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As his 80th birthday approaches, a look at the life and legacy of the late Ray Charles.
"I just do what I do." That's what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history. Of course, Charles' self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist's 80th birthday Sept. 23. Looking back at Charles' storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase "musical genius." In Charles' case, that's no hype.
In 1954, the artist's melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit "I've Got a Woman"-and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop. His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after "Woman," including "Drown in My Own Tears," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."
Video below: Ray Charles performs "Hit The Road Jack" in São Paulo, Brazil on September 22, 1963.
Video below: Ray Charles performs "Then I'll Be Home" in Montreux, Switzerland on July 19, 1997.
Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You."
His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."
But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.
A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.
Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.
He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."
Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."
Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."
Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."
Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."
Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.
Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."
Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."