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Ray Charles: How “The Genius” Invented Soul Music
© Roger Tillberg / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Ray Charles: How “The Genius” Invented Soul Music

Combining jazz, blues, R&B and gospel, Ray Charles, the blind pianist nicknamed The Genius, almost single-handedly invented soul music.

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What is a soul and where does it come from? The question has plagued philosophers for decades, its answer eternally out of reach… We may never be able to solve that particular conundrum, but we can tell you one thing: soul music comes from Ray Charles, the blind pianist whose pioneering mix of gospel, blues, jazz and R&B music gave the word an entirely new sound. Born on 23 September 1930, in Albany, Georgia, Ray Charles didn’t just become “the only true genius in show business”, as Frank Sinatra put it: he was The Genius, a nickname that his contemporaries – and future generations of musicians – had no qualms over bestowing upon him, that word returning again and again in his album titles: The Genius Of Ray Charles (1959), The Genius Sings The Blues (1960), The Genius Hits The Road and The Genius After Hours (both 1961), Genius Loves Company (2004).

The Genius sings soul music… and more

Soul music as we know it wouldn’t exist without Ray Charles, but he reverse-engineered the equation in 1961 with the album Genius + Soul = Jazz, an album that tapped into one of his earliest influences: jazz music. Starting out the mid-1940s, Ray Charles aspired to be the next Nat King Cole, the jazz singer and pianist then blazing his own pioneering trail as an African-American musician in a segregated United States. But Ray Charles’ own playing was far too wide-ranging to limit himself to just one style of music. Throughout his teenage years, an itinerant lifestyle saw him travelling the US, picking up an array of licks and stylings from bands he sat in with, while seeking to become a bandleader himself.

Eventually forming his own group, Charles scored an early hit with Confession Blues, which hit No.2 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1949. Just a few years later he caught the ear of legendary producer Jerry Wexler, who brought the pianist to Ahmet Ertegun, head honcho of Atlantic Records. It was here that Ray Charles honed his sound – and blew the doors open for the future of music.

I Got A Woman: he’s got a hit

There was nothing sloppy about Mess Around, Ray Charles’ first single for Atlantic. His range was all jazz versatility – Charles’ hands racing back and forth on the piano, throwing the lead to his saxophonist before reclaiming the song and driving it home – but the energy behind it was pure R&B absorbed from one of his other influences, bandleader Louis Jordan. With Charles’ fervent vocals evoking a late-night party barrelling way past curfew – “Everybody was juiced, you can bet your soul/They did the boogie-woogie with a sturdy roll” – Mess Around kicked off a run of songs that would define his signature sound.

It Should’ve Been Me, I Got A Woman, This Little Girl Of Mine, Hallelujah I Love Her So… Hit after hit on the R&B charts, these cuts also saw Charles throw gospel phrasing into his mix of R&B and jazz as he found his way to the epochal What’d I Say: a blazing-hot combination of Latin-tinged percussion, electric piano and sensual call-and-response with his trio of female backing singers, The Raelettes, improvised one night at the end of a concert. Capturing that energy in the studio, What’d I Say ran way over a single’s three-minute running time. Atlantic had to split the song over both sides of a 7”, and watched as it not only soared to the top of the R&B charts, but became Charles’ first crossover hit, making it to No.6 on Billboard’s mainstream Hot 100, even as the suggestive interplay between Charles and his backing singers caused controversy, with some commentators worrying that Charles was taking the church into the bedroom.

“The whitest possible music in the blackest possible way”

Ray Charles began to lose his sight at the age of five. Two years later, he was completely blind. The medical diagnosis was glaucoma, but the fact that he’d watched his younger brother drown – a family tragedy that, along with the early death of his mother, haunted the singer for the rest of his life – just before his vision began to fade suggests a deeper, more psychological cause. But Charles never let this restrict his abilities as a musician. And he remained wilfully blind to genre boundaries – or, indeed, any suggestions of the types of music African-American artists should play.

It’s no surprise that What’d I Say fascinated the rock’n’rollers (Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis both recorded versions of it in the 1960s). But just as that song was one of countless black R&B cuts to infiltrate the white mainstream, Ray Charles saw no reason why African-Americans couldn’t play music that, during an era of fierce segregation, was deemed to belong to a white audience. On his 1960 album The Genius Hits The Road he covered Georgia On My Mind, a song most often associated with country music, but which Charles infused with pure soul, creating the definitive version in the process (his recording was designated the state of Georgia’s official song in 1979). Two years later, he released two volumes of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, further drawing a white audience to him while paving the way for a range of black artists, from another Atlantic soul legend, Solomon Burke, to Hootie & The Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, to explore country music.

Released as the touchpaper for the civil-rights movement was lit, Ray Charles’ initial forays into country music were as much political statements as they were musical ones: “Here is a black man giving you the whitest possible music in the blackest possible way,” Billy Joel, who has said the pianist was more influential than Elvis Presley, told Rolling Stone. Almost a decade later, in 1968, Charles became one of the first artists to cover The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, proving he could do the same with baroque pop.

“What is a soul? It’s like electricity”

Ray Charles may have recorded his most important work throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, but his influence has resonated down through the decades: Van Morrison – who himself took a blend of jazz, R&B and soul music into new territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s with albums like Astral Weeks and Moondance – treated him as an idol. In 2004, the pair duetted on a version of Crazy Love, a song that Morrison had written but shared with Charles on the final album released during the latter’s lifetime, Genius Loves Company; he also shared a stage with Charles in the mid-1990s, Van The Man opening up for The Genius at London’s Wembley Arena. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, meanwhile, was one of countless teenagers mesmerised by Ray Charles’ voice. Hearing his version of Georgia On My Mind, Waters was inspired, telling himself: “One day, if I make some people feel only one-twentieth of what I am feeling now, it will be quite enough for me.” Within a few decades, Waters had spearheaded his own musical breakthroughs with Pink Floyd.

When comedians Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi wanted to celebrate their love of soul and music with The Blues Brothers, the 1980 comedy that doubled as a love letter to the music that Aretha Franklin, James Brown and John Lee Hooker brought to the world, they not only claimed members of Stax Records’ house band, Booker T And The MGs, for their own, they also looked to Brother Ray for help. As the blind owner of a musical-instruments shop, Charles demonstrated the effectiveness of a Fender Rhodes piano with a performance of Shake A Tailfeather, a song he never recorded, but which he easily could have.

Ray Charles’ own legacy was also celebrated honoured on the big screen, in the 2004 biopic simply titled Ray, for which Jamie Foxx, as Ray Charles, won a ream of Best Actor awards, including an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe. The film’s soundtrack, too, received a Grammy, speaking to the timeless appeal of Ray Charles’ music. Kanye West was listening. He’d already built Gold Digger around a sample of Charles’ I Got A Woman, but after seeing how well Jamie Foxx imitated the singer, West decided to have him record brand new vocals for the track, creating a smash hit – and ushering in a new dawn for hip-hop – in one fell swoop.

What is a soul? The man who invented soul music had his own answer: “It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.” He might as well have been describing his own songs. Ray Charles not only made the world a brighter place, he completely rewired the way people thought about music. You don’t have to be a philosopher to solve that one. You just have to be a genius.

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