smile lines around his eyes when he shed his dark glasses. Onstage or off, you could feel him moving to a steady heartbeat pulse, but lagging just behind the beat so it felt like each moment was both immediate and eternal. His true genius was that he could bring a song that moved him to the world and time after time after time bring the world into that song. He touched my soul, for sure, because whenever I was in his presence I was acutely aware of my own heart marking time.”
The e-mails and calls about guitarist Robert Quine started the first weekend of June, after his body was found in his SoHo loft by guitar-store owner Rick Kelly. Quine was an alternative-music icon for his groundbreaking, controlled-rage guitar work with the likes of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Lou Reed, Tom Waits and John Zorn. At age 61, Quine apparently killed himself on May 31, after months of misery following the sudden death in August of his wife, Alice, whose body he discovered in their home. He’d been using heroin and alcohol to numb the pain, until finally he ended it.
I spent a night watching A Night With Lou Reed (Lightyear/Warner Home Video). The sound of the band–Reed and Quine on guitars, Fred Maher on drums, Fernando Saunders on fretless bass evoking the Velvet Underground’s cello–cut like a knife with a finely etched blade, its droning overtones an arabesque of structure. Quine’s face might look as if he was in pain or sneering, but I know he was in his version of heaven.
Quine–even Alice called him Quine–grew up in Akron, Ohio; his uncle was the philosopher W.V. Quine. After finishing law school Robert disgustedly bailed into the world of rock guitar; his favorite band was the Velvet Underground. He shut himself up to study, went to Berklee School of Music for a semester and bailed from that too, and came to New York in 1971. In 1975 he met fellow clerks Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell at Cinemabilia bookstore; it was the birth of punk rock with a brain. These classicists loved the sneer of early rockabilly and rock and roll; their own song structures, rhythms and syncopations, sonic edges and ironies were far more complex than the word “punk” typically implies. Quine’s fabled solo on the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” scraped and slurred and twisted (a favorite Quine word) James Burton and Chuck Berry into an onslaught of corrosive ire that somehow infectiously laughed at itself while sticking its tongue out at everything.
Quine was like that: a haunted, charming, funny, explosive paradox.
“Waves of Fear” on Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask (RCA) cemented his guitar-hero status. He told me he did twenty-odd takes until out came this tortured frenzy of whimpers–a kitten in a blender, scarifying and hilarious. Quine was terrified when he had to learn to play it onstage. For years he played in John Zorn’s musical recombinations: He’d fused delay and reverb into a sound related to his friend Bill Frisell’s, and he recorded edgy ambient records for his friend Brian Eno. Punk? He preferred working with singers like Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole and Jenny Muldaur, because he liked their songwriting and said they paid him what he was worth. He was a craftsman who spent hours and days shaping a single song’s guitar lines. “I play rock and roll,” he’d say with characteristic exasperation when asked why he didn’t work in artier scenes.
Hanging out with Quine meant following different obsessions. He scavenged record stores to find the latest Bear Family multidisc reissues of blues, rockabilly, early jazz; to dig out Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano, Jimmy Raney and Lester Young LPs; to search out everything James Burton or Mickey Baker recorded–an impossible task he nearly accomplished. Manhattan guitar stores were his roving headquarters; he hung out almost daily in his current fave. When fans spoke to him, he was generally very gracious, which often disconcerted them; they expected the onstage cigarette-dangling snarl.
He snarled about morons (another favorite word) but was unbelievably generous. He plied friends with books, articles, rare records and mix tapes, sat us down for hours while he played deejay with his fathomless record collection and provided brilliantly cantankerous, incisive commentary.
He was an impossibly fragile and talented intuitive musician who was driven and thorough: Before his suicide he apparently organized his estate, said goodbye to friends and left a note and a will. And he was one of the most inspiring, rigorous, and selfless teachers I’ve ever had.