Ray Charles was one of the music industry’s great imitators, able to mimic the style of just about any other black recording artist of his choosing. However, he also had his own style. In fact, his style of mixing gospel and blues music was so influential that it led to the creation of the soul genre in the 1950s. He also incorporated elements of country and jazz, with some of his greatest influences being Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and one of his closest friends, Quincy Jones.
Charles was such a unique musician that even the cover songs he performed, such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Georgia on My Mind,” have become viewed as part of his basic repertoire. He lent his own voice to these songs, essentially making them his in the process. This is especially true of “Hit the Road Jack,” which Charles recorded along with Margie Hendricks of his backing group, the Raelettes. Charles is also known for some of his own music, such as “What’d I Say.” Each of these songs showcased his ability to create soul music through the incorporation of various styles such as gospel, R&B, and swing.
The influence of jazz music on Ray Charles was evident in the manner in which he sang and played piano. Even on songs that he had performed innumerable times before, his fast-paced and rhythmic style always sounded as if it had an element of improvisation behind it. His phrasing was unconventional, demonstrating his unique skills not only as a musician, but also as an arranger and composer. His knowledge of musical arrangements and compositions eventually led him to become one of the first black men in America to take control over the manner in which his own albums and singles were produced in the studio. This also led to his nickname, “the Genius.”
Over the years, Charles released a number of albums that showcased his raw talent and diverse grasp of musical styles. Along with Quincy Jones and the Basie orchestra, he released Genius + Soul = Jazz, and he also had live albums such as Ray Charles in Person and Ray Charles at Newport. Both of these albums were popular enough that they were eventually combined into one album, Ray Charles Live. He also released a number of albums that demonstrated his ability to coopt country and western styles while adjusting them to fit his own musical inclinations, seen in both volumes he released of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. He even knew how to compile concept albums, such as Sweet & Sour Tears and Have a Smile with Me, one of which deals with songs about crying while the other is more humorous in nature.
Ray Charles may have risen to popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, but he remained active until his death in 2004. He is known not only for his musical influence, but also the role he played in achieving a level of integration in the music industry. He was popular during a time in which it was not popular to be a black man in general, but he still managed to make a lasting impact on music and the soul genre that is still felt today.
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