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Happy Birthday to American Icon, Ray Charles

The late Ray Charles is an American superhero. Born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, you might say he's the greatest musician ever to come out of this country (Elvis, Dylan, Aretha, Leonard Bernstein, and Hank Williams notwithstanding). Charles not only explored a diverse musical palette.

Charles pushed the parameters of music as we knew it in the face of huge obstacles. Poor, black

and blind, his accomplishments are even more impressive given these challenges.

Born into poverty, he lost his sight by age seven, and both his parents a short

time later. A self-taught musician, he began playing professionally in

his mid-teens, scoring his first hits by the time he hit his early 20s.

Signed to the fledgling Atlantic Records in 1953, and then ABC-Paramount a few years later, he was an immediate success, hitting his

stride with such songs as "I Got A Woman," "What'd I Say," The Night

Time (Is the Right Time)," "Lonely Avenue," and "Drown in my Own Tears,"

tracks that remain standards even today. 

Other triumphs quickly followed. There was his signature song "Georgia On My Mind" in 1960, three disparate albums --The Genius after HoursThe Genius Sings the Blues, and The Genius of Ray Charles -- in 1961, and a bold move into country music with his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 2 in 1962. There seemed no audience that he couldn't satisfy, and he quickly established a fervent following with both the pop crowd and those enamored of traditional jazz.

Yet despite his success, Ray continued to battle an addiction to drugs that practically ended his career. Likewise, the arrival of the psychedelic '60s and a new generation of up and coming stars practically relegated Charles to the sidelines. It was only his ability to adapt the new material to his own unique style that helped him maintain his presence and eventually bring due recognition back his way.

When Ray died on June 10, 2004, he left behind a legacy as distinguished as any in the entire history of popular music. In fact, his list of accomplishments is not only record-setting, but genuinely dazzling as well.

The Accolades: Rolling Stone once listed him at number ten on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He was also accorded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award as well as the National Medal of the Arts, while also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. No less an icon that Frank Sinatra cited him as "the only true genius in show business." Billy Joel is quoted as saying, "This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley."

The Honors: Ray sang at two presidential inaugurations, Ronald Reagan's second inaugural in 1985 and Bill Clinton's first in 1993. Politics never seemed to matter; he was equally beloved by all segments of the populace, young and old and black and white alike. He even headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner, entertaining the likes of George W., Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. He was especially admired in his native Georgia, which selected his version of "Georgia On My Mind" as its official state song.

The Acknowledgements: With his gruff baritone vocal and penchant for kicking up a kinetic groove, Charles' music defied all tastes and trends. He expressed soul and emotion in a way that few artists were capable of. Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Michael McDonald, and Elton John have all cited him as an influence and it speaks to his credibility and stature that his final album, Genius Loves Company, featured guest appearances from a veritable who's who of contemporary music, including such stars as Gladys Knight, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, and Johnny Mathis. They were artists of all eras and all ages, and yet all found a common bond in Brother Ray. Not surprisingly too, he was one of the featured voices in the all-star session of "We Are the World," ably holding his own with Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan among many others.

The Appeal: Rarely has such a combination of cool and class ever been so evident in one individual. Amen, Brother Ray, amen.

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Lee Zimmerman

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