- from Ray Charles
Most people identify singers with a particular kind of music. This group sings rock and roll. That person is a gospel singer.
Not Ray Charles. He didn’t feel hemmed in by other people’s expectations. Charles spent his career experimenting with many kinds of music. Often called the “Father of Soul,” Charles’s independence and courage are key parts of his story. Here’s what Charles said about his singing style.
I’m not a country singer. I’m a singer who sings country songs. I’m not a blues singer, but I can sing the blues. I’m not really a crooner, but I can sing love songs. I’m not a specialist. . . .
▲ When Charles left school at the age of 15, he could write music for a 15-piece orchestra. However, he had difficulty earning a living through music in Florida. So he decided to leave the state to make a fresh start. Charles picked Seattle, Washington, and boarded a long-distance bus, which, like many buses of the time, was segregated. The trip took five days. After Charles got to Seattle, he slept for a day and a half. Then, he entered a talent show. Three days later, he had his first job. Not long after arriving in Seattle, Charles met a 14-year-old trumpet-player by the name of Quincy Jones. The two formed a lifelong friendship. Jones would go on to become one of the most successful composers, producers, and conductors of all time. Shown above are Charles and Jones rehearsing for a tribute to the great jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington in 1973.
In Seattle, Charles formed the McSon Trio. “Mc” was for his friend and guitarist Gossie McKee and “Son” was for Robinson, Charles’s last name. It was also about this time that Charles dropped “Robinson” and started going by Ray Charles. That way, he would not be confused with Sugar Ray Robinson, a famous boxer of the time. Charles recorded his first single in Seattle. That may be why he always had a soft spot in his heart for the city. ▶
Seattle is the town where I made my first record. And if you ever want to say where I got my start, you have to say that.
◀ In 1952, Charles signed with Atlantic Records. The people there encouraged him to find his own musical voice and style. And he did. . . by breaking all kinds of “rules.” The song “What’d I Say” is an example. Charles made up “What’d I Say” on the spot during a concert in 1959 because he needed to fill time before ending his show! During those years, songs were about two and a half minutes long, but Charles needed to fill more time than that. “What’d I Say,” Charles’s “filler” song, was more than five minutes long! Atlantic recorded the song without suggesting that Charles shorten it at all. Perhaps more importantly, “What’d I Say” was a completely new music genre, or style. It combined the gospel music of Charles’s childhood with rhythms of the blues. The new style came to be known as soul. “What’d I Say” was an instant success. It went on to become one of the best-selling songs of Charles’s career.
Ray Charles insisted on being paid in one-dollar bills. Why do you think this might be so?
Soul combines melodies from gospel music with a strong rhythm and words about love and other non-religious topics. The style was very controversial at first. Reflect on why soul might upset some people. What is your view?
◀ Ray Charles didn’t sing just “any old song.” A song had to have lyrics, or words, that made sense to him, that he could put himself into. If the lyrics worked for him, then he would pay attention to the melody. Can I bring myself into this melody? he would ask. He knew he couldn’t sing anything he didn’t feel. “Georgia On My Mind” was a song Charles could feel. He released his version of the song in September 1960. Two months later, it was number one on the Billboard charts for pop music. (Billboard is a magazine that publishes lists of the most popular songs and albums each week.) Ray Charles was now a leader in the world of pop music as well as R&B.
Charles grew up listening to the country music broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry that were popular in the South. It’s understandable that country music, along with gospel and blues, had a major influence on him. In 1962, Charles released his version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” on the album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. In this way, Charles brought country music to millions of listeners who might not otherwise have heard it. ▶
Rhythm and blues, or R&B, combines jazz and blues beats with gospel. The term was coined by Jerry Wexler when he was working at Billboard. Years later, Wexler joined Atlantic Records and helped move rhythm and blues forward. R&B later developed into soul. Charles’s version of “Sinner’s Prayer” with B.B. King won him a 2004 Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
▲ Touring in a segregated country was not easy. Racism affected Charles and those traveling with him just as it affected other Blacks. Charles and his group had to stay in rooming houses instead of the big hotels of the time. They could stop only at gas stations that had a restroom for “Colored.” At times, they even had to go to the back door of a restaurant to buy sandwiches instead of being served a hot meal in the main dining room. These and other experiences led Charles to become involved in the civil rights movement.
◀ Ray Charles worked for civil rights by performing. . . and not performing. During the 1960s, Charles connected with Martin Luther King Jr. He began playing concerts to raise money for the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington. Charles also wrote and performed protest songs. “The Danger Zone” and “You’re in for a Big Surprise” are examples. But in 1961, he cancelled a concert. The concert was to be held in Augusta, Georgia. Students of the historically Black Paine College in Augusta sent him a telegram explaining that seating in the auditorium where Charles was to perform was segregated. Charles didn’t want any part of segregation. So he refused to perform. Years later, Charles performed before the first completely racially integrated audiences in the South African cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Country music is most popular in the rural parts of the United States. It had its beginnings in the folk music of British immigrants. The lyrics of country songs are mostly about romantic topics like love. Many country songs feature guitar, banjo, or fiddle (violin) music.
In January 1985, Ray Charles and 45 other music stars gathered together. They recorded the song “We Are the World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. At the time, there was a famine, or huge shortage of food, in Ethiopia, Africa. The idea was to sell recordings of the song and donate the money to help people affected by the famine. “We Are the World” sold more than 20 million copies and raised over $20 million. ▶