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The Legend of Ray Charles

by Linnea Crowther

In the more than 60 years since his first success, Ray Charles (1930–2004) has become legendary… and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. Like the tales of Paul Bunyan or King Arthur, the story of Ray Charles seems to have picked up a few magical qualities along the way.

Anecdotes abound of Charles driving a car or flying a plane, despite having been blind since childhood. In her song “Spiderwebs,” Joan Osbourne imagines Charles miraculously cured of his blindness and taking her on a vision quest of sorts while flying through the air. In The Blues Brothers, Ray Charles is definitely blind, but he’s an alarmingly good shot with a pistol—and just a few notes from his keyboard are all it takes to get the whole neighborhood dancing.

It’s not too surprising that the life story of such an influential musician would start to take on mythical proportions. As Billy Joel put it, “I don’t know if Ray was the architect of rock & roll, but he was certainly the first guy to do a lot of things . . . Who the hell ever put so many styles together and made it work?” And it’s true, Charles cobbled together a little bit of R&B with a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit of blues with a little bit of country, and mixed it all up into something groundbreaking that became some of the very first soul music. What he created would influence artists as diverse as Barry White and Steely Dan, James Brown and Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and Freddy Fender and Stevie Wonder.


Whether he was singing his own compositions…

…or showcasing his talent for interpreting the words and music of other writers, making them something unique and special…

Whether he was mixing it up with a country record, helping to boost the genre’s popularity and make Nashville the hot spot in the music world…

…or offering a new official song for the state where he was born…

…Ray Charles left us with a discography that is, in its breadth and size and diversity, a little magical itself. On his birthday, we celebrate the man—and the legend that lives on.

Originally published September 2012

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