Contributor Terri Winaught – Part Three: Ray Charles – Soaring to Success

In 1959, Charles crossed over to top 30 radio with the release of his impromptu blues number, “What’d I Say,” which was initially conceived while Charles was in concert. The song would reach number 1 on the R&B list and would become Charles’ first top ten single on the pop charts, peaking at number 6. In wikipedia, a free, online encyclopedia in which articles, authors, and writing styles vary, this chart topper is described as “having lyrics that are very suggestive in their back-and-forth call and response between Ray Charles and the Raelettes.” Before he left the Atlantic label in 1959 for more lucrative opportunities with ABC Records, Ray released his album, “The Genius of Ray Charles.”

Hit songs, such as “Georgia On My Mind” (US #1), “Hit the Road Jack” (US #1) and “Unchain My Heart” (US #9) helped Charles transition to pop success. (Georgia On My Mind was so popular, in fact, that it garnered its first Grammy in 1961, was sung for Georgia’s State Legislature on April 24th, 1979, when it also became that state’s official song, and was also performed during the 6th season of Designing Women–on previous episodes of that show, Georgia had only been performed instrumentally.) 

Ray’s landmark 1962 album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” and its sequel “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2,” helped to bring country music mainstream. Though, these albums also brought Ray controversy.  In the Movie, Ray, which is available on an audio-described DVD, there is dialogue in which Ray is described as “a sell-out.”  As noted in his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, several of his friends and colleagues disparaged the decision to go Country as “crazy.”   Based on additional dialogue from the movie, it seems possible that some labeled him “a sell-out” because Charles was already so well known for jazz, rhythm and blues, and combining those styles with Gospel to pioneer the African-American music style that came to be known as “soul.”

Ever the versatile musician, Ray Charles continued to record major pop hits, including “Busted” in 1963 (US #4) and “Take These Chains From My Heart” (US #8). 

Given his vocal versatility and instrumental genius, this writer is not at all surprised that “Brother Ray” achieved the landmark successes  that enabled him to break down society’s barriers of culture and color.  What does at least somewhat surprise this writer, though,  is Ray’s ability not to be denied his dreams, despite the difficulties of addiction and arrest.  Charles’ 1965 arrest in Boston for heroin possession was his third, having previous police encounters in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Again referring to the 2004 movie, Ray, the hostility of the arresting officers in Indiana as “Unchain My Heart” played in the background, was evident as they referred to that #9 pop hit as “jungle music that was ruining the nation’s young people.”

Ray’s 1965 arrest was followed by successful drug rehabilitation at a Los Angeles, California clinic and being on parole in 1966.  Never one to lose hope or humor, Ray’s next songs–“Cryin’ Time,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” reflected victory over adversity.

In 1967, Ray released the hit, “Here We Go Again” (US 15), a song which he would re-record in 2004 as a duet with Norah Jones.

Though the songs Ray charles released later in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s were hit-and-miss as chart toppers, that doesn’t mean that his career was over:  Rather, Ray was driving his career in new directions.

In November 1977, Ray Charles hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and played a major role in the 1980 hit film “Blues Brothers”–the website lyricfreak.com describing Ray’s performance as a “cameo.”

Though Ray Charles supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, he courted controversy in 1981 by touring South Africa at a time when they were being internationally boycotted because of their system of Apartheid.

In 1985, Ray sang for President Reagan’s second inauguration, and appeared on the Happy Anniversary episode of NBC’s Bill Cosby show that same year.  In 1986, Ray rendered his unique version of “America the Beautiful” at Wrestlemania #2, and in 1989, Ray recorded a Japanese song that translated into English as “Ellie My Love.” This was also the first song by a Westerner so successful in Japan that it sold over 400,000 copies.  During the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, Ray made several appearances on the Super Dave Osborne show where Charles performed short vignettes in which he was driving a car as Super Dave’s chauffeur.

In 1990, longtime friend Quincy Jones produced the Skhaka Kahn hit “I’ll Be Good to You,” on which Ray collaborated by also singing.  Also in 1990, when successful Mupetts creator Jim Henson died of bacterial pneumonia, Ray joined the Mupetts cast as they sang “It’s Not Easy Being Greene.”  Ray commented on that trademark theme song by saying, “Jim Henson took a simple song, a piece of felt and made it into something powerful.”

In the early 1990’s, Ray added to his newfound fame and recognition among young audiences by recording a Pepsi commercial in which he popularized the phrase, “You’ve Got the Right One, Baby, uh huh.”  Also in the early 90’s, Ray was among many singers who were part of the moving “U.S. Aid For Africa.”

In 1993, Ray performed at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and appeared on episodes of “The Nanny,” as a character named Sam, in 1997 and 1998.

Between 2000 and 2004, Ray performed with vocalists who were as varied as his multifaceted career and included  B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, James Taylor, Johnny Mathis, Norah Jones, Travis Tritt, Van Morrison and Willie Nelson.

At the age of 73, “The Genius” made his final crossover journey on June 10, 2004 at 11:35am in his Beverly Hills, California home where he was surrounded by family.  The man who had spent a lifetime exploring and journeying was interred at the Inglewood cemetery in Inglewood, California. The BBC noted after Charles’s funeral that “It did not go unnoticed that Susaye was the only Raelette to sing at Ray’s service.”

In Part Four–and the final part of this series–I’ll be quoting what famous people and publications said about Ray; the number of Grammys and other awards Charles received, some aspects of his personal life, causes to which he donated and websites on which you can find Ray Charles apparel, CDs, DVDs MP3s, and song lyrics–in short, everything Ray–since this final part will be entitled, “Ray Charles: A Lasting Legacy.”

Are any Ziegler readers Ray Charles fans?  If so, do you have any of his earliest music, including the 45s?  What are some of your favorite Ray Charles tunes?  I’ll be interested in hearing answers to these questions along with any additional comments you may have in Readers Forum.

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