Brother Ray—Ray Charles’ Own Story
By Ray Charles and David Ritz
De Capo Press
Seven months after his death, Ray Charles is everywhere with a hit movie based on his life and two albums currently in the Billboard charts. Though the elder statesman of American music lost his battle with cancer, his presence is still felt through his music and legend. Cynics might argue that the best thing a musician can do for his or her career is to die, but we should consider ourselves fortunate for the incredible music Charles left behind and for the fact that De Capo Press has seen fit to reissue his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray—Ray Charles’ Own Story, complete with a new afterword by David Ritz and an updated, annotated discography.
Ray’s reflections on his own life experiences, achievements, his battle with drugs and his thoughts on politics, religion, death and his fondness for women (including the particulars of the types of activities he most enjoys when in the company of them), are much like his music; powerful, yet plainspoken, brimming with bravado and a candor and honesty that shocks, disarms and draws the reader in to share his compelling story. Unlike other celebrity biographies, Charles makes no attempts to gloss over the less flattering aspects of his actions. Indeed, he consistently takes responsibility for all of his mistakes while shying away from taking credit for his accomplishments. It is clear from the first page that Ray Charles intends to be straight with his readers.
This conversational style is both profound and lewd, funny and somber. He speaks of the loss of his sight, the death of his younger brother and the devastating loss of his mother with dry eyes and unflinching earthiness. He proudly proclaims that he is a self-made man who relied little on the help of others to make his way in the world. As in life, it’s always refreshing to hear the words of someone who speaks the truth, however difficult the truth may be to hear and no matter how deeply the truth may force us to question our own preconceptions.
For those American music buffs looking for tasty tidbits about life on the road, the formation of Ray Charles’ musical identity and the inside scoop on the who, what, when and where of his career, this book rewards handsomely. Those seeking a fascinating and inspiring story of an American icon will also be pleased by his anecdotes and asides that punctuate his life story with a refreshing and uncompromising perspective.
David Ritz’ afterword, which concentrates on the musician’s final days, is touching without being sentimental. The buoyant self confidence with which Brother Ray told his story twenty seven years ago contrasts starkly with the Ray Charles of those latter days. His battle with cancer (one of Ray Charles’ greatest fears in life) left him frail and contemplative but no less determined to overcome obstacles. Ritz, clearly touched and in awe of his subject, provides a fitting epitaph for a man he came to know and love through his association with him.
Though not for the squeamish or easily offended, Brother Ray—Ray Charles’ Own Story is essential reading for music fans. David Ritz was able to assemble a coherent and entertaining book from hundreds of hours of interviews into a monologue that is both coarse and beautiful and, above all, relevant.
Read NT's eulogy / Atlantic box set review here.--Ed.