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Charles in Charge

A new collection confirms Ray Charles's position as the architect of soul

Ray Charles tells people that there are three things he never wanted to own: a dog, a cane and a guitar. To the blind music legend, they symbolize helplessness, the down-in-the-mouth stereotypes that surround a backwoods blues singer. Charles may be a self-professed country boy, but he's anything but helpless.

Sure, life gave him plenty to be down about, but he never hung his head -- even when singing the most low-down blues.

Charles's music -- from the up-tempo signature numbers "What'd I Say" and "I've Got a Woman" to such mournful tunes as "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Lonely Avenue" -- pushes forward with an energy that screams, "Get out of my way!"

In fact, nothing seems capable of stopping him: not the poverty of the Depression he was born into, the open hostility of the segregated South, nor a long-time addiction to heroin. Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, Ray Charles Robinson was five years old when he lost his only sibling, George. The younger brother drowned in a washtub as Ray tried vainly to pull him out.

Charles began to lose his eyesight soon after, for reasons that remain mysterious. When he was age seven, his mother sent him from the village of Greenville, Florida, to the state School for the Blind and Deaf, more than a hundred miles away in St. Augustine. She knew the small town couldn't meet a blind boy's educational needs.

At age 15, Ray was an orphan. Yet by 25, Ray Charles (he dropped the Robinson to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) was one of the most successful and influential musicians in American pop, and a cultural icon in the black community.

"I've Got a Woman," recorded in 1954, was the record that made Charles. From the opening, melismatic "We-eh-eh-eh-ell," Charles sings with Pentecostal fire. You can imagine him, eyes rolled back in ecstasy, shouting as the horns punctuate each phrase. Yet he's not singing about knowing the Lord, just about knowing a woman who "saves her lovin', early in the morning, just for me-e-e!"

An unprecedented conflation of the sacred and the profane, "I've Got a Woman" rattled the walls. Although church people protested the record, it was Charles's first number one single on the rhythm-and-blues charts.

More important, it marked the emergence of Charles's own voice. Although he'd had successful records before ("Confession Blues" was a number two R&B hit in 1949), even Charles admits that he was derivative, smitten with the smooth styles of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown.

"See, for many, many years, I tried to sound like Nat 'King' Cole because I loved him, and I did everything I could to imitate him," he once said.

Fortunately, he eventually realized the world didn't need another Cole, and he set about inventing Ray Charles, which is probably a bigger achievement than inventing soul music. Charles's evolution is chronicled for the first time in Genius & Soul -- The 50th Anniversary Collection.

The five-CD set from Rhino Records gathers tunes from every phase and label of Charles's career. The collection is lopsided -- and rightfully so -- in favor of his earlier years. The song list, in chronological order, doesn't reach the 1970s until the latter part of the fourth CD, leaving the fifth CD to cover the two decades since 1975. The collection makes the case that, for all his frailties, the man Frank Sinatra once labeled "the only genius in the business" is a seemingly indestructible ambassador of soul. Among the many obstacles he's had to overcome, one of the most painful was the heroin addiction that ruthlessly hounded him for the first two decades of his career.

In his autobiography, Brother Ray, he writes that he has no regrets about his addiction, rationalizing that all experience, good and bad, teaches a person something. He refuses to take a victim's stance or put the responsibility for his taking junk on any shoulders other than his own.

After some infamous busts, he spent a year cleaning up in 1965 -- the only year out of the past 50 when he hasn't toured. Yet even before he kicked the habit, he had risen above it by leading a pop revolution.

Charles, who hates hype, only reluctantly acknowledges the idea that he invented soul music. "I guess," he says, "you could kind of say I started it."

The facts are that Charles mixed gospel music and the blues in a musical style that was sophisticated, yet earthy and raw. Charles's brew prompted gospel singer Sam Cooke and others to baptize themselves in pop. From these seeds, the soul music of Motown and Stax/Volt eventually grew. Over the years, Charles's chart presence may have dimmed, but not his impact. On Joan Osborne's 1995 debut album, she included an homage to him called "Spider Web," and Billy Joel bestowed upon his daughter Alexa the middle name Ray in tribute to his idol.

Even though Charles did his most important work from 1954 through 1965, he made consistently good recordings throughout the 44 years (194993) covered by the Rhino set. Better yet, his work holds up very well all these years later. "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (1955) sounds as contemporary as "Still Crazy After All These Years" (1993).

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