Although Ray Charles is more often identified with the world of rhythm and blues, he made a major impact on country music with his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The landmark recording took country music to a much wider audience with his versions of such classics as "Bye Bye Love," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "You Win Again," "Born to Lose," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "You Don't Know Me" and "It Makes No Difference Now."
As early as 1959, Charles had scored a hit with a remake of Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On." Charles' other forays into country included Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volume Two, another 1962 project that featured the hits "You Are My Sunshine" and "Take These Chains From My Heart." In 1966, Charles scored a major pop hit with a remake of Buck Owens' "Cryin' Time."
Born Ray Charles Robinson on Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga., Charles was first exposed to country music via broadcasts of the Opry on Nashville radio station WSM-AM. Raised in extreme poverty, Charles was slowly blinded by glaucoma until, by the age of 7, he had lost his sight completely. Earlier, he had been forced to cope with the tragic death of his brother, whom he had seen drown in a water tub. He learned to read and write music in Braille and was proficient on several instruments by the time he left school. His mother Aretha died when Charles was 15, and he continued to have a shared upbringing with Mary Jane (the first wife of Charles' absent father). Charles drifted around the Florida circuit, picking up work where he could, before moving across the country to Seattle. There he continued his itinerant career, playing piano at several nightclubs in a style reminiscent of Nat "King" Cole and a vocal style influenced by Charles Brown.
Charles began recording in 1949, and this early, imitative approach was captured on several sessions. Three years later, Atlantic Records acquired his contract, but initially the singer continued his "cool" direction, revealing only an occasional hint of the passions later unleashed. "It Should've Been Me," "Mess Around" and "Losing Hand" best represent this early R&B era, but Charles' individual style emerged as a result of his work with Guitar Slim. This impassioned, almost crude blues performer sang with a gospel-based fervor that greatly influenced Charles' thinking. He arranged Slim's million-selling single, "Things That I Used to Do," on which the riffing horns and unrestrained voice set the tone for Charles' own subsequent direction.
This effect was fully realized in "I Got a Woman" (1954), a song soaked in the fervor of the Baptist church but rendered salacious by the singer's abandoned, unrefined delivery. Its extraordinary success, commercially and artistically, inspired similarly compulsive recordings, including "This Little Girl of Mine" (1955), "Talkin' 'Bout You" (1957) and the lush and evocative "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" (1959), a style culminating in the thrilling call and response of "What'd I Say" (1959). This acknowledged classic is one of the all-time great encore numbers performed by countless singers and bands in stadiums, clubs and bars all over the world. However, Charles was equally adept at slow ballads, as his heartbreaking interpretations of "Drown in My Own Tears" and "I Believe to My Soul" (both 1959) clearly show. Proficient in numerous styles, Charles' recordings embraced blues, jazz, standards and country, as his muscular reading of "I'm Movin' On" attested.
In November 1959, Charles left the Atlantic label for ABC Records where he secured both musical and financial freedom. Commentators often cite this as the point at which the singer lost his fire, but early releases for this new outlet simply continued his groundbreaking style. "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) and "Hit the Road Jack" (1961) were, respectively, poignant and ebullient, and established the artist as an international name. This stature was enhanced further in 1962 with the release of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Its success defined the pattern for Charles' later career. The edges were blunted; the vibrancy was stilled, as Charles' repertoire grew increasingly inoffensive. There were still moments of inspiration: "Let's Go Get Stoned" and "I Don't Need No Doctor" brought glimpses of a passion now too often muted. As the '60s progressed, the singer's work became less compulsive and increasingly middle-of-the-road. Like most artists, he attempted cover versions of Beatles songs and had substantial hits with versions of "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby." Two '70s releases, A Message From the People and Renaissance, did include contemporary material in Stevie Wonder's "Living in the City" and Randy Newman's "Sail Away," but subsequent releases reneged on this promise.
Charles officially charted his first single on the country charts in 1980 with "Beers to You," a duet with Clint Eastwood that appeared in the actor's film, Any Which Way You Can. Charles continued to hit the country chart in the '80s, primarily on the basis of his collaborations with country artists. In addition to his 1984 duet with Willie Nelson on the No. 1 single, "Seven Spanish Angels," Charles also hit the Top 10 with "We Didn't See a Thing," a single featuring George Jones and Chet Atkins. Through the years, Charles recorded duets with several other country acts, including Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard and Mickey Gilley.
In addition to his country-flavored work of the '80s, Charles made a cameo appearance in the movie The Blues Brothers, but the period is better marked by the singer's powerful appearance on the USA for Africa release, "We Are the World" (1985). It brought to mind a talent too often dormant, a performer whose marriage of gospel and R&B laid the foundations for soul music.
Charles has been honored with countless awards during his career, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. It was fitting that, in 1992, an acclaimed documentary, Ray Charles: The Genius of Soul, was broadcast by PBS. In 2000, Charles returned to jazz with an excellent contribution to Steve Turre's In the Spur of the Moment.
Charles died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.