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Everyone Loved Ray

Why I called Ray Charles 'one of the greatest'

by Dr. Spin
June 28, 2004

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Dr. Spin,

I noticed in the Entertainment Forum you call the late Ray Charles "one of the greatest musicians America ever produced." I enjoyed his performances when I occasionally caught him on TV over the years, but I'm not very familiar with his overall body of work. He certainly had a distinctive voice and a wonderfully soulful style. But I can't say I recall a particular greatness in his piano playing. I read that he also played sax, but I didn't know that until after his death.

Is the greatness of his musicianship you speak of in regard to his instrumental talent or the whole package? What other American musicians would you consider to be of comparable greatness? I personally wouldn't put him in the same elite class instrumentally as Louis Armstrong, but he might be in the same class as Louis in a broader "entertainer" category.

Dear Tiberius,
I am not one to judge talent. A reader once asked me to give my list for five most talented rock artists; I declined, stating that it was almost impossible judge one musician’s talent over another, especially if these musicians play different instruments. However, I think most music fans can recognize when a musical performer is talented.
Ray Charles may not have been the virtuoso on keyboards the way, say Duke Ellington or Count Basie were, or even a Jerry Lee Lewis (who was probably closer to a contemporary), but Charles definitely had a style that was easily recognizable, but hard to duplicate. As I stated in my last column, Charles was able to “crossover” many different music styles, and do it well. And let’s not forget that not only could Charles make any piano or keyboard dance and sing, but he did it blind!
Finally, Charles had a strong soulful voice that lent itself easily to sweet ballads like “Georgia On My Mind,” to a stirring version of “America the Beautiful,” to self-effacing humor of songs like “Hit the Road, Jack.”
I guess you could say Charles’ greatness lied in the whole package. There was a quality to him that when you saw “Ol’ Ray” step up to the piano, you knew you were in for something special. That is what made me say Ray Charles was one of the greats.

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