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The Genius

RAY CHARLES: Man and Music;\o7 By Michael Lydon; (Riverhead Books: 448 pp., $27.95)\f7

May 30, 1999|GROVER SALES | Grover Sales is the author of "Jazz: America's Classical Music" and a lecturer in jazz studies at Stanford University and the Jazz School in Berkeley

For nearly half a century, Ray Charles' uncanny gifts as pianist, songwriter, arranger, saxophonist and mainly as singer have seized a universal audience in an emotional grip that borders on religiosity. Gospel-inflected blues like "Whud' I Say," with its screaming orgasmic climax, place him firmly in the blues-shouting tradition of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner. His exalted recordings of such romantic standards as "Georgia on My Mind" and "When Your Lover Has Gone" can stand beside Louis Armstrong's epochal versions a generation earlier. Charles found fresh poignancy in "I Can't Stop Loving You," and his version beguiled even those with scant tolerance for country music. He plumbed the unsuspected depths of "America the Beautiful," for which he tirelessly campaigns as a replacement for our unsingable and swing-proof National Anthem.

As Michael Lydon's fanatically researched, though overly detailed, biography makes clear, his identity tag "The Genius" is no press agent's hype. "If he hears something once," fellow musicians have testified, "he can dictate every note you played."

Like Charlie Parker, Charles was enslaved by the usually incompatible addictions to heroin and marathon sex, bordering on clinical satyriasis. But unlike Bird, who died young, nearly broke and largely unknown to a mass audience, Charles, through his hands-on management of Ray Charles Enterprises, became a millionaire many times over and an international icon. George Shearing called his own blindness "more of a nuisance than a handicap." This applies doubly to Charles. "My color," he bitterly insists, "was more of a disadvantage than my blindness."

Lydon, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, has meticulously researched the life of Ray Charles Robinson--from his dirt-poor childhood in rural Florida, his family, his loss of sight at 6, his studies at Florida's School for the Deaf and Blind that nourished his incipient talents, his first professional gigs as a pioneer of rhythm 'n' blues to his rapid ascent to superstardom in the '50s and '60s. But "Ray Charles" suffers from the author's chronic inability to distinguish between what readers need to know and what they do not. Charles' pharmaceutical and sexual exploits (including a penchant for "threesies") are endlessly flaunted, as are those of his side men, business associates and a veritable harem of paramours.

"Like a sultan in his caravan, Ray began to travel surrounded by his wives. On stage the women provided a feminine counterbalance to his maleness; offstage they provided the available core of his far-flung harem. In time, the Cookies became the Raelets, and generations of Raelets succeeded the original three. As a venerable joke declares, 'To be a Raelet, a lady must let Ray.' "

Almost week by week, Lydon plots the record-chart ratings of "I Got a Woman," "Busted," "You Don't Know Me," "Just for a Thrill" and "Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So" and describes managerial details that would fascinate only the top echelons of the recording and booking industry. We are even regaled with the quirks of Charles' motor vehicles:

"Like the DeSoto before it, the Weenie had at last become an unreliable rattletrap and Ray took advantage of the long L.A. layover to junk it. [Manager] Jeff flew to Ohio and drove back in a brand-new Flexible bus. The Flex gave everybody breathing room for a change and had space for Ray's new Hammond B-3 organ."

The book's 448 pages abound with such needless distractions that cause the eyes to glaze over:

"Ray stayed in a suite at the Hotel Theresa, the 'Waldorf of Harlem' on 125th Street, but he didn't see much of Margie or [son] little Charles Wayne. That fall in New York were the months of [lover] Mae's ascendance. Mae wanted a fur coat. Ray got her a fur coat. Mae wanted to move into Manhattan from Flushing, and Ray rented her a $250-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in a new complex of buildings at Central Park West and Ninety-seventh Street."

Charles' visitors backstage at Harlem's Apollo Theater warrant fulsome coverage:

"[Booker] Larry Myers came up from the Shaw office. Once the kid of the agency, Myers now booked clubs and theaters and had, in fact, booked this week with the Apollo's Frank Shifman. Myers found Ray and Jeff playing a fierce, noisy game of dominoes; Ray, winning, was pushing Jeff to play for higher stakes than he could afford. . . . Milt Shaw came by too. The fellows liked Milt, a Jewish guy who talked more jive than the black cats. Big, good-looking Milt liked to have fun, and hanging out with musicians was the most fun possible. Everybody who wanted got a test of Milt's dope. Smoke a joint with Milt, and pretty soon everybody was laughing."

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