Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ray Charles 1930-2004

An r&b genius who turned pop polymath just kept on going

book cover

Rock and roll? "A couple of guitars together with a backbeat," huffed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame charter member Ray Charles in 1959. But he dug almost everything else back then. The blues and gospel he married on "I Got a Woman," the jazz he roughed up at Newport, and the country he redefined with "I Can't Stop Loving You" were just the obvious stuff. He treasured choral accompaniment and string accompaniment, big bands and bebop, pre-World War I chestnuts and jump blues comedy and chansons translated by his French girlfriend. Born in 1930 and a pro by 1945, he spent his last four decades not as a rhythm-and-blues genius but as a pop polymath. He presaged Otis Redding less than he did Billy Joel--or really, since the main thing he liked about songwriting was royalties, Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart.

None of whom were in his league, because Charles was a titan. His intelligence, vitality, and will were heroic, his phenomenal musicality was intensified by his enforced intimacy with the world of sound, and his spiritual resources defied comprehension. His father a no-show, his young mother so frail she died when he was 15, he witnessed the playtime death of his beloved younger brother at five, just in time to be blinded by undiagnosed glaucoma.

Charles knew too much about suffering, and once he matured subsumed what he'd learned in vocal performances he crafted with painstaking subtlety. Sometimes joyous, sometimes blue, they made people happy even when they made people sad and epitomized an ideal of naturalness that became the orthodoxy toward which pop singing now strives. He also played a mean piano and some pretty fair alto sax.

Charles gave as an artist and held back as a human being. One of the few pop stars to truly control his own business affairs, he was a notorious cheapskate, paying his band peanuts and, in a signal instance reported by biographer Michael Lydon, extracting a cameo payment "well into six figures" from Billy Joel. He was a serial polygamist who left a lot of bemused or bitter women behind. He kicked heroin only to avoid prison, loved nicotine and cannabis, and drank enough gin to destroy any normal person's liver long before it did his. All during the decline that finally killed him June 10, he went into the studio he owned in L.A., perfecting more music.

Village Voice, June 22, 2004