Obituary: Ray Charles

Musical giant who drew together blues, gospel, soul and jazz

During the 1960s, a generation of teenagers discovered America's hidden music of black blues, gospel and soul, and many of them promptly fissured into followings of one genre or another. If anyone could reunite those factions it was Ray Charles, who has died aged 73. His work had elements of every idiom: it was pan-American music. Sometimes, it seemed to be even more than that.

In 1960, Charles recorded Hoagy Carmichael's "old sweet song", Georgia On My Mind. It was a beautiful thing in itself, but, appearing as it did in the early years of the civil rights struggle, Charles's bittersweet reading seemed like an elegy to an Old South that was - or ought to have been - on its way out. To hear a man singing with such exquisite tenderness about a place where he could not eat lunch or use a public lavatory on his own terms made the terrible ambivalences of black southern life unbearably vivid.

The tools that Charles brought to this, and the many other extraordinary performances he recorded in the 1950s and 60s, were a hugely expressive voice, and fingers that knotted the emotional ambiguities of the blues with the incessant beat of gospel music.

But what elevated him above gifted contemporaries like Fats Domino or Charles Brown was his skill as an arranger, giving shape and character to a piece, plotting its contours and adding telling detail. This was the talent that inspired him to take a routine blues, preface it with a few bars of electric piano and texture it with a dialogue between himself and his backing singers that began in church and ended up in the bedroom.

"What'd I Say didn't feel like a big deal at the time," remembered Tom Dowd, Atlantic Records' engineer. "Ray, the gals and the band live in the small studio, no overdubs. Next!" But during the summer of 1959, the record became, as Charles's biographer Michael Lydon has written, "the life of a million parties, the spark of as many romances." And more: "In faraway Liverpool, Paul McCartney heard it and chills went up and down his spine: 'I knew right then and there I wanted to be involved in that kind of music'."

Charles's own involvement in music began when he was a three-year-old in Greenville, Florida, where he and his mother had moved from his birthplace in Albany, Georgia. Sitting on the lap of a local pianist, Wiley Pitman, he learned where to put his fingers in order to reproduce his teacher's rolling boogie-woogie figures. A year or two later he lost his sight, perhaps from congenital glaucoma, and, at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, he learned to read music in Braille.

Before he was out of his teens, talent and determination had led him to Seattle and then Los Angeles, where he worked for the blues singer Lowell Fulson and before leading his own groups. Already, he was a man fit to be respected by younger musicians: Quincy Jones, three years his junior, listened to the ideas Charles was deploying in his arrangements and found that "the whole world opened up".

Charles's first records were blues and pop songs in the husky vocal manner of contemporary stars like Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, but by the time he signed with Atlantic in 1952, he was searching for his own music - and within a couple of years he had found it. In songs like I've Got A Woman, This Little Girl Of Mine and Hallelujah I Love Her So, he pulled down the wall between blues and gospel and used the bricks to build hit records.

Discovering in Atlantic's owners, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and their in-house producer Jerry Wexler, a team that understood and encouraged his vision, he diversified into jazz, recording with the vibraharpist Milt Jackson, and sang standards with a big band on the 1959 album The Genius Of Ray Charles, which stayed in the charts for 82 weeks.

His most momentous experiment, however, came after he had left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a larger label with the resources to lift him out of the ghetto of the rhythm 'n' blues chart and give him the keys to the city of mainstream pop. Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music (1962) applied big-band jazz and pop orchestrations to classics of the hillbilly song folio like Born To Lose, territory that was supposed to be a no-go area for black musicians. The album's vast success, spearheaded by the chart-topping I Can't Stop Loving You, reverberated through Nashville for years afterwards.

Charles was, by that time, a headliner in the day-to-day world of package tours and one-nighters, and with the pressures of that life came the usual problems: drugs, paternity suits, fallings-out with musicians. He had always had the ability to sink himself in his music and ignore most of what went on around him, and he spent much of the 1970s absorbed in his own production company, Ray Charles Enterprises, his record label Tangerine and his studios, where he could put his knowledge of music and electronics into the service of ever more ambitious projects.

Inevitably, having demonstrated that he lived outside the law of categories, he began to disappoint admirers who still followed it. For his old constituency of jazz and blues enthusiasts, his expansion into show tunes and singalong country songs seemed like a series of wrong turnings, and his recording of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, though arresting, was hardly likely to change their opinion. Perhaps they were cheered by his cameo in Jon Landis's movie The Blues Brothers (1980), where he plays the benevolent music-store owner who equips John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd so that they can fulfil their "mission from God" and put their band back together.

By the 1990s Charles's best work was behind him, but, having already received a Grammy lifetime achievement award and similar honours from from the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he extended his list of Grammys to a dozen with I'll Be Good To You, a duet with Chaka Khan, and A Song For You.

His last public appearance was in April, when the RPM International Building, his old studio in downtown Los Angeles, was designated a historic landmark. His final recording, due to be released in August, is Genius Loves Company, a collection of duets with such admirers as Willie Nelson, Elton John and Norah Jones.

Charles was twice divorced and is survived by 12 children.

· Ray Charles (Robinson), musician, born September 23 1930; died June 10 2004


Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

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