And Ray Charles was shot down, but he got up to do his best. A crowd of people gathered round, to the question answered "Yes."
--Van Morrison, from
"These Dreams of You"
It's hardly surprising that Van Morrison, a myth weaver from way back, would look to Ray Charles as a legendary source of inspiration. Just about everyone who has enjoyed or performed soul music over the past 30 years is in Charles' debt.
Nor is it surprising that Morrison, a great soul singer and songwriter himself, would seize upon Charles as the embodiment of music rising out of hardship and reaching toward an affirmation.
Charles' early life gave him ample seasoning to sing a convincing blues. Born Ray Charles Robinson, he had normal sight in early childhood, but contracted glaucoma and was blind by the age of 7. Among the sights he had seen in early life was his younger brother's accidental drowning in a washtub.
Charles already had begun to play the piano when he was sent at 7 to the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, where he received his musical training in Braille. In his mid-teens, he began supporting himself playing in Florida dance bands.
Dropping his last name because Ray Robinson--the boxer--was already a household name, Charles moved to Seattle at 18 and began leading his own groups. At first he copied such smooth stylists as Nat King Cole and Charles Brown.
By the mid-1950s, having served an apprenticeship as musical arranger for the flamboyant New Orleans R&B; singer Guitar Slim, Charles had developed his own raw mix of gospel, R&B; and big band music. He arrived with "I've Got a Woman," a No. 1 R&B; hit in 1955; by 1959, "What'd I Say" had established him with a wide white listenership as well.
Charles' lushly arranged 1962 album, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," was a huge hit that confirmed the versatility that has been a hallmark of his career.
"I've never seen any music yet that I couldn't do and wouldn't feel comfortable with," Charles said in a 1988 interview with The Times. It's something he continues to prove with performances that encompass country songs, old pop standards, and signature songs like "Georgia on My Mind" and "Hit the Road, Jack."
Besides igniting the soul movement, Charles was the definitive influence for a number of '60s performers who brought a hybrid R&B; to a rock audience--including Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker.
Charles will turn 61 next month, but he keeps up a steady recording and performing pace. A new single, "Fresh Out of Tears," is due out shortly, as is his spoken rendition of a popular children's book, "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom." And a 3-CD boxed retrospective covering his groundbreaking '50s tenure with Atlantic Records hits stores on Oct. 1.
Who: Ray Charles.
When: Thursday, Aug. 29, through Saturday, Aug. 31, at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Some shows are sold out; check for availability.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.