Ray Charles, who died today at age 73, is most closely associated with Atlantic Records over his long and glorious career. Jerry Wexler, his producer at Atlantic, told me this afternoon that Charles came to the label from a small California record company, Swing Time, when Ahmet Ertegun bought out his contract for $2000. It was the best investment Atlantic ever made.
At Atlantic, Charles — who'd been a session man — was suddenly on his own. He recorded his albums with his seven-piece band, Wexler said, composed of four horn players and three musicians on rhythm. "No guitars," Wexler said, "Can you imagine that, considering he was one of the fathers of rock and roll?" At Atlantic, Charles wrote all his own songs. "And I don't think he ever wrote another song after he left us."
Wexler said he recently spoke to Charles, who, he said, was "day to day" with liver cancer for the last several weeks. "He told me, the years with you guys were the best."
Indeed, they were. At Atlantic, Charles recorded his best album, and one of the best albums ever made, "The Genius of Ray Charles." It contains some of the most important brilliant recordings of all time, including "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying."
Quincy Jones was supposed to arrange the strings for one side of the album, but wasn't ready in time, Wexler recalled. "Ray said, Who's been doing the strings for your Chris Connor albums? I said, Ralph Burns, and that was how we got Ralph."
Four Charles hits, including the classic "I Got A Woman," were recorded in Atlanta at a radio station that also functioned as a studio. "We had to stop every hour to give the news and weather," Wexler said.
More tomorrow on the passing of this immortal musician.