One of the most original voices in the history of American popular music has been stilled. Ray Charles, a legend in the truest sense of the word, died Thursday (June 10) at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. A family spokesman said the cause of death was liver disease. He was 73 years old.
For the first time in 53 years of regular touring, Charles was forced to cancel a series of shows in late 2003. After what was reported to be a slow recovery from hip surgery, Charles canceled other appearances in 2004, including a TV taping in late March to observe the 70th anniversary of New York’s Apollo Theater and a March 2 concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
Although he has been universally hailed as the “genius of soul” and of R&B, Charles also occupies a unique — and considerable — role in country music history.
Charles forever changed the face of country music with his epochal 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and he continued to revisit the genre throughout his long career. With Modern Sounds, Charles re-interpreted some of the greatest songs in the country music catalog, instilling them with fuel-injected soul. In doing so, he inspired other artists to consider — and reconsider — country songs. And it invited other audiences to come and hear what country music and country songwriters had to offer.
Although he had a hit in 1959 with a single cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” his decision to record a full album of country songs was initially discouraged by his record label and by those around him.
Charles later said he knew he was taking a risk in recording a country album. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said, “because all my friends and people around me was telling me I was making a big mistake because ‘you’re doing country-western music. Oh, man you’re going to ruin your career ’cause everybody know you’re from rhythm and blues, and you’re going to go out — oh, you’ve got to be nuts.'”
The album covered a wide array of what the country music song catalog had to offer at the time: some vintage Hank Williams (“Half As Much,” “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin'”), Don Gibson’s big hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Eddy Arnold’s classic “Just a Little Lovin'” and “You Don’t Know Me” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye, Love.”
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was No. 1 on the Billboard pop album chart for 14 weeks and stayed on that chart for two years. The album’s producer, ABC-Paramount A&R director Sid Feller, said about the album’s initial splash, “I didn’t know that a pop artist could do country songs and become a national monument. You know how unimportant it seemed? I put ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ in the No. 5 position on the B-side of the album.”
Four singles from the album were released. “Born to Lose,” “Careless Love” and “You Don’t Know Me” all charted pop, but “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was a No. 1 pop hit for five weeks.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on Sept. 23, 1930, to Aretha and Bailey Robinson in Albany, Ga. The family moved to Greenville, Fla. R.C., as he was nicknamed, began losing his eyesight around the age of 4 — shortly after his only sibling, his brother George, drowned in a washtub in front of him. R.C. was too small to pull George out.
In his childhood, Charles recalled that country music was a huge influence on him. “Saturday night was the only night that my mom would let me stay up past 9 o’clock,” he said. “See? You had to be in bed asleep by nine, but on Saturday she knew I loved the Grand Ole Opry. I loved it you know, and she let me stay awake to hear these guys … Grandpa Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, people like that.”
At age 7, his eyesight gone, R.C. entered the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. There he learned Braille and learned music. His mother’s sudden death when he was not quite 15 was another devastating blow. Shortly thereafter, he was expelled from the school for defiance and rule breaking and moved to Jacksonville, where a friend of a friend took him in. He became successful playing in local bands.
He moved on to Orlando where he lived on his own for the first time and then left for Tampa. There he landed a gig as piano player for a country band, the Florida Playboys and learned how to yodel. He ultimately moved to Seattle, which proved to be his launching pad for a long career.
As Charles returned again and again to country throughout his prolific career that also spanned gospel, jazz, R&B and soul, he would never repeat the spectacular success of Modern Sounds, but he recorded a solid body of country music work. He revisited Modern Sounds with Modern Sounds Volume Two later in 1962 and it was also well-received.
The following year, on Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul, Charles had a hit single with “Busted,” though written by country songwriter Harlan Howard. On 1965’s Together Again, he recorded Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by The Tail” as well as Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
For 1966’s Crying Time, he picked another Buck Owens tune as the title song and it became a Top 10 hit. Later that year, Charles returned to a Don Gibson song with “A Born Loser” on Ray’s Moods.
In 1980, Charles played the CMA’s 25th Anniversary Concert in Washington, D.C., with President and Mrs. Reagan in the audience.
Charles signed with CBS’ Records Rick Blackburn in Nashville and recorded the album Wish You Were Here Tonight in 1983. His follow-up Nashville album Let Your Love Flow was not a stellar country album or notable album of any kind.
The next Nashville album, Do I Ever Cross Your Mind, suffered a similar fate. As a rescue operation, Blackburn brought in famed producer Billy Sherrill (who made stars out of Tammy Wynette and Tanya Tucker, among others) for the next CBS album that turned into a series of duets — at Charles’ suggestion. Collaborators included Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Mickey Gilley, George Jones, Ricky Skaggs and the Oak Ridge Boys. The album, 1984’s Friendship, fared much better and yielded the No. 1 song “Seven Spanish Angels” with Nelson.
Charles continued to work in the country genre, appearing on CMT 100 Greatest Country Songs in 2003 singing Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” And that same year he shared the CMT Crossroads stage with fellow Georgian Travis Tritt, where they returned to such songs as “Georgia.”
Charles had planned to resume touring in June of this year. On Jan. 30, he received the Grammy President’s Merit Award in Los Angeles at the Grammy Awards.
He had been recording a new duet album record in Los Angeles at his RPM Studios. The Duets CD, on Concord Records, had been set for release Aug. 31. Songs which had been recorded for the project include “Here We Go Again” with Norah Jones, “Sinner’s Prayer” with B.B. King, “Sweet Potato Pie” with James Taylor, “Hey Girl” with Michael McDonald, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” with Bonnie Raitt and “It Was a Very Good Year” with Nelson.
A movie, Unchain My Heart, The Ray Charles Story, starring Jamie Foxx as Charles, has reportedly completed principal filming.
To read the complete Ray Charles biography, go to his artist page at CMT.com.