Though arguably the most widely acclaimed single artist in rock history Ray Charles never resided completely – or even comfortably – within the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll, nor did he think he should be really associated with it as the music became known more for its youthful appeal. By contrast Charles dealt primarily with adult topics, which were appropriate for someone who’d been on his own in the world since his mid-teens. But in a career that spanned more than a half century and ran the stylistic gamut from cocktail blues, small jazz combos and big band orchestra, to country music and middle of the road pop, it was almost inevitable that Charles would end up drawn into rock ‘n’ roll in all of its many forms at various points over the years, and considering the scope of his talents it was equally inevitable that he’d wind up shaping rock music in more ways than most full-time rockers before he was through.

Ray Charles Robinson was born in 1930 in Georgia but was raised in Greenville, Florida by his single mother. His younger brother George drowned in a tub of water outside while five year old Ray frantically tried to pull him out. Not long after that Ray was diagnosed with glaucoma and was told he would soon go blind. Determined that Ray not be dependent on others his mother sent him to a school for the blind in St. Augustine when he was seven years old. There he learned braille as well as expanded on his already burgeoning musical skills, and he also learned about race as the children were kept segregated despite not being able to see one another, proving the idiocy of the concept in a way that was almost humorous.

When Ray was fourteen his mother died and the next fall Ray chose not to return to school but rather to set out on his own and play music. He moved to Jacksonville, joined the musicians union and started picking up some gigs. He was already proficient on piano and been earning money during the summers playing small clubs and parties, his repertoire covering everything from swing standards to pop and blues, in Tampa in 1948 he’d play briefly with a white country band. He’d learned to arrange music while still in school and would soon add alto sax to his résumé and when Florida began to feel too small and he realized he needed to leave his comfort zone he asked his friend, guitarist Gosady McGee to locate a big city as far away from Florida as possible while still being in the United States. That city was Seattle, where Ray moved on his own, by bus, when he was 17 years old.

To avoid being confused for Sugar Ray Robinson the middleweight boxing champion of the world for much of the 1940’s and 50’s, the singer and bandleader changed his professional name to Ray Charles but the group he’d put together, including McGee, had a musical bent that still leaned heavily on the cocktail blues sound that was so popular at the time, scoring a #2 hit right out of the gate with Confession Blues. Moving to Los Angeles in 1950 to broaden his opportunities he set out on the road to back blues guitarist Lowell Fulson for the better part of two years, scoring small hits but still not close to stardom. When his record company had financial trouble his contract was sold to Atlantic where gradually he’d shape his style into something no longer derivative of others, but which allowed him to be himself.

The first few sessions held over a year and a half produced no hits, but saw him expand on his approach, trying all sorts of experiments including his first real forays into a harder more dynamic rock sound. Then in late 1954 it clicked when transformed a gospel song called It Must Be Jesus into the secular, and sexual, anthem I Got A Woman. Over the next five years his records were huge sellers in the black community just as rock was crossing over to white audiences. Though stylistically he was a perfect fit, with tight dynamic rhythms, unbridled vocals on upbeat songs and soulful laments on the slower numbers, his topics flew over the heads of the white teens for the most part. He was both a major part of rock ‘n’ roll with his records, yet removed from it all the same. Even Frank Sinatra, who loathed rock music for displacing him at the top of the music ladder, reserved his praise for just one figure in the idiom, Ray Charles, whom he called “The only genius in the business“.

In addition to cutting rocking singles, Charles was also doing jazz albums with some of the best musicians in that field as his sidemen. In 1959 he decided he wanted to do a country song and got a hit with it in a rock style at the same time he issued his most immortal single as a rock act, the two part What’d I Say. Rather than pursue this further Charles jumped from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount who offered him an unprecedented deal in which he’d produce his own work and own his own master tapes. The relatively new label thought this would allow them to make headway with younger audiences in rock, yet Charles went in a different direction again, cutting concept albums followed by a daring full length country and western LP which became his biggest seller ever. He still jumped restlessly from one style to another, introducing soul jazz and then immediately leaving it behind, working with huge string sections and then stripped down small groups. When soul music, which Ray helped to launch a decade earlier, became the most popular form of rock during most of the 1960’s for black artists Charles only dabbled in it sporadically, even as it produced some of his best work of that time.

In 1965 his career as a one of the most reliable hitmakers on the scene was curtailed when he was busted for heroin, a habit he’d picked up back in Seattle before turning 20. He dried out and avoided doing time and was welcomed back into the public eye a year later, but his new releases would never again be met with the same widespread interest. In many ways he’d gotten too big to be reliant on commercial singles, as he could fill any concert hall and play any style, or all styles, and travel the world as a star. The quality of his new music became much less consistent as the 1970’s dawned and he indulged too often in his love of schlock which got him few hits and fewer new fans, and while he remained prolific he was no longer ahead of the curve musically, but rather a living legend who was revered for his past while his music of the present was widely ignored.

By the 1980’s he’d settled into his role as an American institution, still as idiosyncratic as ever musically, but from this point forward his most widely known efforts came from film and television appearances, commercials and re-issues of his landmark recordings of the 1950’s and 60’s. He remained incredibly active as a live performer until cancer slowed him down in his early 70’s after more than fifty years on the national stage. As a testament to his massive legacy at the end of his life he had hit film of his life made that won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for his portrayal, and Ray himself won a posthumous Grammy for Album Of The Year for his final record.

No artist over that time covered as broad a musical spectrum as Ray Charles, nor did any other artist manage to score a hit single in every decade from the 1940’s to the 2000’s as Charles did. Though rock ‘n’ roll made up just one portion of his output, the records he released in that field remain the bedrock of his immense legacy.
RAY CHARLES DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Swing Beat 212; November, 1949)
As The Maxin Trio… Charles is still leaning more towards the cocktail blues style but guitarist Gosady McGee pushes it closer to rock ‘n’ roll with his aggressive fretwork, nicely done by all involved but hardly indicative of what was to come. (4)

(Swingtime 215; January, 1950)
While this is hardly a perfect fit in rock it’s a fairly effective remake of a venerable blues song which replaces the despondent attitude with one that is more positive in its end-of-life reflections featuring an airy vocal and some of Ray’s best keyboard work to date. (4)

(Swingtime 216; February, 1950)
As The Maxin Trio… A thoroughly professional job all around, from the Betty Hall composition itself to the band’s discreet accompaniment and Ray’s solid acting job in the vocal department, but none of it is taking any chances or trying to stand out. (4)

(Swingtime 217; March, 1950)
An attempt at expanding his audience by by pulling this well-worn blues tune out of mothballs winds up falling well short thanks to a sparse a backing that along with Charles’s mellow vocals dilutes the gravity of the story. (3)

(Swingtime 228; July, 1950)
Still uncertain about his ideal stylistic fit, Charles sings this with conviction but the musical backing falters at times, calling attention to its lack of a musical home rather than trying to disguise it. (4)

(Swingtime 229; October, 1950)
Still in search of a persona Ray tries his hand at humor and the vocal delivery and lyrics are fairly effective but the backing music can’t find a distinct style to hold onto making the record seem rather inconsequential at best. (4)

(Swingtime 250; January, 1951)
This very tranquil daydream set to music was a rather surprising national hit for Charles who had yet to craft a singular identity for himself and while he sings nice and it’s fairly well crafted the record is somewhat incidental all the same. (5)

(Swingtime 218; November, 1951)
Held back for months this wasn’t worth the wait as after a fairly intense piano to open the track Ray takes his foot off the gas and offers empty moaning in place of genuine emotion and a time-filling piano solo of no consequence, showing he’s still got a ways to go creatively. (3)

(Swingtime 274; February, 1952)
Inching closer to the gospel-fueled rock sound he’d perfect a year or two down the line, this finds Ray still struggling to tap into the grittier voice he’d need to play the role convincingly, but the real problem is the horn section which is from the past, not looking to the future. (5)

(Swingtime 297; August, 1952)
The dawning of the Ray Charles who’d shake up the music world is found here as he adopts the coarser and more emphatic vocal approach along with funkier piano work and while the horns are out of date and the song is derivative, this is the first step on the road to immortality.

(Atlantic 976; September, 1952)
Though it’s a classy enough effort with a crisp efficient arrangement, the laid-back emotional investment of Ray’s vocals hasn’t been transformed now that he’s on Atlantic, making this a continuation of his past work rather than being a dramatic reinvention. (5)

(Atlantic 976; September, 1952)
While it hardly seems like the artist you’ll come to know and love, this version of him is pretty compelling all the same, as he gives in fully to his desolation with a stark arrangement and subdued vocal that puts him on the brink of despair. (6)