In this meticulously researched biography, Michael Lydon presents a thorough, appreciative appraisal of Ray Charles's music even as he lays bare the singer's monumental defects of character. Born in 1930 to a mother too young and sick to take care of him and abandoned by his father, Ray Charles Robinson learned early to live by his wits. When he was seven, he lost his sight. He spent the next eight years far from home at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. Here he developed his astounding musical talent and the resolve to do something with it.

From the beginning of his career, Charles (he dropped the Robinson in 1948) was a melting pot of musical styles -- loving and performing every pop sound from big band to jazz to country. Lydon has amassed and arranged so many details about Charles and his milieu that reading the book is very much like watching a fine documentary. Often the power of the writing pulls us into the action. We stand quietly at the back of the studio as Charles wades excitedly into a recording session; or we sprawl exhausted on the band bus at night as it barrels and rattles through the anonymous American countryside. Besides exploring such high points as Charles's breakthrough at Atlantic Records, his involvement in civil rights, and his popularizing of country music, Lydon also invites us to share in the everyday tedium and pettiness of the maestro's performing life.

In spite of his reverence for the music, Lydon pulls no punches in depicting Charles's cold-hearted treatment of band members and his indifference to his wives, lovers, and the children they bore him. Charles's voracious appetite for women, Lydon shows, was rivaled only by his ultimately quenched passion for hard drugs. This engaging text is accompanied by photographs, bibliography, discography, index, and extensive source notes. Edward Morris is a Nashville-based journalist.

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