The late 1940’s and early 1950’s were the heyday of rhythm-and-blues. Singers like Charles Brown, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Amos Milburn, James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and others like them were becoming acknowledged masters of the genre, all with readily identifiable musical personalities, while such older big-band blues shouters as Wynonie Harris, Jimmy Witherspoon, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Big Joe Turner, years past their early successes, began to attract the attention of teenaged audiences and re-launch careers in decline. Most of these men were what might be called “urban bluesmen” and worked with instrumental groups that featured tight rhythm sections and jazzy horn arrangements. They sang of problems with women, alcohol, money, or life in general, and their lyrics were sophisticated, philosophical, sometimes quite humorous, and even hilariously bawdy. And most of these men—and others—recorded for one or another of five or six labels: Chess Records of Chicago; King Records of Cincinnati; the Duke or Peacock labels, both owned by Don Robey of Houston; Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records of New York; and two Los Angeles companies, the Bihari Brothers’ Modern Records and the Mesner family’s Aladdin Records.
Early 1952 found the young bluesman Ray Charles at something of a crossroads: He had spent the formative years of his career imitating both Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown, elegant and refined singers who accompanied themselves on piano and tended to operate in a trio context. He had worked as pianist, arranger, and sometimes alternate vocalist with singer Lowell Fulson’s band since 1950 and functioned, to the musically illiterate Fulson’s occasional resentment, as the band’s leader. At the very beginning of 1952, Charles had signed a contract with Atlantic Records, but a lack of an identifiable personal style puzzled Ahmet Ertegun and his associates—particularly veteran Kansas City bandleader Jesse Stone, by now serving as Atlantic’s artist-and-repertoire director.
That spring, Charles ran into R&B bandleader Johnny Otis in Cincinnati and, in a poorly planned attempt at bidding up his value to Atlantic, persuaded Otis to get him an audition with the temperamental Syd Nathan, president of King Records and regarded as one of the keenest judges of talent in the country. Yet Nathan’s snap decision, based on a short studio audition, that he didn’t need “a poor man’s Charles Brown,” as disappointing as it initially was to Charles, can be seen as a key point in the singer’s career. Now he would have to continue with Atlantic, at least for the near future, and he would have to come to grips with perhaps the most important decision any singer faces: the aesthetic choice of a personal style, a sound of one’s own.
Today, the world knows Ray Charles as a music-industry legend. He has sung blues, ballads, jump tunes, country-and-western, and what some might call pop, yet he always sounds like himself, instantly recognizable; he has been a composer, arranger, bandleader, and both pianist and alto saxophonist, even organist, and has fronted groups ranging from trios to 17-piece jazz bands. He has sung at presidential inaugurations, recorded for charity, guest-hosted “Saturday Night Live,” run a string of commercial enterprises, owned his own plane, and done advertising campaigns for Pepsi and for mink coats.
He has seemingly been everywhere and done everything, a star since the late 1950’s, and yet even this legend has experienced what an unnamed record-industry sage described as “a time in nearly every artist’s career when he or she stops selling records. They may still be great, but the market moves past them.” For Charles, this happened around 1977, and the early 1980’s became one long slump marked by declining record sales and personal income. Yet in the 1990’s, he remains one of the music world’s most enduring personalities, constantly on the move, trying new ideas and exploring new possibilities. This restless, inventive man’s life and career, from the earliest years of dire poverty in rural north-central Florida during the Depression and World War II to the first hits in the 1950’s and on to permanent status as a major box-office figure, is documented in full detail by Michael Lydon in his excellent new biography, Ray Charles: Man and Music.
It is to the book’s advantage that Lydon, one of the founders of Rolling Stone magazine, is himself a musician, because this gives him added insight into the musical life; however, he is also adept at describing what he sees and knows in terms readily understood by the layman. He has spoken with most of Charles’ oldest friends, and it is clear from the reactions of such veteran jazzmen as Hank Crawford, Leroy Cooper, Phil Guilbeau, and David “Fathead” Newman that Charles could probably have been one of the world’s finest jazz pianists, had he wanted it that way. It also becomes apparent that Charles has never been the easiest of men to deal with. Mercurial, quick to anger and reluctant to forgive, secretive and penurious, often inconsiderate of even those closest to him, he seems to possess a number of the personality traits common to pampered celebrities, yet there is no denying the astounding track record of carefully planned, arranged, and recorded music, now stretching back 50 years to his first recording of a tune called “Confessin’ Blues” for the tiny Down Beat label in Los Angeles late in 1948.
“I never wanted to be famous, but I always wanted to be great,” Charles has stated in the past. Yet he has achieved both, and, as Lydon makes clear, “his place in music history is assured: Ray Charles stands beside Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and a handful of others among the presiding geniuses of twentieth century popular music.”
[Ray Charles: Man and Music, by Michael Lydon (New York: Riverhead Books) 448 pp., $27.95]