The great Ray Charles died today and I had to come up with angle quickly for an article. After fretting for a bit, I did the obvious and put on a few songs – the angle was obvious: he absorbed more forms of American music than anyone and made them his own, reflecting both American commonality and individuality, and he classically embodied American contradictions. My MSNBC.com tribute:
- Ray Charles – the Genius, the High Priest of Soul – who died today at 73, did two things that tower above his other manifest accomplishments: he wrapped his arms more powerfully than any other artist around the width and breadth of American musical forms and drew them together into something beautifully and soulfully his own, and in doing this he embodied contradictions as extreme as the American experience itself.
The contradictions and broad musical reach began in his childhood in Albany, Georgia, and Greenville, Florida, where his family was poor and the Depression deep. The standard difficulties of poverty and black life in a segregated South escalated to tragedy when at five Charles witnessed the drowning death of his brother in his mother’s take-in laundry tub, and at six lost his sight to (presumably) glaucoma. Given a choice, I imagine he would have chosen the order of the tragedies reversed: imagine such a sight seared into your brain with nothing to replace it for the next 68 years of your life.
And yet for all the blunt force of the hand of fate, Charles’s early life was also touched with refinement and delicacy: he was sent away at age seven to the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille; score for big bands; and play piano, organ, sax, clarinet, trumpet under the influence of such notable musical sophisticates as big band clarinetist Artie Shaw, jazz piano giant Art Tatum, and classical composers Chopin and Sibelius. But at night, in the dark, he also loved to listen to the raw melodies and hillbilly twang of the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and to the sanctified abandon of gospel and the secular soul-venting of the blues.
At 15, he graduated from St. Augustine’s and hit the road, Jack, as a musician and heroin addict (a monkey he wouldn’t kick off his back for another 20 years) playing the chitlin circuit around Florida. But while his life was rough – a blind junkie teenage musician trying to eke out a living in the South of the mid-’40s – his music was sophisticated, even gentle – he played the popular elegant piano cocktail swing of the day and crooned in a smooth voice, perhaps attempting to calm the savage beast without and within.
Then at 17, a diametric geographical move (another contradiction) sent him to Seattle, Washington, where he met and taught arrangement to lifelong friend Quincy Jones. He began recording, in Los Angeles for Swing Time, then in New York for Atlantic. He played with blues great Lowell Fulson, backed Ruth Brown and even Moms Mabley, all the while performing and singing ably but, frankly, generically. It wasn’t until 1953 – in yet another city, New Orleans – that the young man finally became RAY CHARLES….
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