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The Raelettes

As the longtime backing singers behind R&B immortal Ray Charles, the Raelettes deftly navigated the tightrope separating the sacred and the profane, infusing their gospel-inspired call-and-response vocals with a powerful eroticism that vaulted Charles to new levels of commercial and creative triumph. The roots of the Raelettes lie in another girl group, the Cookies, formed in Brooklyn in 1954 by vocalists Earl-Jean McCrea, Margie Hendrix, and Pat Lyles. After making their debut by taking top honors at the famed Apollo Theater's Amateur Night, the Cookies signed to Atlantic Records, backing LaVern Baker, Big Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown in addition to recording as headliners, scoring an R&B Top Ten hit with 1956's "In Paradise." In the meantime, Charles recruited vocalist Mary Ann Fisher to join him on duets, and when Atlantic session producer Jesse Stone introduced him to the Cookies, the singer simply added Fisher to their lineup and rechristened the group the Raelettes, the name supposedly a not-so-subtle reference to Charles' infamous infidelities -- that is, they had to "let Ray." When Fisher and Hendrix opted to remain with Charles full-time, the remaining Cookies returned to their own recording career, creating an opening for Della Bea Robinson and Darlene McRae to join the Raelettes. Robinson would go on to become Charles' second wife, although with Hendrix he also fathered a son, Charles Wayne; regardless of what went on off-stage, however, the Raelettes' musical contributions are undeniable. Their interplay with Charles captures a palpable sexuality remarkable for its time, and it is impossible to imagine classics like "The Right Time," "What'd I Say," or "Hit the Road, Jack" scaling such heights without their involvement. When Charles founded his Tangerine label in 1965, the Raelettes also recorded as headliners, releasing a series of singles including "That Goes to Show You," "You Have a Way with Me," and "Bad Water." A few were minor R&B chart hits, but the group's revolving-door lineup (famous alumni include Minnie Riperton, Merry Clayton, Edna Wright, and latter-day Supreme Susaye Greene) effectively crippled its momentum. Onetime Stax solo artist Mable John assumed lead vocal duties in 1970, authoring the Raelettes hit "I Wanna Do Everything for You" and helming the group on a Far East tour independent of Charles; when she left the lineup in 1976 to attend ministry school, the Raelettes returned to the background for good, with various lineup iterations backing Charles until his 2004 death. ~ Jason Ankeny
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