If Sinatra said Charles was a genius, go with it


Question: For years I have read the quote about Frank Sinatra calling Ray Charles the “only” genius. What’s the back story?

-- Patrick Shields

Studio City

Hilburn: Dear Patrick, I’ve seen that quote as well. Though I have no idea when or where Sinatra called Charles a genius, I would point out that you have to be careful with such celebrity assessments. I’ve found that artists are often effusive in their praise of other performers because (A) they are genuinely fans of other artists, (B) they feel part of a brotherhood of artists and want to be supportive and (C) they understand the difficulty of the craft and thus respect anyone who is able to leave a stamp on an art form.

I’ve often seen cases where, say, John Lennon would call Chuck Berry his favorite artist in one interview, Buddy Holly his favorite in another and Little Richard in a third. In talking to John, however, it was clear that the artist who most inspired him as a young man was Elvis Presley, and the one who most affected his art in later years was Bob Dylan. The other quotes were mostly A, B and C in action.


In reading Sinatra biographies, the singers that seem to be cited repeatedly -- either as personal favorites or ones who shaped his style -- are Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday.

All that said, he may well have called Ray Charles a genius, and I’d back him up, because Charles in the ‘50s and ‘60s made contributions to popular music that are likely to live forever -- first the merging of gospel and R&B; into soul music and then establishing a bond between soul and country that enriched both genres.

As I’ve said before, his 1972 recording of “America the Beautiful” may be not only Charles’ most enduring piece of music but also one of the most evocative recordings ever made. I don’t know just how you define genius in terms of pop music, but Charles’ contributions are certainly one way.