by Mike Corrigan
There are some artists who you remember because of one thing that they did specifically. For many people, Bruce Springsteen -- despite his other accomplishments -- will always be the man that sang "Born in the U.S.A." Elton John has released countless hits, but even music lovers that can't name a single one of them are likely to be able to recall "Candle in the Wind" and the role it played in contemporary culture. But for RAY CHARLES, despite being most recently boosted by the success of his rendition of "America the Beautiful," musical fame is something that comes with the complete package of the artist.
Sure there have been the hits, like "Georgia on My Mind" and "Hit the Road Jack;" but no single release can manage to sum up a man who has become a living legend. His dedication to music has earned him 12 Grammy awards across the span of three decades in eight different categories. He has toured the world, supported humanitarian causes and yes, made Pepsi commercials. But for every major success Charles has achieved, and for every notable point on his career, there have been years of good-spirited musical growth and performance. And that tradition is one that Charles will be continuing as he performs a string of concert engagements -- shortly after the release of his newest album -- and appears at the Spokane Opera House with the Spokane Symphony this Friday night.
As Charles says in his autobiography, "I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I know of." But a little maturation was necessary to turn that natural music into something that has become an international phenomenon. Despite his southern birth and his growing-up in Florida, it turns out that the Northwest was, in many ways, Charles' spiritual home. It was when he decided to strike out musically for the furthest place in America from Florida that he found himself in Seattle, turning into the star he was destined to become. After forming the McSon Trio with Gossady McGee and landing a television show, Charles launched himself into the life of a successful, though struggling, touring musician.
A trip through Europe, the founding of his first big band and several records that continued to steadily climb the charts further assured his success. But Charles was then -- as now -- by no means complacent with his art. Over his foundation of rhythm and blues, he began to build up a musical language with elements of country and rock'n' roll. Now, with the release of his latest album, Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again, Charles has injected a more modern dance feel into his work. And at the same time, after more than 50 years in the music business, Charles has launched his own record label.
"Independence is a hell of a thing, man," Charles explains about his latest venture, on his Web site. "And we all appreciate it. I know I do. I feel strongly that, right now, the best way for me to maintain purity and deliver to my fans the music that I believe they want from me is by doing it my way. I can go out and sign whomever I want and release what I want when I want to. It's the best possible situation for me at this point in my artistic and business career."
From anyone else in the music industry, that sort of justification might sound like some sort of ticket for relaxation. But with concert dates booked well into the future, new artists on the horizon for his label and Friday night's engagement with the Spokane Symphony, Charles looks set to continue the only single tradition he's ever held to exclusively: a commitment to excellent music, in whatever form it comes.