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Enjoy & Learn

Ray Charles 1930-2004
Father Soul

He was lucky his life didn’t turn into a typical story of a poor and miserable black orphan. His chances of becoming famous were slim right from the start. Instead, he did more than that–he became one of the ground-breaking names in the history of popular music.

Ray Charles was born into a poor family on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, as the first child of Aretha and Bailey Robinson. The boy wasn’t born blind. It was poverty that took his eyesight–the family didn’t have money to cure his glaucoma. With his father’s help, little Ray learnt to play the piano. He added the clarinet and alto saxophone at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, also learning how to read and write music in Braille. Orphaned at 15, Ray Charles Robinson began working as a travelling musician. “I played whatever was popular,” the artist said years later. “I just needed the money. It wasn’t my music, I was only pretending.”

Fortunately, he soon found his style and metamorphosed into an original musician, creatively blending the blues with the sounds of gospel music. He became known as Ray Charles, using this shorter version of his name so as not to be confused with another Ray Robinson famous at that time–the famous boxer Raymond “Sugar” Robinson. When he added in his compositions elements of jazz, country and rhythm and blues, spicing them up with his trademark vocal screams and moans, Ray Charles started to captivate audiences. He is said to have single-handedly changed the face of contemporary music, marking the beginning of a new genre, “soul”. The blues musician Big Bill Broonzy once said: “He screams and wails as if he was praying, when in fact he is singing about… love”. Take, for example, the song What’d I Say with its frantically repeated chorus:

Come and love me
All night long.
Oh, oh. Hey, hey.
All right now.
Tell me what’d I say.

In the mid-1960s, Charles was arrested for drug possession, which started his successful fight against a seventeen-year heroin addiction. Two decades later, he was still in the public eye, making frequent appearances on television and in the movies, including his famous part in the cult classic The Blues Brothers. Millions are still fascinated with his music, but no record or film can even get close to the magic of Ray Charles live in concert.

The artist visited Poland three times. First, in 1984, he came to the Jazz Jamboree festival in Warsaw, where he performed with his own orchestra and sang his greatest hits while playing the piano and saxophone. His second visit was in 1996, also at the Jazz Jamboree. On both occasions, he was announced, boxing-style: “Ladies and gentlemen! The Geeeeeenius!! Mister Raaaay Chaaaaaaaarles!!!” His third Warsaw concert was different. This time Ray’s appearance was part of an anniversary gala for a Polish insurance company. Accompanied by the Łódź Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, as well as several Polish jazz saxophonists, the artist gave a concert that coincided with his own seventieth birthday. After the gala, Ray Charles went to Polish Television’s Studio 5 for the second part of the celebrations. He sang his favourite ballad, Georgia on My Mind (which, by the way, has been the official anthem of the US State of Georgia since 1977), and then gave an interview. After the official part in front of the cameras, Mr Charles met the TV crew backstage, which gave me an opportunity to toast the Maestro with a glass of Dom Perignon.

The latest episode in the Ray Charles story is the highly acclaimed screen biography Ray (originally Unchain My Heart!, starring Jamie Foxx, directed by Taylor Hackford). The great musician didn’t live to see the movie, but he gave his invaluable contribution to the project. He clarified some details concerning his life, gave the rights to the original recordings and even encouraged the producers to portray his tragic childhood, unhappy love life and drug addiction. He insisted on showing the dark side of his career too, not just the happy moments, saying that it’s also the weaknesses and mistakes that form a complete artist.

In the seventy-odd years of his breakthrough influence on music, Ray Charles got his own Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame, was awarded the official medal of merit from the French nation, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received several honorary doctorates, thirteen Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ray Charles died on 10 June, 2004.

Ryszard Wolański


translated by Jerzy Chyb

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Hit the Road Jack

Hit the road Jack
And don’t you come back no more
No more, no more, no more
Hit the road Jack
And don’t you come back no more.

What you say?
Woman, oh woman, don’t treat me so mean
You’re the meanest old woman that I’ve ever seen
I guess if you said so
I’d have to pack my things and go
That’s right
Hit the road Jack...

Now baby, listen baby, don’t ya treat me this way
‘Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day
Don’t care if you do ‘cause it’s understood
You ain’t got no money
You just ain’t no good
Well, I guess if you say so
I’d have to pack my things and go
That’s right
Hit the road Jack...
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