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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Hallelujah We Love Him So
Ray Charles is an American musical icon, known to many as the Genius of Soul. Certainly one of the hardest-working men in show business, he has earned and enjoyed massive success as an R & B singer, songwriter, and piano player. Like anyone, Charles has also had his faults and flops. Michael Lydon's Ray Charles: Man and Music follows Charles admiringly through the good times and respectfully through the bad, never losing sight of Ray's ultimate genius and determination.
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930 and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. The son of an unwed mother and her guardian, Charles spent his early years in Jellyroll, Greenville's black quarter, with his mother, her guardian, and his younger brother. Charles remembers these years as a time of poverty but also of warmth; friends and neighbors remember him as a bright boy who loved music and played piano from the age of three. Sadly, when RC, as he was called, was five, his world darkened: His younger brother drowned in a washtub as Charles stood by, unable to save him. A few months afterward, congenital juvenile glaucoma set in, which would soon render him completely blind.
Charles' mother, extraordinarily determined and certainly no fool, realized that life in the South for a blind black man would not be easy. When she found a way to send him to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, he was packed off in short order. By his second year there he had settled in socially and academically; music instruction occupied most of his timeandinterest.
When his mother died, in 1945, Charles had learned everything the school could teach him. He began the long task of establishing himself as a musician, playing every gig he could. His style was, by all reports, derivative; this criticism would follow him for years until he developed his own musical signature. In these years, however, beginning in 1946, he styled his singing primarily after Nat "King" Cole.
In 1948, Ray's star truly began to rise. He moved to Seattle with a friend and began building his reputation as a solid singer, piano player, and crowd-pleaser. However, it was also in Seattle that he first slipped under the influence of alcohol and drugs; he quickly developed a heroin habit that would pursue him for almost 20 years. In 1952 he signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and although his first several releases were ignored, he hit it big in 1954 with "I Got a Woman," a song that combined the best elements of gospel and blues into a sound that was beginning to be uniquely his. In the book's most interesting moments, Lydon enthusiastically charts the development of Charles's own inimitable style, which would make him a household name.
Charles switched record companies in 1959, shrewdly negotiating an unusually sweet deal even as his record "What'd I Say" was peaking on the charts. "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) was his first No. 1 hit. Throughout his career, Charles had toured relentlessly, and he continued to do so now. He made ripples in 1961 when he refused to play segregated venues any longer, but he also received some bad press when he was busted in Indianapolis for heroin. A more serious bust in Boston in 1964 convinced him to kick his habit for good, and this he did with typical determination. He had toured every year of his career since 1945, but he took 1965 off and stayed at home in Los Angeles, recovering and noodling around in his studio. (Lydon admires Charles's determination to quit cold turkey but notes that he seemed to switch his dependency to gin, which he drank all day long from a coffee mug.)
Through the '70s, Charles was virtually invisible. Though he'd been a major success for several years, new musical styles were evolving that made his sound began to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Charles plugged along, continuing to tour, but he produced no more hits until the '80s, when he returned to the rich tradition of country and western, a musical blend that had yielded him a number of hits in the early '60s. Singing "America" at the Republican convention in 1984 brought him close to the forefront again, and in 1990 Pepsi launched an ad campaign featuring Charles that once again pulled him out of near-obscurity. But as both he and his signature style grew older, Ray knew his time in the American public eye was nearly over.
As a chronicle of Ray's career, Ray Charles: Man and Music is strong and principled. Although clearly an admirer of Ray Charles at his best, Lydon is not sentimental about his failures and flaws (as, indeed, Charles himself is not). Ray Charles: Man and Music brings clarity and perspective to the involving story of one of America's R & B greats.
Julie Robichaux is a freelance writer. She lives in New York City.