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Friday, June 11, 2004 - Page updated at 04:30 P.M.

Remembering Ray Charles, The Genius of Soul

By Patrick MacDonald
Seattle Times music critic

BRUCE MCKIM / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1981
Ray Charles, performing at Parker's in Seattle in this 1981 file photo, died today at 73. Charles, who lived in Seattle for about two years, started his career here in 1948.
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Ray Charles, The Genius of Soul, who died yesterday of liver disease at his Beverly Hills home at the age of 73, began his career in Seattle when he was just 17.

The blind singer-pianist lived here only three years, from 1948 to '50, but he always acknowledged that the city, its musicians and its welcoming atmosphere helped shape his groundbreaking musical style and his philosophy of life.

"I met a lot of very good friends here," he told me in a 1981 interview between sets at Parker's on Aurora. "I liked the atmosphere. The people were friendly, the people took to me right away.

"Remember, people don't have to take to you, they don't have to like you. But they did accept me.

"Seattle is the town where I made my first record. And if you ever want to say where I got my start, you have to say that. Because that was the thing that got me known."

He was referring to his first single, "Confession Blues."

It was released in 1949 and was so successful that Charles moved to Los Angeles the next year.

Ray Charles' greatest songs


Ray Charles had a prolific and varied recording career. Here are some of his best songs, which are also representative of his various styles.

"What'd I Say," 1959: A breakthrough pop song, which broke the mold of the 2½-minute radio single. An extended jam, it represented his improvisational style of performing.

"Georgia on My Mind," 1960: A sweet ballad, with strings and a vocal chorus, that showed his versatility and his love for the South, growing up in Georgia, where he lost his sight at age 7 because of untreated glaucoma.

"Hit the Road Jack," 1961: A raucous song about infidelity, it featured the Raelettes, his background group of female singers. It also hinted at his sometimes volatile relationships with a large number of women.

"America the Beautiful," 1972: Charles mystified some fans by accepting an invitation to perform for President Nixon, but he considered it an honor to play the White House, no matter the occupant. He loved the emotion of the song and its message of brotherhood.

"I Can't Stop Loving You," 1962: His biggest country hit, it showed his flair for vocal drama, his love of nostalgia, and a longing for true love.

Patrick Macdonald

"Open and smokin' "

Mr. Charles originally chose to come here because it was far away from the St. Augustine, Fla., School for the Blind, which he hated.

"I thought if I would leave there and go someplace new, I might have a chance, somebody might discover me," he said in a 1974 interview when he was here playing a nightclub called The Trojan Horse.

"I was afraid to go to New York, but I wanted to go to a city, so a friend of mine sat down with me and he took a map and went diagonal across it, and there was Seattle sittin' up in the Northwest, and I said let me go there and see what I can do."

He was delighted to find a vibrant music community.

"They had a lot of clubs here then, and the town was really open and smokin'," he recalled. "There was a guy here named Bumps Blackwell who had a band, and I got a job with him.

"But soon I started my own group, my first group, The Maxim Trio. Nat Cole was my idol, and I liked Charles Brown, and tried to imitate both, and I did it pretty good because it kept me working."

The Maxim Trio played regularly at after-hours joints like the Washington Social Club, the Black & Tan, the 908 Club and the Rockin' Chair (which had a gambling den upstairs), as well as more upscale gigs at hotels, the Elks and other social organizations like the Seattle Tennis Club.

"We called him R.C."

He met his closest friend, Quincy Jones, shortly after arriving here. Jones was 15, a fellow teenage musical prodigy. He was amazed that the 17-year-old Charles had his own apartment, a well-stocked bar and a bevy of girlfriends. Mr. Charles and Jones gave each other nicknames. Mr. Charles became "six-nine" and Jones was "seven-oh." Forever after, they always called each other those names.

"Ray Charles was my oldest friend, my brother in every sense of the word, and bigger than life," Jones said in a statement issued yesterday. "We had the blessing of God to realize all those boyhood dreams together."

Another close friend here was jazz singer Ernestine Anderson, who performed with Mr. Charles at local clubs and military bases.

"The gods were smiling on us when he came to Seattle," Anderson said yesterday at her Seattle home. "We all knew that there was something special about him. We called him R.C. He was sophisticated. He had it all together, so much so we all thought he was older than us. It was years later I found out I was older than him!

"He and Quincy, they treated me like I was their little sister. They protected me. Ray used to have his checks sent to my address for safety's sake. He'd hop out of a cab, come up the walk, go up the stairs and knock on our door. 'Are you sure he's blind?' my father said."

The young musicians joined the American Federation of Musicians, Local 76-493. Mr. Charles joined in 1948 and was still a dues-paying member at his death.

The singer-pianist's musical life was always marked by individuality and openness. Through his long career, he embraced country music with great success — saying the music of poor, rural white people was as honest, heartfelt and moving as that of urban blacks — as well as jazz, rock, patriotic songs, standards, show tunes, anything that caught his fancy.

He began developing his own style in 1951, an amalgam of jazz, R&B and gospel, not long after moving to L.A.

"I thought, well, Ray, you've got to get out of this shelter you're living in and get out there and see if you have anything of your own. You've gone about as far as you can go imitating people," he said in that 1974 interview.

One of the greatest

Eventually, he invented the term Soul to describe his style. Frank Sinatra called him The Genius. Jones put them together and dubbed Charles "The Genius of Soul."

Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. His family moved to Greenville, Fla., when he was an infant.

Mr. Charles, who was divorced twice, is survived by 12 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for next week at Los Angeles' First AME Church, with burial afterward at Inglewood Cemetery.

Mr. Charles, who won 12 Grammy Awards, was one of the greatest artists America has ever produced. He was an original thinker, an innovator, a man with a deep wellspring of emotions. "I'm one of the lonely people," he told me once. But he also could express great joy, even ecstasy.

He had low points, most notably arrests for heroin possession (a habit that started in Seattle) in 1958, '61 and '66. Following the latter, he checked himself into a hospital and went cold turkey. After that, he never used again.

In his long career, he toured the world, played for kings and queens and presidents, won awards and accolades.

He was sometimes difficult. He could be hard on his band members and background singers, the Raelettes. He was known for being tight with a dollar.

But as a performer, he never became detached, never lost his common touch. His passion for music stayed strong, as anyone who ever saw him perform can attest.

"I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of," Mr. Charles said in his 1978 autobiography, "Brother Ray."

At most of his concerts, there came a moment when he would hug himself and rock back and forth on the piano bench, smiling. It was his way of embracing the whole crowd, of holding them close to his heart, of saying "thank you."

Now the world is saying thanks to Ray Charles for all the wonderful music he left us.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312. E-mail: pmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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