My Vinyl Digitizing Project — that’s one of the things that brought me back to Rock, after a detour into bluegrass and country in the early 2000s — continues, the most recent foray being another batch for my friend Ron.
Ron has a large LP collection, and diverse musical tastes, so the dozen or so records we picked out at his house two weeks ago are interesting: Stevie Wonder, Asleep at the Wheel, Sade, Dan Hicks, Gladys and the Pips, among others. The others included a compilation by The Genius himself, “The World of Ray Charles Vol. 2.” Ripping that LP into ones-and-zeroes inspired me to expand my knowledge about an artist who has to be considered one of the fathers of Rock and Roll, right up there with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the rest.
Charles was one of the artists who were getting regular airplay when I started listening to WLS-AM in the early 1960s. “Hit the Road Jack” was a No. 1 hit (on both the regular and rhythm and blues top 100s) in 1961, and “Georgia on My Mind” was Top of the Pops the year before that.
But Charles at that time had already been recording and performing for more than a decade, part of an interesting life story that included some detours that I didn’t remember, or didn’t know. Born in 1930 — he was closing in on 30 years old when he made it big — his mother was a sharecropper who died when he was 14; her name, perhaps prophetically, was Aretha.
Charles started losing his vision before age five, and attended a Florida school for the blind and deaf for eight years. He began developing his musical skills during that period, learning piano by braille — which sounds really, really difficult — and playing Bach, Beethoven and Mozart; his interests quickly turned to blues and jazz, and he began performing at school assemblies and socials.
After being expelled from the special school (for playing a prank!) at age 14, be began performing professionally in Jacksonville, for $4 a night. That was the start of a professional music career that would take him to Orlando, Tampa, Seattle and eventually all over the U.S. and the world.
Charles’ first recording success came as part of the McSon Trio, which had a No. 2 R&B hit in 1949 (the year I was born!). That group became the Ray Charles Trio, and it and Charles under his own name had several more R&B-charting songs on the Down Beat and Swing Time labels over the next four years.
He then recorded for the Atlantic Records (which bought out Swing Time and picked up his contract, Atlantic’s legendary founder Ahmet Artegun as usual knowing a good thing when he heard one) for most of the next decade. That period included several of Charles’ classics, like “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say,” both No. 1 on the R&B charts (the latter song was No. 6 on the pop chart).
The Genius had some of his biggest success on ABC records, 25-plus Top 40 hits in the 1960s and ’70s. Most of those were towards the front end of that period; his Wikipedia entry attributes the lack of hits later in that period to the deal he cut with the record company, which increased his royalties — and, counter-intuitively, reduced the incentive to do new music.
Charles had a career setback in the later ’60s, his third arrest for heroin possession, and had to go into rehabilitation to stay out jail. He made a brief comeback later in the decade, with the help of the songwriting duo of Ashford and Simpson.
The Genius, though, faded in the late ’60s and 1970s — in a case of poetic injustice, driven off the charts by harder rock and R&B, and psychedelia. He recorded mostly in the country genre in the 1980s, scoring a No. 1 C&W hit with the “Seven Spanish Angels” duet with Willie Nelson in 1985.
That was something of a throwback to two decades earlier, when he had hits with country songs like Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” and Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” In fact, Charles is credited by some for bringing country and western into the musical mainstream. (Then why isn’t he one of three artists inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Country and Western halls of fame? Props to you if you can name the other two.)
Charles is credited with a lot of other influences and trend-settings, among them helping racially integrate the music industry and fathering soul music. The musicians he influenced are a diverse lot, from Billy Joel to Van Morrison to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. (Joel, admitting it sounded a bit sacrilegious, said Charles was more important than Elvis.) No less than Frank Sinatra called him “the only true genius in show business.”
Nor can many artists claim to have popularized a tune that later became a state song. (That would be “Georgia on My Mind,” written by Hoagy Carmichael — although the Bluegrass band the Osborne Brothers can make something of a claim, for recording “Rocky Top,” one of Tennessee’s 10 [!] official state songs.)
My first impression of Charles 50-plus years ago, from “Hit the Road Jack,” was favorable. I liked “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” and the more Middle of the Road stuff less.
The album I digitized last week, a 1975 release, has the same schizophrenic tendencies, veering from the live version of “What’d I Say” to “Stella by Starlight” to “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” (You have to get Vol. 1 if you want “Hit the Road Jack,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.”)
But even Charles’ MOR stuff has that raw edge to the voice, that funky touch. Easy to see why he is credited with fathering soul — and, the whole career considered, why Rolling Stone ranked him 10th on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” and No. 2 on its list of the 100 greatest singers.