The Autumn King and Ray Charles

      "When Elvis went into the army, Ray Charles became my favorite…no one has asked why he is called 'the genius.'" This is Charlie Parker Miller of San Francisco speaking on his radio program on KPOO. You too can hear the program via streaming audio on your computer at 1 am on Monday mornings (10-midnight, Sunday, Pacific time) at http://www.kpoo.com/programs.html or set your media player to stream mms://66.134.90.174:8080/

      When Ray Charles died I pulled out his CDs and let his sweet baritone voice soothe my sadness. Then I sent an e-mail of sympathy to Charlie. I was certain that he would be doing a tribute for Ray Charles on his next Saturday evening show and would share my feelings of loss.

      Needless to say I was delighted when a few days later CDs of the complete show arrived in the mail. Charlie is known as The Autumn King of Rock and Roll in San Francisco and people stop him on the street to chat about music - from the "oldies but goodies" of the fifties onward. Charlie played his original vinyl recordings of Ray Charles, recorded before Ray added strings and backup singers. There is a basic honesty in his singing - he never lost that - but fashion changed and the Raylettes and more complex accompaniments characterized later recordings. Charlie's huge collection of recordings spans over fifty years. "I like to play the original singles and LPs on vinyl but they are a little funky, a little worn-out."

      Ray Charles Robinson was born September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia but grew up in Greenville, Florida. He started playing piano at age five, the year before he became blind from untreated childhood glaucoma. He learned to play alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and organ while attending St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind from age seven to fifteen. His father died when he was ten.

      Ray was seventeen in 1947, two years after the death of his mother, when he took his savings of $60 and moved to Seattle to work as a Nat "King" Cole-style crooner and dropped his last name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

      Later in Los Angeles he recorded for several independent labels until he had his first top-ten rhythm and blues hit Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand in 1951. Then he worked in New Orleans and later in New York City. He both composed and performed I've Got a Woman. With its pounding gospel piano and raspy, exuberant voice it was Charles' first national hit (#2 on R&B, 1955). The hits kept coming as he explored other types of music which lead to his nickname, "The Genius."

      The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll lays it all out clearly: "Singer/composer/pianist Ray Charles virtually invented soul music by bringing together the fervor of gospel, the secular lyrics and narratives of blues and country, the big band arrangements of jazz, and rhythms and improvisational possibilities from all of them, making music that is both sophisticated and spontaneous."

      In the tribute program Charlie Miller reminisced about the live concerts in both small clubs and Harlem's Apollo Theater and how early in his KPOO career he interviewed Mr. Charles who was most gracious. "I was one star-struck person."

      Ray died on June 10, 2004 of liver cancer. He drank prodigious amounts of gin, began using heroin at age sixteen and was arrested for possession in 1965 when he was 35 and spent time in a sanatorium. The Globe tabloid newspaper shows pictures of his memorial service on June 18 in Los Angeles with Jesse Jackson, BB King, Little Richard, Cicely Tyson, Clint Eastwood, Glen Campbell and lots of ordinary fans in attendance, as well as some of his eleven children by nine mothers. In one of his well-known lyrics he sings I'm Gonna Love You Come Rain or Come Shine and he meant it. He was generous with all of his ladies, leaving more than one million dollars to each of his children from a forty million dollar estate. Not bad for a blind African-American born in poverty in the deep South in 1930. In an Esquire interview in August, 2003, Charles states: "All my kids know me." He starts with the piano. "The piano is the foundation, and that's it." "With singing, the name of the game is to make yourself believable. When somebody hears you sing a song and they say, 'Oh, that must have happened to him,' that's when you know you're transmitting. It's like being a good actor. You make people feel things, emotions and whatnot. But you gotta start with yourself. You got to feel it yourself. If you don't feel it, how do you expect someone else to?"

      So what is your favorite Ray Charles song? I like You Don't Know Me, Crying Time and You are My Sunshine. There are so many heart-touching tunes to choose from. And then there are the happy, playful ones like Georgia on my Mind and That Lucky Old Sun. Thanks to recordings Ray Charles will continue giving us pleasure.

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