LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - “I just do what I do.” That’s what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history.
Of course, Charles’ self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist’s 80th birthday September 23. Looking back at Charles’ storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase “musical genius.” In Charles’ case, that’s no hype.
In 1954, the artist’s melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit “I’ve Got a Woman” — and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop.
His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after “Woman,” including “Drown in My Own Tears,” “What’d I Say,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Unchain My Heart,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard’s R&B, pop, country and jazz charts — and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on “I’ll Be Good to You.”
His final recording, 2004’s “Genius Loves Company,” made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on “Here We Go Again.”
But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music.
In the early ‘60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.
A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music.
For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.
Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and ‘70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.
“He was an amazing human being,” says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. “A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music,” he adds. “Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today’s entrepreneurial world. But that didn’t stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before.”
“He really was a genius,” says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. “He did things the way he wanted.”
Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson September 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx’s Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film “Ray,” Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.
In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle (“Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida,” Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, “Confession Blues.”
Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual.
“He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home,” Jones recalls with a laugh. “His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes ... that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around.”
Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles recorded such songs as “It Should’ve Been Me” and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun’s composition, “Mess Around.”
Then he connected in 1954 with “I’ve Got a Woman,” which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started.
In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded “The Genius of Ray Charles,” a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including “Come Rain or Come Shine”) and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie’s orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.
Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal “Genius + Soul = Jazz” album in 1961.
A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Ted Daffan’s “Born to Lose” — and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
“For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of,” says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist’s licensing affairs. “He was trying to sell records to people who didn’t want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he’d gain far more in the process.”
Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines that were accessible to the blind.
“Everything he did had a business acumen to it,” says Gumina, who cites Charles’ liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles’ stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer’s shows, lighting and wardrobe.
Together the pair designed and built Charles’ L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.
To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.
“He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever,” Gumina says, “and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn’t have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That’s why he was able to save $50 million before he died.”
Calling Charles an “incredibly smart man,” Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, “Genius Loves Company.”
Going through “some sticky deal points, he was amazing,” Burk recalls. “He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions.”
Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering “a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don’t even know it.”