By C.E. Hanifin
The Cincinnati Enquirer
With nothing more than his voice, a piano and a whole lot of soul, Ray Charles crossed boundaries of class, race, disability and genre during his six-decade career.
In doing so, Charles, who died at the age of 73 on Thursday of acute liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., wove himself into the fabric of American culture and inspired countless artists to take chances in their music.
A few hours after hearing of Charles' death, Cincinnati R&B icon Bootsy Collins searched for a way to describe Charles' profound influence on American music and culture.
"He's - aw, man - words can't even explain it," said Collins, who played with Charles in the '70s.
After Collins' wife brought him the news Thursday in his studio, the two said a silent prayer for Charles, who forged the soul sound by melding gospel music with rhythm and blues.
"His whole spiritual thing was so deep, it was beyond music. I called it living in another frequency," Collins said.
Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conductor, said when Charles sang "America the Beautiful" and "Georgia on My Mind," two of his best-loved songs, "you could feel it that it came out of his soul." Kunzel and the Pops worked with Charles and his band for two local performances in the '90s and at the 1995 opening of the Aronoff Center for the Arts.
"He encompassed so much - soul, gospel, blues, jazz," Kunzel paused, "America."
Kunzel, who also worked with Charles for performances in other cities, described him as "a wonderful person to have fun with."
Once at a rehearsal, the conductor jokingly told Charles, who was blind, "Now Ray, you follow my beat."
"He just roared with laughter," Kunzel said.
Charles' influence can be heard in many musicians from this area, including in the work of Greg Dulli, former front man of the Afghan Whigs. Dulli, who now lives in Los Angeles, has delved deeper into soul with his current project, the Twilight Singers, and will release an album of covers in August that includes several soul numbers.
Dulli said of Charles, "He had an energy unto himself. Walls of sight, prejudice and genre fell at his will.
"I was fortunate to see him perform twice, almost 20 years apart. He was, is and always shall be transcendent."
Chris "Freekbass" Sherman, a Cincinnati funk musician and Collins' protege, said that asking a contemporary musician if Charles was an influence is like asking if the Beatles or Elvis Presley were influences.
"His music was such an umbrella," Sherman said. "He reached so many people."
Charles' unique vocal and instrumental phrasings allowed him to take any song - even the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" - and make it his own, Sherman said.
"Stylistically, that's what shoots you into the stratosphere as a performer," he said.
Although Charles brought sophistication to his music, it retained a primal edge, said Ricky Nye, a Cincinnati pianist and band leader. That's what snags the ears of devotees all over the world, even ears that are usually closed to music, he said.
"I like to think that people who don't feel music feel him. Unreachable people can be reached by him," said Nye, who performs blues, boogie-woogie and New Orleans music.
Very few performers have ever been able to appeal to the diverse cross section of fans that Charles reached, said Jon Sheperd, who saw Charles perform several years ago in Richmond, Ind. The Cincinnati guitarist, a former member of the power-pop group Spectacular Fantastic, possesses an intense love of soul music, which inspired him to organize a Motown tribute show planned for September.
"I don't know what magic, what sixth sense, gives people the ability to really reach into your chest and grab your heart and your gut," Sheperd said. "That's exactly what his power was."
Like many local fans, including Collins, Sherman and Nye, Sheperd and his friends planned to pay homage to Charles over the weekend by playing his songs.
"I went home and dug out all the vinyl and we're just gonna have a little sit-around and listen to the music," he said.
"All of a sudden, the revelation hits you that there's not going to be any more."
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