I neither know nor care what polls or charts say, I know through a combination of instinct and experience that the musical performer with the most universal appeal of the late 20th century is Ray Charles (Ray Charles Robinson, 1930-2004). I know some people who don’t like Elvis or the Beatles or Sinatra. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Ray Charles. There may be some people who do dislike him but won’t say it aloud. Who would admit such a thing? It would be like saying, “How do you do? I’m an asshole!” What’s more (and I can’t think of anybody else about whom this is true from my own time), Charles was beloved equally across generations. In his later decades, younger people continued to think he was just as cool as their parents did. And he appealed equally to black and white, and when I say that I’m not implying some watered down mainstream crossover thing. He was blind; race meant little to him. Born in Georgia, raised in Florida, he made entire LPs of country and western music, when already well established as a reigning god of soul, R & B, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, and pop. And his songs varied wildly in tone, mood, and energy, ranking from irresistible dance numbers, to moving ballads, to funny novelty songs, and even spirituals.
Charles had lost his sight between the age of 4 and 7. Already playing piano by age three, he learned classical music at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, learning to read braille sheet music. He was already playing professionally in bands as a teenager. Taking into account not just the pop charts, but also R & B, country, gospel, dance etc, Charles had national hit records spanning the years 1949-1990. They include “I’ve Got a Woman” (1954), “Hallelujah I Love Her So” (1956), “What’d I Say? (Part One)” (1959), “Georgia On My Mind” (1960), “Hit the Road, Jack” (1961), “Unchain My Heart” (1961), “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1962), “Busted” (1963), “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (1966), the theme songs to the movies The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and In the Heat of the Night (1967), and his show-stopping number in The Blues Brothers (1980), “Shake a Tail Feather”. And naturally many dozens of others.
In 1964 he had his own TV special The Man They Call Genius (the first of many to come), and he made repeated appearances on tv shows as diverse as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, Hollywood Squares, Sesame Street, The Midnight Special, Hee Haw, and The Nanny. Just the tip of the iceberg. He was on TV constantly.
Widely acknowledged to have earned his nickname “The Genius”, Charles’ private life was less than a masterpiece. He was busted for heroin numerous times, and he father a dozen children by ten women, only two of whom he was married to. Liver damage took him at age 74. Those of us who’d spent a life speculating about what it would look like for someone to give heroin or sexual favors to a blind man, were finally rewarded when Taylor Hackford’s 2004 bio-pic Ray hit movie screens. Jamie Foxx’s Best Actor Oscar for the title role was richly deserved.
For more on variety entertainment, including tv variety of the sort Ray Charles appeared on , please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,