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Genus Loves Company: The Life of Ray Charles

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Genus Loves Company: The Life of Ray Charles

Musician Ray Charles is generally considered a musical genius, and is so in many fields. He has enormous success in jazz, blues, soul music, country and western, and cross over pop. Acknowledged as an expert vocalist, pianist, saxophonist, and all around-entertainer, Charles first burst into popular attention in the 1950s as the virtual inventor of soul music. Ray Charles once defined soul music, "[soul music] is when you are able to convey the meaning of a song and make people feel it, make them think, Oh, Ray, you must have had that experience because there's no way you could have sung that song unless it happened to you." (Jet Magazine)

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. His father, Bailey Robinson, was a mechanic and a handyman, and his mother, Aretha, stacked boards in a sawmill. His family moved to Greenville, Florida, when Charles was an infant. A neighbor gave Charles piano lessons after Charles taught himself to play at the age of three. This neighbor owned a small store that served as a juke joint as well. Charles not only took piano lessons in the juke joint, he also absorbed the blues, jazz, and gospel music in the juke joint. At the age of five, Charles saw his brother drown in the tub his mother used to do laundry, while his family struggled through the height of the Great Depression. Two years later, at the age of seven, Charles lost his sight to glaucoma. He stated his mother never allowed his to feel pity for himself. In an interview with Jet Magazine, his mother told him: "Ok, you're blind. Now that just means there are at least two ways to do everything. You just have to find the second way... Whatever happens to you is up to you..." His mother also told him: "You're blind, you ain't dumb. You lost your sight, not your mind." Studying at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, he studied for nine years, learning composition and a number of instruments.

Upon leaving the school he worked in a number of settings with many different groups in the Florida area. (Salamone) "Learning to read music in Braille and play by ear helped me develop a damn good memory," Charles said. "I can sit at my desk and write a whole arrangement in my head and never touch a piano... There's no reason for it to come out any different that the way it sounds in my head." (Jet Magazine) By the time he was 15, both parents had died and Charles had graduated from St. Augustine. He wound up playing gigs in Black dance halls and exposed himself to a variety of music, including hillbilly (he learned to yodel) before moving to Seattle.

In 1952, Charles signed with Atlantic Records in a move that greatly aided both parties. Atlantic gave him free artistic reign, and Charles responded with a string of hits. These included songs have become classic rhythm and blues features: "I Got a Women", "Hallelujah I Love her So," "Drown on My Own Tears" and "What'd I Say". At the time Charles described his music as "a crossover between gospel music and the rhythm patters of the blues." This combination violated a long-standing taboo separating sacred and secular music, but the general public did not mind, and soul music, a new musical genre was born. "The blasphemous idea of taking gospel songs and putting devil's words to them." (Breznican) Before going on tour with R&B pioneer Ruth Brown, Charles dropped his last name in defense to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and patterned himself after Nat King. It was in Seattle

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