You hardly need to play the recordings anymore to hear Ray Charles in your mind's ear. He was a musician of consummate taste--each funky little two-bar fill he played on piano or organ had a distinct shape--and played his voice like the precious, responsive instrument it was. His timbre morphed from mellow and silky to grainy and raw; his moods swung from anguish to slyness to yearning to sheer erotic joy. He negotiated his twisty melodic ornaments with a figure skater's precision, and just when you thought he'd done all he could do with that line, he would overdrive his voice into a final sob or a bright little yelp of transcendence.
What American popular singer besides Frank Sinatra or George Jones has ever had such a combination of masterly technique and emotional complexity and intensity? Generations of singers have wanted to sound like him. No one comes close. Ray Charles was a mainstream entertainer and perennial celebrity decades before his death last week at 73, yet he was also a radically original, baffling, even disruptive force in American music. He grew up in Florida, was blind by the age of 7 and orphaned at 15. He began as an imitator of Nat King Cole's suave pop-jazz, but blues and gospel formed the deepest layer of his sensibility. His early hits "I've Got a Woman" (1955) and the sometimes-banned "What'd I Say" (1959)--whose moans and groans can still bring a blush to the cheek--scandalized good church people by appropriating the conventions and inflections of sacred music, and helped invent what we now know as soul music.
In 1962, Charles put his unparalleled credibility with hard-core fans of both R&B and jazz on the line with "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." This album sounded much like his languid, well-loved 1960 "Georgia on My Mind," but it scandalized purists, who couldn't get past the incongruity of a black singer covering Nashville standards and failed to hear that the mile-deep strings and the ooh-ah-ing background singers had put Charles's untamed passions in newly dramatic relief.
You know the rest. The album's centerpiece, "I Can't Stop Loving You," sold a million copies. Charles put out more and more hits, then toured on and on until he had hip-replacement surgery last year. The purists had long ago forgiven him for selling out, if that's what he'd done--and even shrugged off his Diet Pepsi commercial--because who are you to tell a genius what to do with his gift? You say thank you. Then you shut up and listen.