- 10 Jun 21
17 years ago today, music lost a giant whose talent broke the boundaries between blues, soul, jazz, country and gospel. To mark Ray Charles' anniversary, we're revisiting Van Morrison's reflections on his legacy, originally published in Hot Press in 2004.
Ray Charles is proof that the best music crosses all boundaries, reaches all denominations. I guess that’s what makes him such a true immortal. He can do any type of music and at the same time he’s totally unique and always true to himself. How does he do it? For me, it’s all about his soul.
His music first hit me when I heard a live version of ‘What’d I Say’ on American Forces Network in Germany, which I used to listen to late at night. Then I started buying his singles. His sound was stunning – it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing — basically it was all the stuff I was listening to before that, but it all came together, rolled into one amazing, soulful thing.
As a singer, Ray Charles doesn’t phrase like anyone else. He doesn’t put the time where you think it’s gonna be, but it’s always perfect, always right. He knows how to play with time, like any great jazzman. But there was more to him than that voice — there was also the fact that he was writing these incredible songs. He was a great musician, an amazing record maker, a great producer, and a wonderful arranger. It was easy for me to connect with him back then because he was basically everything I loved in music rolled into one beautiful package.
There’s a reason they called Ray Charles “The Genius”. Think of how he reinvented country music in a way that worked for him. He reinvented the genre and it still came out Ray Charles music. He showed there are no limitations, at least not for someone as good as he is. He always said he’d played in a country band way before that, and obviously he had a love of that music. He seemed to love it all musically, as long as it was great and real. Whatever Ray Charles does, whatever he touches, he makes it his own. He’s his own genre. It’s all Ray Charles music now.
When it comes to Ray Charles’ recorded work, there are so many highlights. For me, two albums that stand out are Live In Newport and Ray Charles In Person, which is live in Atlanta – two masterpieces which were subsequently released as a double set later on. Then there’s Genius + Soul = Jazz with the Basie Orchestra and Quincy Jones. And then of course there’s the breakthrough of Modern Sounds Of Country & Western. I always learn something listening to him. It’s music that set a tough standard. There’s so much to live up to – these days you almost have to go backwards to go forwards.
For me, it’s great to try and sing his songs. Recently I also I did a duet with him on one of my songs, ‘Crazy Love’. It felt fantastic. I don’t know if a young singer today can learn from a great singer like Ray Charles as much as they can just connect with him and what he does. I always loved his singing, but I also connected with him on a soul level. I just felt his emotion. People like Ray Charles — and others like Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland, and Solomon Burke — sort of defined what soul was for me. With Ray Charles, it wasn’t just the singing — it was what went into the singing. These were guys who put their souls on the line.
This music is way beyond marketing. This music is global, and its appeal is universal. Ray Charles changed music just by being himself — by doing what he did and translating it to millions of people with the wide-ranging effect of his one of a kind soul. That’s his legacy. I think that music of Ray Charles will probably outlive us all – at least I hope that it will.