The life and work of Ray Charles and Bob Marley are scrutinized in this essay with the intend to demonstrate why and when they became icons of their time. Being two of the most accomplished artists in history, the soulman and the ambassador of the reggae music represent nowaday much more than just a hero for their fans or the textbook references for their genres, but rather examples of how a person can be turned into a hero by their own talent. The comparison made in this contemplates the drawing of a parallel between these two completely different ways of life that made it into the pantheon of the greatest personalities of all time. Ray Charles is the genius, a man that had the sensibility to add emotion in the R&B to create the soul music; Bob Marley is the legend, a man that in a lifespan of just 36 years achieved the status of a wise leader and helped to establish the reggae music as a worldly known style.
Keywords: Ray Charles, Bob Marley, soul, reggae, music, life, career.
The concept of genre is probably the least definable term in music. Where is the line that separates blues from rock and roll? When does a song cease to be called house to become trance? In an essay delivered at the First International Conference on Popular Music Studies, in 1981, Brazilian-Italian musicologist Franco Fabbri (p. 1) regarded it as “a set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules.” That is, the boundaries are so thin, and the artistry so unlimited, that musical genre should be ultimately regarded as a personal matter.
Human beings, however, have a natural instinct and obsessive desire to classify everything. There would not have been a “King of Pop” if pop was to be defined individually. It is for this reason that some eras in the music industry, standalone songs or prominent artists are used to describe the foundation or consolidation of a certain genre. It often leads to fervent discussions (as in to what extent Johnny Cash, for example, should be so intimately linked to country if many came before him with as much or even more height), but is nevertheless necessary to help people procure what they might enjoy.
Few singers, for that matter, can hold this title very close to the unanimity. This happens not only for their musical skill, which can and very often is replicated by others, or because of the effective marketing crew behind them — what effectively makes an artist the flagship of a style is an unmeasurable mixture of charisma, attitude and, why not, divineness. The importance of a person to something (especially when it comes to cultural values) is measured by the universal appealing of this person’s accomplishments, even among those who insist to work against the tide.
Two of the most recognized artists in this sense are Ray Charles and Bob Marley. While the former is always remembered as the creator of some of the greatest landmarks in the soul music, if not the gestation of the genre itself, the latter is widely known for introducing the world to the captivating sound of Jamaica, a style called reggae. Once again, apart from their undeniable talent and personal magnetism, the most important thing is that both are and will be for a good long time summoned into everyone’s mind for what they represent to their people and to the music history as a whole.
The Genius Of Ray Charles
Ray Charles Robinson was born in 1930 to pious catholic mother and a workman father. He was brought up in a poor community on the fringe of Greenville, a tiny city in the west side of Florida, and it was there, while still a little kid, that he started to show interest on the piano of a neighbour’s cafe. At the age of five, however, Ray started to develop an early type of glaucoma, and the ophthalmic-degenerative disease left him completely blind two years later.
After the incident Ray Charles was sent to a boarding school for deaf and blind children, where he would eventually develop his musical talents to a professional level in just a few years. No wonder: whilst attending the institute he lost both his parents, being at the mercy of a foster couple who cared for him through most part of his adolescence. In spite of this, however, and according to his official website (accessed in 26/5/13), Ray “still managed to make his way in this world under very trying conditions; living in the South and being of African-American heritage, plus being blind and an orphan.” At the age of 15 Ray took off to Jacksonville and started to make money with his musical gift.
In the beginning Ray Charles played the piano for several different bands around the city, as well as in restaurants and bars. But that was not what he wanted: his creative power demanded total creative control, and covering songs of other artists and playing only pre-defined setlists for establishments did not please his mind. It took him some time, but in 1947 Ray finally moved to Seattle and formed his own band. Their debut on the local radio stations, “Confession Blues”, came two years after the move. Three years more and he was signing first major contract.
It was 1953 when Ray Charles was called to work with the Atlantic Records, whereupon he promptly recorded one of his masterpieces: “Mess Around”. The song was his passport and business class ticket to immediate stardom. It showed the world what a prolific mind like his was capable of, turning a sped-up blues melody into this party-like boogie-woogie hymn. After this Ray composed a few other instant classics such as “It Should Have Been Me” and “I Got A Woman” and rapidly established himself as one of the most profitable artists of his time.
The initial success led him to another contract, now with a bigger company called ABC-Paramount. There, under the clauses that gave him total control of the recording process, Ray’s brilliance flourished in full. In the space of mere eight years he recorded distinguished songs like “Hit The Road Jack” and “Unchain My Heart” and ventured in different seas with albums such as “Genius + Soul = Jazz” and “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” (which also helped to relocate the genre into the mainstream culture again). Ray Charles was in his best form, therefore on the top of the world. Nothing could stop him, except for his only and one weakness: drugs.
During the last decades of his career, Ray Charles only rejoiced on his previous achievements, touring the world with very special concerts and releasing every now and then collections generally well received by the public. If the drug usage affected his creativity (or willingness to create) no-one can affirm with precision, but that would matter very little anyway: for all that Ray Charles did for the music, industry and craft, his genius is forever embroidered in its history.
On the music magazine Rolling Stone journalist and researcher Mark Kemp (accessed in 26/5/13) defines today’s representativity of Ray’s work in a nutshell: “He virtually invented soul music by bringing together the fervor of gospel, the secular lyrics and narratives of blues and country, the big-band arrangements of jazz, and the rhythms and improvisational possibilities from all of them.” A master of all genres, who for that very reason ended up creating one of his own.
Bob Marley: Legend
Robert Nesta Marley was born on the countryside of Jamaica, a small island situated in the Caribbean Sea, in 1945. His 60-year-old white Jamaican father provided for the family for about a decade, when he eventually died, but was seldom present. Bob was thus raised by his mother, a young black woman of 18 years of age with musical ambitions herself. This environment of disruption, racial difference, income discrepancies and, of course, artistic passion proved to have heavily influenced the work of one of the most politically engaged singer in history.
The first attempt to enter the music industry made by Bob Marley was in 1962, when he recorded, along with the famous producer Leslie Kong, a single called “Judge Not”. Even though the song is recognized nowadays, at the time it drew little or no attention of the critics. It was not until the following year that Bob started to become known in his country, and for a very promising reason: he joined fellow singers Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith to create the band Teenagers, later renamed Wailing Rudeboys and ultimately simply the Wailers.
With them Bob Marley recorded two albums that were well received in Jamaica but failed to ship to other shores: “I’m Still Waiting” and “Simmer Down”, later released worldwide. The group dissolved in 1966, and instead of going solo Bob took off to the USA for a season — probably a wise decision of his. When back later that year, he teamed again with Tosh and Livingston and revived the Wailers. The new formation, with the important addition of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, cut songs like "My Cup", "Duppy Conqueror" and "Soul Almighty", to which journalist Jason Ankeny (accessed in 26/5/13) referred as the “fused powerful vocals, ingenious rhythms, and visionary production lay the groundwork for much of the Jamaican music in their wake.”
In the year 1973 Bob initiated his ascending to the top. Completely immersed in the Rastafári culture, which would mark his life, the singer and his band wrote the album “Catch A Fire”, a symbol of the wisdom against political disarray and the peace of mind achieved with the rhythm of reggae music. The disc reached every corner of the planet, turning the words of Bob in that of a poet — or prophet —, fact that only consolidated in the following years with the release of true hymns such as “No Woman No Cry” (1974), “One Love/People Get Ready” (1977) and “Is This Love” (1978).
Bob Marley happened to discover a cancer too late to be treated and died at the age of just 36, in 1981. Even so his posthumous works, as well as those recorded before he became famous and that were later reissued, only helped to reinforce his aura of wise and sensible. The words Bob wrote are still now resounding in the minds and hearts of many that were born long after his death, as it is easily perceived by checking any social media update or the demand for his best of album “Legend”, a pure and plain confirmation that his art is simply atemporal.
In the event of Bob’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1994, fellow singer-songwriter Robert Palmer claimed that no other musician in history has left a musical legacy that matters more or one that matters in such fundamental ways. “Bob Marley was reggae’s foremost practitioner and emissary, embodying its spirit and spreading its gospel to all corners of the globe,” reads his biography on the Hall of Fame’s website (accessed in 26/5/13). “His extraordinary body of work embraces the stylistic spectrum of modern Jamaican music — from ska to rocksteady to reggae — while carrying the music to another level as a social force with universal appeal.”
Ray and Bob, The Genius Of A Legend
The mere fact that Ray Charles and Bob Marley still are subjects of articles and essays is a giveaway of their importance to the culture as a whole. One may dislike soul music or disapprove of the Rastafári’s beliefs, but nobody could ever deny that each of these artists contributed, each in his own way, to the development of the arts in general. Be it by creating a genre, be it by leaving behind lessons of universal applicability, Ray and Bob deserve above all the utmost respect of whoever faces their work.
In the book “Reggae and Caribbean Music” (2020, p 159) author Dave Thompson affirms that Bob Marley has “assured his immortality” with the “inspired body of work” he left behind. “The Bob Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine.” Thomson also defends that the importance of Bob Marley’s legacy to the humanity in general is something that can never be too much reassured.
Similar treatment was reserved to Ray Charles by the director’s board of the Polar Music Prize, considered by many the “Nobel of music”. When contemplating Ray with the first prize, in 1998, the executives called him “compelling, expressive and versatile singer and pianist, charismatic stage artist and crowd-puller and ingenious music-maker.” But for them there was still something else, an aura of supreme importance that should always be stressed. “No epithet,” the honouring follows, “could be more accurate and profoundly honourable than that which he has above personified throughout his career, namely ‘Father of Soul’.”
It is not easy to endure as an icon in this world full of vanity. Many tried, some held the position for a long time (just for a minor incident to stain their legacy) and only a few managed to maintain themselves as such. Ray Charles, the genius that introduced heart into the 1950s R&B and with that created the soul, and Bob Marley, who in such a short period of living time achieved and shared so many wisdom as to be called a legend, certainly are symbols that transcend any type of barrier. Their memory should and probably will always be perpetuated by those who still are touched by their work.
Fabbri, F. (1981). A Theory of Musical Genres: Two Applications. Retrieved from http://www.francofabbri.net/files/Testi_per_Studenti/ffabbri81a.pdf
Ray Charles Official Website (2013, May). Biography. Retrieved from http://raycharles.com/biography/
Kemp, M. (2013, May). Ray Charles: Biography. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/ray-charles/biography
Alkeny, J. (2013, May). Bob Marley Biography. Allmusic. Retrieved from http://www.allmusic.com/artist/bob-marley-mn0000071514
Palmer, R. (2013, May). Bob Marley Biography. The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Retrieved from http://rockhall.com/inductees/bob-marley/bio/
Thompson, D. (2002). Reggae And Caribbean Music. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books.
Polar Music Prize (2013, May). Ray Charles. The Laureates. Retrieved from http://www.polarmusicprize.org/home/ray-charles/?PHPSESSID=5b3505dde9dcde35a9822cbff273659b