Ray Charles and His Influence on Pop Culture

A legendary artist and musician of the ‘50s, Ray Charles is often credited with pioneering the soul music genre. Often called the “Father of Soul,” he combined jazz, blues, and gospel to create groundbreaking hits like “Unchain my Heart,” “Georgia on my Mind,” and “Hit the Road Jack.” 

Charles was blinded as a child due to glaucoma, but he was highly adept at playing the piano. This earned him the moniker “The Genius,” and his music peers viewed him as a legend. He has been extremely influential to the music business as he created a space for gospel-infused R&B music on pop radio. He’s one of the most successful R&B superstars that would go on to influence legions of artists, musicians, and fans throughout the years. 

With his enormous talent and charismatic personality, Charles helped define soul music both as a new musical genre and an instrument for social change in American culture.

Here are the ways Ray Charles has become influential on pop culture: 

He is a soul legend. 

Ray Charles pioneered the soul music genre during the ‘50s by combining jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B styles into his music. He helped integrate American music by making space for gospel-infused R&B for pop radio. He became Atlantic Record’s most beloved R&B superstar that would influence legions of musicians and fans throughout the years. Charles was responsible for defining soul music as both a new music genre and an instrument for social change. 

While Charles has been a stellar recording artist, he was more than a piano-playing virtuoso. He helped bring in a sound that would eventually be known as R&B. His gospel roots helped him compose songs that were perceived as gospel music, and put the “devil’s words” to them. This move was controversial at his time and a lot of ministers and churches found it blasphemous. However, the new sound would later on ignite pop culture and influence the American youth, changing the fabric of race relations in the process. Charles would be said to have “taken the music of the underworld, consecrated it and made it safe for mainstream consumption.” This is how soul music began. 

The music of Ray Charles can be described as sexual, spiritual, youthful, and true to the realities of American life. His music helped expose the cultural sensibilities of the struggling classes to the mainstream society. 

He was a great manipulator of music. 

Ray Charles contributed to the integration of country music, R&B, and pop during the ‘80s with his crossover success on ABC Records, notably with his two Modern Sounds albums. He is called “The Genius” and the “Father of Soul,” for his expressive voice and perfect pitch can combine genres of music to break your heart or make you dance. At the time when he rose to the music scene, Charles’ music was groundbreaking. 

Born from a poor family in rural Georgia and becoming blind at a young age, Charles’ achievement in the music industry has been an inspiring feat. While he struggled throughout his childhood, he later made it big in the music industry by combining different genres of music. 

Charles first found fame with his involvement within the jazz trio known as the McSons, where he used his vocal talents to replicate the work of Nat King Cole. Then, he joined Swing Time Records, where he started his road tours and take his talents around east coast. Though he was praised for his jazz abilities in the McSons, Swing Records urged him to create upbeat music. That’s when he added a swing music flare to his existing jazz persona, creating his hit single “Baby Let Me Hold your Hand.” 

His ability to manipulate music through the influence of others led to the rise in his popularity and appeal. In 1952, he signed with Atlantic Records, where he was urged to stray from his Nat King Cole-style roots and was encouraged to create a Pete Jonson dance sound. Charles did not only add a swing flare to his music but created his own, with his then-seemingly sacrilegious lyrics. 

Charles used gospel music as the basis for his new music, combined it with R&B, and added suggestive lyrics along with a trio of female backup singers. This recipe resulted to his hit single, “I’ve Got a Woman” in 1954. That one song appealed to those who enjoyed jazz, R&B, gospel, and swing music. 

When he signed with ABC Records company, he added pop sounds. By signing with a major record company, Charles realized that his music would not only reach people of color but the majority of the white population as well. He expanded his music that led to the inclusion of pop sounds, an orchestra, and a choir to his usual jazz and country roots. 

Charles was an innovative musician. He experimented with different genres and signed with different record companies that appealed to different audiences (Atlantic Records draws indie music lovers, while ABC Records draws pop music listeners). 

He changed the landscape of American music. 

Ray Charles’ albums “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 1” became the best-selling album of 1962, and both the album and the lead single “I Can’t Stop Loving You” earned gold certification status by the RIA. The single album topped the Billboard charts for 14 weeks, and the single also topped the pop chart for five weeks and the R&B charts for ten. This proved that good music is good music, no matter what label you gave it. The album was so popular that its Volume 2 was rush released in four months later. 

Both these albums forever changed the format of country music. Before Charles was involved in the scene, country music in the ‘50s only appealed to a rural, white audience. Charles’ introduction of country acts in his album ushered a new wave of listeners. 

When he decided to take a detour from his R&B path and journey down the country and western road, his musical peers and label executives strongly disagreed. Artists freely cross over genres all the time today, but during the time of Ray Charles – during the civil rights movement and the South – there was anything but “one love.” However, Ray Charles believed in the greater purpose that music can stand on its own, regardless of the state of social affairs. 

Charles’ success proved that sometimes, being risky really pays off. He made country songs more meaningful with the emotional connection the lyrics can offer to the listeners, and the orchestration that can be appreciated for the melodies. Finally, country music wasn’t just about trucks and beer cans and a collection of snap tracks, drop beats, and pedal steel. Charles was eager to bring the jazz band to country music, and he has skillfully instructed the ensemble so it would sound exactly like he wanted to. 

He is one of the most recognizable voices in American music industry. 

Ray Charles possessed one of the most recognizable voices in the music scene in America. His voice can be as blues-y cool as it was tenderly gospel, as brassy jazz as it was confessionary country. His sound and style reflects diverse life experiences, which made his appeal break genre divisions. 

Charles is a baritone, and his speaking voice would suggest as much. He’s a master of sounds as his albums contain an extraordinary assortment of shrieks, wails, slurs, glides, shouts, screams, hollers, and breaks – all controlled wonderfully and disciplined by inspired musicianship. His voice and sounds alone conveys the intensity of his feelings in his songs.

He influenced a number of successful artists. 

His vocal style and success in the genres of jazz, gospel and R&B had an influence on a number of highly successful artists who have been influential themselves. These include Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, and Van Morrison. Other singers who have acknowledged the influence of Ray Charles in their musical styles include Steve Winwood, James Booker, Gregg Allman, and Richard Manuel. 

He lobbied for race equality and civil justice in the US.

Ray Charles’ artistry and music became a form of political activism when he decided to take a stand against racial segregation in the south. He helped lobby racial equality and civil justice in the United States by refusing to play in venues that did not treat black performers and patrons as equals. 

During a tour in Georgia in 1961, he refused to play at a venue that segregated blacks. He received legal fines and criticisms due to this, but the venue was desegregated a year later. To the state, Charles will probably be always linked to his rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” which was his number one hit in 1960. Over the next 40 years, this song remained his signature piece, and became Georgia’s official state song in 1979. 

His combination of jazz R&B, and gospel had him headlining in prestigious venues like the Carnegie Hall and Apollo Theater in New York. Also, he became one of the first black musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company – a big win for African American artists that would follow.