Piano Spotlight: Ray Charles

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A pioneer of soul, blues, gospel, and country music, Ray Charles has become one of the most loved and respected names in music history.

Life

Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, to Aretha and Bailey Robinson. As a child, he and his family moved to Greenville, Florida. His mother was a devout Christian, so Ray spent much of his childhood in a local Baptist church. Through church and local musicians, Ray had an intense curiosity for music; he would go and watch a piano player named Wiley Pit, who owned at wing restaurant; Pit would play boogie-woogie piano on an upright in the back of the shack while Ray watched. By watching Pit, Ray began to learn piano, but began to lose his eyesight to glaucoma soon after the death of his brother, George; he was completely blind by the age of seven.

In 1937, Ray attended a school for the blind and deaf in St. Augustine, Florida. There he studied classical music and developed his skill as a pianist. When Ray was 10, his father died; his mother later passed away when he was 15. Ray left school after his mother died and moved to Jacksonville, where he began playing in clubs with local bands. He continued this as he moved around Florida and wound up in Tampa, where he played steadily with the Florida Playboys. During his stint with the Playboys, Ray began wearing sunglasses and dropped his last name, to just Ray Charles.

In the early years of his career, Ray was known to emulate Nat King Cole, both in vocal style and in piano playing. In 1947, Ray made his first recordings in Tampa, Florida. That same year he made a big move across the country to Seattle — where he met his lifelong friend, Quincy Jones — after considering Chicago, New York, and other cities too big.  Thanks to his Tampa recordings and successful trio performances, Ray landed a recording contract at Swingtime Records. In 1949 Ray and his trio, The McSon Trio, went to Los Angeles to record several songs. One of the songs, “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand,” earned a spot at number five on the U.S. r&b charts in 1951, and another song (“Kissa Me Baby”) at number eight in 1952. In 1953 Swingtime Records went under, but Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records signed Ray to a recording contract.

In 1953 Ray released his first hit for Atlantic, “Mess Around,” which became Ray’s first cut featuring his own vocal style. A year later, Ray recorded what would be his first r&b number one, “I Got A Woman.” Ray’s biggest hit with Atlantic was “What’d I Say” in 1959, crossing over to top ten in the pop charts. Between 1954 and 1959, Ray recorded nonstop with Atlantic, where he cut many popular jazz and blues recordings while enjoying a successful touring career. By the late ’50s Ray was often called “the genius.” Following “What’d I Say,” Ray released a series of records under Atlantic spanning genres including country, jazz, and traditional big band recordings. In 1959, when Ray’s record deal with Atlantic expired, he signed with ABC.

Ray Charles, with ABC records, was one of the first artists to receive complete creative control, an annual $50,000 advance, ownership of his own masters, and higher royalties than he was promised: one of the most liberal artist deals in history. After his 1960 release, Genius + Soul = Jazz, Ray switched his career from writing original music to being an interpreter of others’ work. Around that same time, he released his rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.” In 1962, Ray released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, a huge commercial hit which brought country into the mainstream. After many more chart-topping hits through 1965, Ray’s career came to a halt due to drug abuse and possible prison time. Having battled with drug addiction for years, Ray finally made the decision to get clean.

In 1966 Ray Charles appeared on the charts again, writing “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” with the popular duo Ashford & Simpson. The late ’60s showed a decline in Ray’s popularity due to the emergence of harder forms of rock, pop, and r&b. During this time, Ray recorded many covers of pop, country, and r&b songs, but it was his recording of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” that earned Ray a Grammy and put him back in the spotlight. The 1970s was a decade of revival for Ray’s career, with appearances in movies and television shows like The Blues Brothers and Saturday Night Live.

This revival led to a constant string of touring, awards, appearances, and record sales for the rest of Ray’s career. He became one of the most loved and wildly popular artists in America and abroad; Ray Charles continued to perform and record up until his death on June 10, 2004 in Los Angeles.

Style/Technique

Ray had a unique approach to playing the piano, since he learned the instrument after completely going blind. Dynamic and definitive, Ray’s playing is 100% from the soul, though extremely technically competent. His sense of feel overshadows the need to be a precise, technical player. At his concerts, Ray played a huge variety of styles as a piano player: big band arrangements, blues, gospel, jazz, and funk were all under his fingers as the night went by. As a singer Ray is categorized as a baritone, though on a few recordings he is heard singing up to three octaves in range. His voice is one of the most recognizable in modern music history.

Influence

Ray Charles has influenced generations of musicians from jazz, country, blues, r&b, and pop artists like Billy Joel, Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr., to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and so many more. Ray’s rendition of “Georgia” was named Georgia’s state song. He has earned a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has won dozens of Grammys, and has a statue of his likeness in his home town of Albany, Georgia.

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          February 11, 2017