But while Presley lost his nerve and enthusiasm by the early '60s, Charles has been a long-distance runner, maintaining his musical curiosity over a remarkably consistent 55-year recording career.
What always set Charles apart from most of his musical peers was the sophistication of his talent. Unlike most rock 'n' roll performers of the '50s, Charles could read music and write complex horn-and-string arrangements. A virtuoso on piano, he also played saxophone and clarinet. Also, his ear for vocal harmony was so sharp that on the 1959 track, "I Believe to My Soul," he overdubbed all four backing-vocal parts himself, sounding like a dead ringer for his female harmony group, the Raeletts.
"Always, above all, he was a jazz player, and he loved jazz players," recalled Texas sax great David "Fathead" Newman, a former Charles bandmate, in a 1997 interview.
Charles' deep musical knowledge grew out of a childhood wracked with tragedy. Born in 1930 in Albany, Georgia, Charles grew up in northwest Florida. At the age of 5, he saw his younger brother, George, drown in a wash tub. Not long afterward, Charles began to lose his sight. He was blind by the age of 6.
Not wanting her son to be overly dependent on others, Charles' mother (who died by the time he turned 15) sent him to Florida's state school for the blind, where he learned braille and received formal instruction in music composition. With his classical training and intuitive feel for earthy blues and down-home gospel, Charles could make R&B sound elegant to older ears, and lush pop balladry sound soulful to young blues adherents. It was almost as if Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke inhabited a single body.
If Charles failed to generate the kind of mass hysteria that followed Presley, he also escaped the kind of derision that Presley received from the older set. For instance, in 1957, Frank Sinatra blasted rock 'n' roll as "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear," yet he later lauded Charles as "the only genius in the business." At the same time that jazz purists bemoaned the rise of rhythm-and-blues, they accepted Charles at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Listening to Charles' great mid-to-late-'50s records on Atlantic, it is striking how tight and precise the performances were. The horn parts are more sinuous and eloquent than early rockers like Little Richard would have attempted, but they're always concise, always there to serve Charles' soulful rasp. Beginning with 1955's epochal "I Got a Woman," Charles found his creative voice and began a string of driving R&B hits that took the exultant rhythms of gospel music into the earthly realms of love and sex.
Though Charles says he stopped writing music in the late-'60s, he seemed to be losing interest in composing as early as 1959. He says songwriting had been a necessity, because most of the material he was offered early in his career wasn't up to par. Once he began registering hits with pop and, later, country standards, he saw no reason to continue writing.
It is one of the oddities of Charles' career that early on, even though he was writing his own material, he came off as a Nat King Cole imitator, while from the '60s on, even though he ceased to produce original material, his stylistic imprint was on everything he performed.
For all of his dedication to music, Charles could get sidetracked. He battled a heroin addiction for years, finally kicking it after a highly publicized 1964 bust in Boston.
And his sexual appetites were so voracious that word spread among aspiring backup singers: The best way to become a Raelett was to "let Ray."
But if America created a Mount Rushmore for its musical titans, Charles' chiseled bust would have to be there, alongside Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Louis Armstrong. Unlike those heavyweights who established a blueprint for a particular musical form, Charles mixed genres at will.
"I see myself like a utility man on a baseball team," Charles said in an interview a few years ago. "You can play me in the infield or the outfield. Might even catch or do a little pitching. What do I mean by that? Well, I'll play a jazz festival one week and the next week you can fit me on a blues bill or even send me down to Nashville and throw me in with the country folk. I like that. That means I keep working." •
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