"Genius of Soul" Was Also a Country Music Pioneer~Chet Flippo~
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.CMT