Thursday, June 10, 2004

BLUESOBIT: Ray Charles has died at the age 73. He died at 11.35am local time, in Beverley Hills, from complications from liver disease.

Charles' career was remarkable - amongst many awards and titles, he received a Star on the Hollywood Blvd walk of fame, a bronze medal from the French people, twelve Grammy awards, induction into the Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll halls of fame - as well as the Playboy one - and the title of "genius" from Frank Sinatra. But it was a difficult road he followed. Blind since the age of seven from glaucoma, and from a background of extreme poverty ("Even compared to other blacks. . . we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else" recalled Charles), his first musical work was slogging around Florida clubs with what would these days be tagged a Nat 'King' Cole tribute act. His fortunes changed when he moved to Seattle, where he shortened his name from Ray Charles Robinson to Ray Charles - to avoid being confused with Sugar Ray Robinson - and met Quincy Jones. His first hit came in 1949, with Confession Blues, which did well in the R&B charts; three years later his contract with Swingtime was bought out by Atlantic. Abandoning the last remenants of the Cole style, Charles created a new style of music by fusing gospel and blues. By 1955 he was crossing over into the pop charts with I've Got A Woman. Eventually, Charles tired of Atlantic's focus on the R&B market, and jumped ship to ABC-Paramount, where he enjoyed perhaps his strongest run of success - Hit The Road Jack, Ruby, Unchain My Heart, followed by the Adventures in Country and Western set, featuring You Don't Know Me and Can't Stop Loving You.

By now, Charles was heading up his own company, while still recording for ABC, and dabbling in movies: on screen for Swinging Along; providing soundtracks for 1967's In The Heat of the Night and the Cincinatti Kid (1965). He recorded duets with a staggering range of collaborators, including Cleo Laine, Hank Williams Jr, Eric Clapton, George Jones and - for Any Which Way You Can - Clint Eastwood.

Of course, nobody has success without a downside, and Charles fell for that old fall back, smack: after an arrest in 1964, he admitted he'd been using heroin for twenty years. As part of his clean-up, he developed a passion for chess, and recently had been attempting to gently air-brush his addiction from the record.

The man might be best summed up in his own words: "Music is nothing separate from me. It is me... You'd have to remove the music surgically."

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