Top 10 Artists of All Time: #10 – Ray Charles


Ray Charles wasn’t dubbed “The Genius” by the music industry for nothing. Charles was undoubtedly the most inventive soul musician of all time. He was one of the most appealing artists of the late 50’s thanks to his ability to simply be himself. In a time where most record labels had their respective artists on a leash, Ray Charles broke the mold. Charles pioneered soul music by secularizing gospel themes and using structural techniques (call and response, chord changes, screams and blues lyrics) to create a brand new genre.

Atlantic Records
Altlantic Records

Contrary to  a lot of popular jazz legends, Charles was against sounding ‘like someone.’ He knew he could be profitable sounding like Nat King Cole or Charles Brown, but for him it wasn’t enough. Charles would have rather failed at becoming a well-known artist than sound like someone else. It was in his character; in an interview with Performing Songwriters, Charles said his mother always told him “Boy, be yourself. I don’t care what you are, but be yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”

From when he was a child until he became a star, Charles remained one thing; himself. If a record company gave him a song to perform and he wasn’t happy with it, he ditched the idea and wrote a new song.  If a new hit came out, he didn’t jump on it just to steal some fame.  If people didn’t like his singing, he didn’t care. The attitude Charles was so fortunate to have is one of the most crucial pieces of becoming one of the most influential artists ever.

On top of his incredible songwriting ability, Charles also had very impressive musical talent as well. He was a singer, songwriter, composer, pianist all in one: and on top of all that, he was blind. Although most people would consider it to be a hindrance, it never seemed to be such a problem for Charles. In fact, his blindness contributed to his unique style because he couldn’t read or write sheet music; instead he played by ear.

As a singer, Charles was unique. He would throw ad-libs into his music and made it feel how he felt at the time. The little laughs he let out and the “hey!” he threw in between verses made every song so pleasing to hear. He said that he sang every song different based on how he felt, which made performances feel so much more lively. He connected with every audience he played for and his joy was infectious.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Another notable aspect of Charles’ talent was his versatile style. Look at the difference in tone between up-beat tracks like “Mess Around” and melancholy songs like “Drown in My Own Tears.” Charles could holler and yell just as well as he could sing with his soul, a trait that few of the best singers possess.

In terms of sound, Charles drove the soul element of jazz to new heights. The music he created was from three or four genres all mixed into one, and it was jam-packed with emotion. Whatever Charles felt like making the listener felt, they felt. It was all up to him, thanks to his ability to reach out to anyone. The techniques he used from all three genres made all of his discography so diverse yet meant to be used together. Instead of sticking to one genre at a time, Charles picked and chose what he wanted from each, which few musicians were able to ever do… let alone make it sound perfect.

As a musician, Ray Charles would best be described as the person you would want to be around. His incredible talent, original songwriting and well-rounded sound make an easy pick for number 10.