What I Say
Ray ushered in the sixties by moving from intimate Atlantic to behemoth ABC Records. Leaving the comfortable, almost family-like atmosphere at Atlantic was difficult, but Ray felt that the larger label would allow him the resources to transcend mere superstardom and become a cultural icon. He knew he was on the right track the minute those Franklin Mint collectible plate bastards started sniffing around his door.
The move to ABC also showed more of Ray's considerable business acumen as well. When Ray signed with ABC, he asked for and got the rights to his own master recordings. This was an unprecedented deal in the recording industry, who routinely compensated artists with nothing more than brightly-colored beads and pebbles.
The exponential increase in Ray's fame exacerbated his decades-long addiction to heroin. Several arrests for possession garnered unwanted attention, though they did little to affect his public persona. Perhaps the most conspicuous effect of his drug use was his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Only a well-timed intervention and subsequent stay in a treatment facility saved Ray from the eventual indignity of a rhinestone-studded suit and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate. It could not save him, however, from an appearance on Hee Haw.
With most of the heavy lifting of becoming a worldwide superstar behind him, Ray was finally able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Such as papaya. Man, did Ray love him some papaya. Which doesn't have a damned thing to do with anything, but I needed something to cleanse the palate after that unpleasant heroin and country music business in the last paragraph.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Ray continued to expand his horizons. His recording output ran the gamut from soul, his own creation, to timeless American standards. He appeared in movies, most notably in the classic 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers, and engaged in playful self-parody as a frequent late night TV show guest. Unfortunately, during the last two decades of his life, he became more known to Generations X and Y (and the sub-generation Sometimes Y) as an amiable, grandfatherly soda pitchman.
Enter Taylor Hackford, a well-known Hollywood director who had already brought Chuck Berry to the big screen with the biopic/concert film Hail, Hail! Rock and Roll. Securing the rights to the story of Ray's life in 1987, Hackford began a long journey to making a movie about Ray's extraordinary life. Unable to find funding from any major studio, Hackford conducted exhaustive bake sales and car washes to raise the money to make the film independently. In 2004, Hackford completed the film and managed to get a distribution deal from Universal Studios in return for the recipe for his delightful blackberry popovers (see also Marsalis, Wynton).
Exploding onto the screen with a tour de force performance by Jamie Foxx, the film presented a warts-and-all appraisal of Ray Charles' life. Far from damaging Ray's legacy, with its unflinching portrayal of drug use and marital infidelity, the film served to renew interest in Ray's most treasured contributions to American culture and society. By the time of his death from liver failure in June of 2004, he had finally received proper due for the full measure of his genius.
Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.