Ray Charles dies at age 73
It has been said that sometimes you don't realize you had something truly special until it's gone. When Ray Charles left this mortal coil last week to exchange his grand piano for a well-deserved harp, this saying has never been truer.
Charles always seemed to be somewhere in the background whenever discussions of this country's great musicians were had, but many chose to concentrate on the sunglasses and infectious grin rather than close their eyes and listen. It seems that his passing due to liver cancer at age 73 has forced the public to more closely examine the musician they loved and the man who overcame so much.
Ray Charles - actually born Ray Charles Robinson - grew up in Albany, Ga. He later changed his name to avoid confusion with legendary boxer "Sugar" Ray Robinson. His childhood traumas rivaled that of the cruelest Dickens novel: At the age of five, he watched his brother drown right in front of him. Two years later he saw nothing at all when glaucoma took his eyesight. As a child of the Depression, he and his family moved frequently throughout the South in search of work.
By age 15, both of Charles' parents had died and he found himself restless. Penniless and without a real family, he left to seek his fortune in the music business at the age of 16. Primarily bouncing around juke joints in Seattle as a piano player and saxophonist, he established himself as a local favorite, attracting attention from local and national record labels.
The rest of the story regarding Ray Charles is pretty well known. His fusion of deep southern blues with cool urban jazz and righteous gospel helped set the template for the rock 'n' roll era. Hits like "I Got a Woman," "What I Said" and "Georgia on My Mind" are now considered vital records in the evolution of R&B and rock.
He struggled throughout the early 1960s with a powerful heroin addiction, only to emerge stronger as a result. A frank autobiography titled "Brother Ray" and a memorable appearance in the star-studded comedy "The Blues Brothers" signaled loud and clear that Ray Charles was full of life and ready to get back to business. His moving performance of "America the Beautiful," sung at the Republican National Convention of 1984, was so beloved that many considered changing the national anthem as a result.
When he collaborated with an army of some of America's greatest music legends in 1985 for Africa Aid with "We Are the World," his duet with Bruce Springsteen stole the show. Charles' success in the '80s was compounded by his induction into the newly opened Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In the early '90s, he became a wildly popular spokesman for Diet Pepsi, showing impeccable style and even sex appeal. Last year he celebrated his 10,000th live performance and looked forward to future projects with little hesitation. Unfortunately, the fates have taken him away - 73 never felt so young for so many.
As a musician, Ray Charles recorded Western ballads, big band jazz, R&B, rock 'n' roll and delta blues in his career that spanned more than 50 years. His was a rare case where neither personality nor musicianship trumped the other. Rather, they intertwined to create one of the most beloved figures in the history of world music. The depths of his soul were heartbreaking and the uplift of his joy surreal. The voice of Charles is still as powerful and commanding as any President could dare hope and as eloquent as any poet could dream. He embodied cool when shimmying and swaying in the '50s for the same reasons he did only a short time ago; his message was timeless and ultimately born out of one of the most uniquely American experiences ever documented.
People remember Ray Charles because he did more than contribute to a shared music legacy; he defined the rules of it. Since his death many are now lauding the manner in which he turned so many hardships into earth-shattering soul and infectious rock 'n' roll.
However, just as significant is the fact that a new Ray Charles album is slated to be released in late August. The man who never slowed for any obstacle is not letting death stand in his way. For a man who gave so much and inspired so many, no one would have expected anything less.