RAY CHARLES by Michael Lydon


Man and Music
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A disappointingly superficial account of the life of one of popular music’s elder statesmen. Veteran pop-music critic Lydon (Writing and Life, 1995, etc.) follows Charles’s journey from his childhood in Florida, where he lost his brother and mother as well as his sight, by the age of 15, his life at a school for deaf and blind children (where he distinguished himself with both his intelligence and his mischief), and the launch of his professional career in Seattle at age 17. While in Seattle, Charles meets an even younger Quincy Jones and forms an extremely important, lifelong friendship. Lydon chronicles Charles’s juggernaut to fame and his simultaneous descent into heroin addiction in the 1950s and ’60s, through his hibernation during the 1970s, and finally his political appearances singing “America the Beautiful” at party conventions and his jingles in the cola wars. Drug arrests and subsequent litigation form a substantial part of Lydon’s narrative. Finally given an ultimatum by a judge (he could choose prison or his career), Charles kicks his habit. However, as Lydon describes it, alcoholism remains a daily part of Charles’s life, and Lydon is surprisingly blasÇ about the subject, noting that Charles drinks all day long but never showing the musician seeking treatment or even acknowledging that his daily drinking is a problem. Lydon is a facile writer, but his failure to delve into the meatier parts of Charles’s life—particularly his relationships with his wives and children—in any depth is disappointing. Similarly, Charles’s progression to blindness over several years is covered in only a couple of pages. It’s been 20 years since Charles’s autobiography was published; time was ripe for a new look at his life. Ironically, Lydon notes that the autobiography has “only one fully fleshed-out character: Brother Ray”; the same could be said for his own work. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1999
ISBN: 1-57322-132-5
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


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