Ray Charles, The Greatest Manipulator of Music

The film Ray,” released on October 29, 2004, chronicles the life of Ray Charles Robinson, better known as the dynamic Ray Charles.

“They call him the ‘genius’ and they call him the ‘father of soul.’ With perfect pitch and an expressive voice, he combines worlds as diverse as jazz, country, rhythm and blues, and gospel to break your heart or make you dance. His name is Ray Charles, and if you turn…you will hear the influence of his ground-breaking music.”

Charles was born to a poor family in rural Georgia, and became blind at a young age. He struggled throughout his childhood and later life to become successful in the music industry, and did so by combining different genres of music. His vast travels and partnerships with various music groups and record companies, each led him to create a different sound in his music.

The work of Ray Charles not only grew to fame starting with his involvement within the jazz trio known as the McSons, in 1950, but continued to rise to even greater popularity throughout the decade and into the early 1980s. Charles went from the McSons, who used his vocal talents to replicate the work of Nat King Cole, to joining Swing Time Records. At Swing Time Records he started his road tours and was able to take his voice around the east coast. Though he was praised for his jazz influence in the McSons, Swing Records urged Charles to create music with upbeat tones, and that he did. Charles did not compromise his own uniqueness to cater to the needs of the record company though, he simply added a swing music flare to his existent jazz persona, creating the hit single “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.”

His ability to manipulate his music through others’ influences in this single, led to his rise in popularity and his appeal to Atlantic Records in 1952. Charles signed to this record company later in the year, due to financial interests. His path to record deals seemed to be a trail of funds; wherever the greater financial interest could be found, Charles was not only sure to follow, but also willing to cater his sound to the needs of his current investors. At Atlantic Records Charles was urged to stray from his Nat King Cole influence, and encouraged to create a Pete Johnson dance sound. Here, not only did he add even more of a swing flare to his music, but he also created his, at the time, seemingly sacrilegious lyrics. Charles used gospel music as the basis for his new work, then combined it with R&B, and added suggestive lyrics along with a trio of female singers. This recipe led to his hit single, “I’ve Got a Woman,” in 1954. His addition of changes to different forms of music did not end with one hit single; Charles continued to add changes to his music to gain greater appeal to a various audience. This one song appealed to those who enjoyed gospel, R&B, jazz, and swing music, and now, even more women.
In 1959, Charles continued to change his music due to his travels throughout the nation. In the south he had started off with his country music, and then added jazz and R&B as he performed for New Yorkers, but while performing in California, Charles added pop sounds and signed with the major ABC Records company which offered him rights to his own master copies and seventy-five percent shares to his profits. By signing to such a major record company, Charles realized his music would not only reach those of color, but the majority of the white population as well. It was this expansion that led to his inclusion of pop sounds, an orchestra, and a choir, to his usual country and jazz roots, creating the famous song, “Hit the Road Jack.”

As Chris Rojek explains in, Pop Music, Pop Culture,” the function of popular music is to reach a wide audience, and Ray Charles did so by combining different genres of music, so that audiences of each would gather to listen to his work.

“The function of music may still include achieving neural links that make meaning possible. But the commercial motive behind popular music…the social and psychological uses which consumers make of it preclude the idea of a universal structure. The production, exchange and consumption of popular music is a question of human agency and interpretation, rather than a matter of a universal mechanical link between generic feedback loops…here, music is an accessory of lifestyle architecture (17).”

Charles was innovative not only in his sound, but in his thinking. He experimented with different genres, record companies which appealed to different audiences (whether indie through Atlantic Records or popular through ABC Records), and different supporting artists (ranging from jazz players or a female trio, to a choir). He used his audiences’ tastes to revamp his original sound, making him the great musician he is known as, not for his personal music but for the sound of his hits.

Ray Charles performing with an orchestra

Ray Charles was truly not only a great artist, but a great manipulator of sound. What gave him his rise to fame was his manipulation of his own sounds, music, and combinations of genres throughout different eras. He accommodated to the needs of each time period, record company that he was working with, his personal life, and his audience. The listening experience of Charles’ music was heightened due to his riveting and dynamic work, which never ceased to impress the demanding audiences, both black and white.

“Ray,” very objectively presents Ray Charles as a great musician and struggling moral being. The once poor and illiterate black man, used his musical talents and understanding of audiences’ needs to gain popularity. Having been conned by several individuals and record companies, he followed suit of those who promised him more financial support and soon became engulfed in the world of fame, narcotics, and promiscuity, yet always remained an idol to the public.

Chris Rojek also insists that

“…certain pop stars are sometimes elevated to the status of idols representing particular issues relating to wider social formations, such as generation, ethnicity, class, gender, nation, or subculture (19).”

This holds true for Charles as well. Charles, during a tour in Georgia, refused to play at a venue which segregated black individuals. This refusal led to his ban of playing form his home state, which was only lifted eighteen years later, in 1979.

“In the popular imagination Ray Charles will probably always be linked with his rendition of ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ his number-one pop hit of 1960. Over the next forty years, this “old sweet song” remained his signature piece, becoming Georgia’s official state song in 1979.”

His outward support for black rights led him to be crowned a great idol, and this act was what later helped Charles appeal to court as a moral man, when caught for narcotic use in the late 1960s.

The cover of Ray Charles’s famous, “Georgia on My Mind.”

Charles’s music was so vast in its influence, that it was not merely bound to the decades in which it was created in. He was truly a great musician due to his ability to manipulate several genres of music, including jazz, rhythm and blues, rock n’ roll, country, and popular music today. The appeal of his music has not died, and continues to remain relevant among the genres he changed and influenced throughout the course of his fame. A true pop artist, he always changed his music to suit not only his own country sounds, his life events, but also the musical demands of his various audience; Ray Charles is truly the greatest manipulator of music.

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