More than anyone, this musician from the American South helped to define soul as a genre at the crossroads between R&B and gospel. Heir to a tradition of Alabama folk laments and the throaty vocal stylings and guttural inflections of gospel, Ray Charles, with his larger-than-life personality and class, took a form of popular expression and turned it an undisputed art. His immortal classics include I Got a Woman, What'd I Say and Hit the Road Jack.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia. At the age of six, he lost his eyesight. After his parents passed away, he was placed in a school for the blind. As well as learn to read music in Braille, he studied music theory and honed his piano skills.
Even before then, an amateur musician named Wally Pittman had taken him under his wing and given him a sound musical foundation. When asked about it, Ray Charles would say: "Number one on my personal hit parade is Wally Pittman, because when I was three he let me sit beside him on the piano stool and play as much as I wanted. He never discouraged me. Instead of telling me to stop, he said, ‘Good. Let me show you...' To this day, he's the person I admire the most; he was my first influence, I was his student, and my style was his style."
Another major influence on Charles was Nat King Cole. "I really tried to imitate him, or if you prefer, to be his equal, because Nat Cole sang and played piano for himself, for his own pleasure, and that's exactly what I wanted to do myself," said Charles.
The glory days
In the early 1950s, Charles recorded his first popular successes. While he was no stranger to the studios, however, his magic formula had yet to emerge. His career finally took flight after he signed with Atlantic. In 1955, Charles released I Got a Woman, the first song that truly revealed his personal signature. The song was also Charles' ticket to all of the world's stages.
With a succession of songs such as Leave My Woman Alone, Hallelujah, I Love Her So, Yes lndeed and Mess Around, Charles' legend was beginning to grow. He added a group of backup singers, whom he personally recruited, and baptized them the Raelettes.
In 1959, Charles was at it again with What'd I Say, an incomparable number combining religious fervour with a rock and roll spirit. As well as climb to the top of the pop charts, the song allowed Charles to attract new audiences.
By the time he quit Atlantic Records for ABC in the early 1960s, Charles was at the height of his fame. Subsequent singles enjoyed widespread popular success, particularly Georgia on My Mind and Hit the Road Jack, as did the 1962 release, Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music, which saw Charles appropriate a white repertoire and showcase his formidable chops.
Reversal of fortune
Charles suffered a serious setback in 1965, when he was arrested for drug possession. He'd been using heroin for several years. After serving a year behind bars, Charles came back but the decade-long honeymoon he'd enjoyed was over.
Charles' eclecticism then drove him to explore a variety of styles, with results that were mixed. Some wondered why he didn't go back to the soul he'd all but invented. But Charles continued to perform extensively, and his reputation as a showman was well deserved.
In the summer of 1980, Ray Charles had the honour of opening the very first Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. A total of 28 people, including his technical team, descended from the musician's personal airplane, and on Wednesday, July 2, at Place des Nations, the legendary piano player took the stage with the Ray Charles Orchestra and the Raelettes.
Charles returned to the Festival in 1989, 1998 and then in 2000, some 20 years after his initial visit. That year, festival-goers were treated to a program that served as a reminder of his musical legacy: 12 Grammy Awards in the R&B and pop categories - who can top that?
In 2003, Charles said goodbye to the Festival. However, he still elected to go on tour in spite of a hip operation. The same year, he collaborated on the biopic Ray, which recounts a period of his life. Actor Jamie Foxx was able to crawl inside the pianist's skin, and his performance as Ray Charles earned him an Oscar.
Ray Charles passed away on June 10, 2004. Worshipped in America by blacks and whites alike, he was the first artist to truly make the bridge between the two cultures. His social impact on history may well be as important as his musical contribution. For these reasons, and because of his incredible talent, Ray Charles has long been a legend.