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Charles in Charge

Ray Charles tells people that there are three things he never wanted to own: a dog, a cane and a guitar. To the blind music legend, they symbolize helplessness, the down-in-the-mouth stereotypes that surround a backwoods blues singer. Charles may be a self-professed country boy, but he's anything but helpless.

Sure, life gave him plenty to be down about, but he never hung his head--even when singing the most low-down blues.

Charles' music--from the up-tempo signature numbers "What'd I Say" and "I've Got a Woman" to such mournful tunes as "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Lonely Avenue"--pushes forward with an energy that screams, "Get out of my way!"

In fact, nothing seems capable of stopping him. Not the poverty of the Depression he was born into, the open hostility of the segregated South, nor a longtime addiction to heroin. Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, Ray Charles Robinson was 5 years old when he lost his only sibling, George. The younger George drowned in a washtub as Ray tried vainly to pull him out.

Charles began to lose his eyesight soon after, for reasons that remain mysterious. At age 7, his mother sent him from the village of Greenville, Florida, to the state School for the Blind and Deaf, more than a hundred miles away in St. Augustine. She knew the small town couldn't meet a blind boy's educational needs.

At age 15, Ray was an orphan. Yet by 25, Ray Charles (he dropped the Robinson to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) was one of the most successful and influential musicians in American pop, and a cultural icon in the black community.

"I've Got a Woman," recorded in 1954, was the benchmark record that made Charles. From the opening, melismatic "We-eh-eh-eh-ell," Charles sings with Pentecostal fire. You can imagine him, eyes rolled back in ecstasy, shouting as the horns punctuate each phrase. Yet he's not singing about knowing the Lord, just about knowing a woman who "saves her lovin', early in the morning, just for me-e-e!"

An unprecedented conflation of the sacred and the profane, "I've Got a Woman" rattled the walls. Although church people protested the record, it was Charles' first No. 1 single on the rhythm-and-blues charts.

More important, it marked the emergence of Charles' own voice. Although he'd had successful records before ("Confession Blues" was a No. 2 R&B hit in 1949), even Charles admits that he was derivative, smitten with the smooth styles of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown.

"See, for many, many years, I tried to sound like Nat 'King' Cole because I loved him, and I did everything I could to imitate him," he once said.

Fortunately, he eventually realized the world didn't need another Cole, and he set about inventing Ray Charles, which is probably a bigger achievement than inventing soul music. Charles' evolution is chronicled for the first time in Genius & Soul--The 50th Anniversary Collection.

The five-CD set from Rhino Records gathers tunes from every phase and label of Charles' career. The collection is lopsided, rightfully so, in favor of his earlier years. The song list, in chronological order, doesn't reach the '70s until the latter part of the fourth CD, leaving the fifth CD to cover the two decades since 1975. The collection makes the case that, for all his frailties, the man Frank Sinatra once labeled "the only genius in the business" is a seemingly indestructible ambassador of soul. Among the many obstacles he's had to overcome, one of the most painful was a heroin addiction that ruthlessly hounded him for the first two decades of his career.

In his autobiography Brother Ray, he writes that he has no regrets about it, rationalizing that all experience, good and bad, teaches a person something. He refuses to take a victim's stance or put responsibility for taking junk on any shoulders but his own.

After some infamous busts, he spent a year cleaning up in 1965--the only year out of the past 50 when he hasn't toured. Yet even before he kicked the habit, he had overcome it--in a sense--by leading a pop revolution.

Charles, who hates hype, only reluctantly acknowledges the idea that he invented soul music: "I guess you could kind of say I started it, I guess."

The facts are that Charles mixed gospel music and the blues in a musical style that was sophisticated, yet earthy and raw. Charles' brew prompted gospel singer Sam Cooke and others to baptize themselves in pop. From these seeds, the soul music of Motown and Stax/Volt eventually grew. Over the years, Charles' chart presence may have dimmed, but his impact never seems to. On Joan Osborne's 1995 debut album, she included an homage to him called "Spider Web," and Billy Joel bestowed his daughter Alexa with the middle name Ray, in tribute to his idol.

Even though Charles did his most important work from 1954 through 1965, he made consistently good recordings throughout the 44 years (1949-93) covered by this set. Better yet, his work holds up very well all these years later. "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (1955) sounds as contemporary as "Still Crazy After All These Years" (1993).

Maybe Charles' high musical standards have something to do with that. He began banging on the piano at the knee of a boogie-woogie player in Greenville, and was trained classically in St. Augustine, which meant he learned to read and write music formally, a degree of musical accomplishment that most blues and soul singers of his day didn't have.

Charles could do it all--sing, write, arrange and play a variety of instruments. He could hold his own with accomplished jazz players. (He even made fine jazz albums such as Soul Brothers, his collaboration with vibraphonist Milt Jackson.) Still, Charles always liked a direct, emotional song, no matter the style.

His scraped-raw voice unifies a catalogue of songs that would have seemed jarringly disparate before he came along. Charles' genius has been to hear through the style labels--country, jazz, blues, pop--to the emotional core of each song, and then to rearrange the songs so that they sounded like they were written for him.

"Georgia on My Mind" virtually became his theme song after he recorded it in 1960. It became his first No. 1 pop hit, and, as biographer David Ritz notes, it changed Charles' career. After that, he hardly ever wrote again, preferring to interpret other people's songs. "Georgia" also served notice that the rhythm-and-blues marketing ghetto wasn't big enough to hold his talent and that the mainstream was going to have to make room.

When, contrary to the wishes of his advisers, he decided to do an album of country tunes in 1962, he turned "I Can't Stop Loving You" into a lesson on the bond between soul and country. Modern Sounds in Country and Western is one of the must-have albums of Charles' career, and it was a groundbreaking crossover success upon its release.

Let a Buddy Rich sneer all he wanted about how bad and out of tune country music was; Charles played good music, in tune, and still remained faithful to country's dirt-under-the-fingernails sentiments.

And just as John Coltrane transformed "My Favorite Things" from a cute Sound of Music ditty into a vehicle for profound musical contemplation, Ray Charles brought complexity to "America the Beautiful." Recorded in 1972, a year when racial strife and antiwar fervor made the American landscape look anything but beautiful, Charles' version cried out for a brotherhood that still hasn't materialized.

"If you travel around the world, you know that we have our faults," Charles once said, "but when you break it down, it's still the best country in the world. That's why people will die to get here."

Charles' early poverty helped make him fond of making money, and his love for America is at least partly the function of having the freedom to make riches his mother could only dream of. The part of him that hates hype will remind you that he's in show business, and that he's playing a role.

His shows are rituals now, predictable even.
Yet Charles, who turned 67 on September 23, is a performer who can make all the calculation of show biz disappear simply by catching his throat on a memorable tune. As Lionel Richie noted during Charles' participation in the "We Are the World" sessions, pretty much anytime you put a microphone in front of the man, you seem to get a definitive performance.

Like the best actors, Charles touches an inner well of genuine feeling to get the audience to buy in, to believe that this man is being sucked into an emotional maelstrom that will end only when he sounds the final note of a song.

Then, anything but helpless, he'll start the next one. As always, you've got no choice but to get out of his way.

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Salvatore Caputo