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.