On September 23, 1930, Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, in the United States. Known professionally as Ray Charles, he lost his sight at the age of seven but would go on to pioneer the genre of soul music during the 1950s by combining blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel styles into the music he recorded for Atlantic Records. He also contributed to the integration of country music, rhythm and blues and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his two Modern Sounds albums. While he was with ABC, Charles became one of the first black musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company. Among friends and fellow musicians, he preferred being called “Brother Ray.” He was often referred to as “The Genius.”
Charles cited Nat King Cole as a primary influence, but his music was also influenced by country, jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues artists of the day, including Louis Jordan and Charles Brown. He became friends with Quincy Jones. Their friendship lasted until the end of Charles’s life. Frank Sinatra called Ray Charles “the only true genius in show business,” although Charles downplayed this notion. In 2002, Rolling Stone ranked Charles number ten on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”, and number two on their November 2008 list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” Billy Joel observed, “This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley”.
Ray Charles Robinson was the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha (or Reatha) Williams. At the time, his mother was a teenage orphan making a living as a sharecropper. They lived in Greenville, Florida with Robinson’s father and his wife, Mary Jane Robinson. The Robinson family had informally adopted Aretha (or Reatha), and she took the surname Robinson. When she became pregnant by Bailey, incurring scandal, she left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with family members in Albany, Georgia for the baby’s birth, after which mother and child returned to Greenville. She and Mary Jane then shared in Ray’s upbringing. He was deeply devoted to his mother and later recalled her perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride as guiding lights in his life. His father abandoned the family, left Greenville, and took another wife elsewhere.
In his early years, Charles showed an interest in mechanical objects and would often watch his neighbors working on their cars and farm machinery. His musical curiosity was sparked at Wylie Pitman’s Red Wing Cafe, at the age of three, when Pitman played boogie woogie on an old upright piano; Pitman subsequently taught Charles how to play the piano. Charles and his mother were always welcome at the Red Wing Cafe and even lived there when they were in financial distress. Pitman would also care for Ray’s younger brother George, to take some of the burden off their mother. George drowned in his mother’s laundry tub when he was four years old. Charles started to lose his sight at the age of four or five, and was completely blind by the age of seven, apparently as a result of glaucoma. Destitute, uneducated and still mourning the loss of her younger son, Aretha (or Reatha) Robinson used her connections in the local community to find a school that would accept a blind African-American student. Despite his initial protest, Charles attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945.
Charles further developed his musical talent at school and was taught to play the classical piano music of J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. His teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, taught him how to use braille music which was a difficult process that requires learning the left hand movements by reading braille with the right hand and learning the right hand movements by reading braille with the left hand, and then combining the two parts. While Charles was happy to play classical music, he was more interested in the jazz, blues and country music he heard on the radio. On Fridays, the South Campus Literary Society held assemblies at which Charles would play piano and sing popular songs. On both Halloween and George Washington’s birthday, the black department of the school held socials at which Charles would play. It was here he established “RC Robinson and the Shop Boys” and sang his own arrangement of “Jingle Bell Boogie”. During this time, he performed on WFOY radio in St. Augustine.
When Charles was 14 years old in the spring of 1945, his mother died. Her death came as a shock to him; he later said that the deaths of his brother and mother were “the two great tragedies” of his life. Charles returned to school after the funeral but was expelled in October for playing a prank on his teacher.
After leaving school, Charles moved to Jacksonville with a couple who had been friends with his late mother. He played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla for over a year, earning $4 a night (US$49 in 2016 dollars). He joined the musicians’ union in the hope that it would help him get work. He befriended many union members, but others were less kind to him because he would monopolize the union hall’s piano, since he did not have one at home. He started to build a reputation as a talented musician in Jacksonville, but the jobs did not come fast enough for him to construct a strong identity. He decided to leave Jacksonville and move to a bigger city with more opportunities.
At age 16, Charles moved to Orlando, where he lived in borderline poverty and went without food for days. It was difficult for musicians to find work, as since World War II had ended there were no “G.I. Joes” left to entertain. Charles eventually started to write arrangements for a pop music band, and in the summer of 1947 he unsuccessfully auditioned to play piano for Lucky Millinder and his sixteen-piece band.
In 1947, Charles moved to Tampa, where he had two jobs: one as a pianist for Charles Brantley’s Honeydippers, a seven-piece band, and another as a member of a white country band called the Florida Playboys (though there is no historical trace of his involvement in the Florida Playboys besides his own testimony). This is when he began his habit of always wearing sunglasses, made by designer Billy Stickles. In his early career, he modeled himself on Nat “King” Cole. His first four recordings — “Wondering and Wondering”, “Walking and Talking”, “Why Did You Go?” and “I Found My Baby There” — were supposedly made in Tampa, although some discographies also claim he recorded them in Miami in 1951 or Los Angeles in 1952.
Charles had always played piano for other people, but he was keen to have his own band. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, and, considering Chicago and New York City too big, followed his friend Gossie McKee to Seattle, Washington, in March 1948, knowing that the biggest radio hits came from northern cities. Here he met and befriended, under the tutelage of Robert Blackwell, a 15-year-old Quincy Jones.
He started playing the one-to-five A.M. shift at the Rocking Chair with his band McSon Trio, which featured McKee on guitar and Milton Garrett on bass. Publicity photos of the trio are some of the earliest known photographs of Charles. In April 1949, he and his band recorded “Confession Blues”, which became his first national hit, soaring to the second spot on the Billboard R&B chart. While still working at the Rocking Chair, he also arranged songs for other artists, including Cole Porter’s “Ghost of a Chance” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Emanon”. After the success of his first two singles, Charles moved to Los Angeles in 1950, and spent the next few years touring with the blues musician Lowell Fulson as his musical director.
In 1950, his performance in a Miami hotel impressed Henry Stone, who went on to record a Ray Charles Rockin’ record (which never became particularly popular). During his stay in Miami, Charles was required to stay in the segregated but thriving black community of Overtown. Stone later helped Jerry Wexler find Charles in St. Petersburg.
After joining Swing Time Records, he recorded two more R&B hits under the name Ray Charles: “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” (1951), which reached number five, and “Kissa Me Baby” (1952), which reached number eight. Swing Time folded the following year, and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.
In June 1952, Atlantic Records bought Charles’s contract for $2,500 (US$22,547 in 2016 dollars). His first recording session for Atlantic (“The Midnight Hour”/”Roll with My Baby”) took place in September 1952, although his last Swingtime release (“Misery in My Heart”/”The Snow Is Falling”) would not appear until February 1953. He began recording jump blues and boogie-woogie as well as slower blues ballads, in which he continued to show the vocal influences of Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown.
In 1953, “Mess Around” became Charles’s first hit for Atlantic; the following year he had hits with “It Should Have Been Me” and “Don’t You Know”, which became his first chart success for Atlantic. He also recorded the songs “Midnight Hour” and “Sinner’s Prayer”. Some elements of his own vocal style were evident in “Sinner’s Prayer”, “Mess Around”, and “Don’t You Know”.
Late in 1954, Charles recorded his own composition “I Got a Woman”. It became one of his most notable hits, reaching number two on the R&B chart. “I Got a Woman” included a mixture of gospel, jazz and blues elements that would later prove to be seminal in the development of rock and roll and soul music. In 1955, he had hits with “This Little Girl of Mine” and “A Fool for You”. In upcoming years, he scored with “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”. By 1959, “What’d I Say” had reached the Billboard Top Ten, making him a major figure in R&B.
Parallel to his R&B career, Charles also recorded instrumental jazz albums, such as The Great Ray Charles (1957). During this time, he also worked with the jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson, releasing Soul Brothers in 1958 and Soul Meeting in 1961. By 1958, Charles was not only headlining black venues such as the Apollo Theater, in New York, and the Uptown Theater, in Philadelphia, but also bigger venues, such as the Newport Jazz Festival (where his first live album was recorded).
In 1956, Charles recruited a young all-female singing group, the Cookies, and reshaped them as the Raelettes. Until then, he had used his wife and other musicians to back him on recordings such as “This Little Girl of Mine” and “Drown in My Own Tears”. The Raelettes’ first recording session with Charles was on the bluesy gospel-inflected “Leave My Woman Alone”.
Charles reached the pinnacle of his success at Atlantic with the release of “What’d I Say”, a complex song that combined gospel, jazz, blues and Latin music, which Charles would later claim he had composed spontaneously as he was performing in clubs and dances with his small band. Despite some radio stations banning the song because of its sexually suggestive lyrics, the song became Charles’s first crossover top-ten pop record.
Later in 1959, he released his first country song (a cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”) and also recorded three more albums for the label: a jazz record (released in 1961 as The Genius After Hours); a blues record (released in 1961 as The Genius Sings the Blues); and a traditional pop–big band record (The Genius of Ray Charles). The Genius of Ray Charles was his first top-40 album, peaking at number 17, and was later viewed as a landmark record in his career.
Charles’s Atlantic contract expired in the fall of 1959, with several big labels offered him record deals; choosing not to renegotiate his contract with Atlantic, he signed with ABC-Paramount Records in November 1959. He obtained a more liberal contract than other artists had at the time, with ABC offering him a $50,000 (US$410,788 in 2016 dollars) annual advance, higher royalties than before and eventual ownership of his master tapes — a very valuable and lucrative deal at the time. During his Atlantic years, Charles had been heralded for his own inventive compositions, but by the time of the release of the instrumental jazz album Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960) for ABC’s subsidiary label Impulse!, he had virtually given up on writing original material, instead following his eclectic impulses as an interpreter.
With “Georgia on My Mind”, his first hit single for ABC-Paramount in 1960, Charles received national acclaim and four Grammy Awards, including two for “Georgia on My Mind” (Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track, Male, and Best Performance by a Pop Single Artist). Written by the composers Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael, the song was Charles’s first work with Sid Feller, who produced, arranged and conducted the recording. Charles earned another Grammy for the follow-up “Hit the Road Jack”, written by the R&B singer and songwriter Percy Mayfield.
By late 1961, Charles had expanded his small road ensemble to a full-scale big band, partly as a response to increasing royalties and touring fees, becoming one of the few black artists to cross over into mainstream pop with such a level of creative control. This success, however, came to a momentary halt during a concert tour in November 1961, when a police search of Charles’s hotel room in Indianapolis, Indiana, led to the discovery of heroin in the medicine cabinet. The case was eventually dropped, as the search lacked a proper warrant by the police, and Charles soon returned to music.
In the early 1960s, whilst on the way from Louisiana to Oklahoma City, Charles faced a near-death experience when the pilot of his plane lost visibility, as snow and his failure to use the defroster caused the windshield of the plane to become completely covered in ice. The pilot made a few circles in the air before he was finally able to see through a small part of the windshield and land the plane. Charles placed a spiritual interpretation on the event, claiming that “something or someone which instruments cannot detect” was responsible for creating the small opening in the ice on the windshield which enabled the pilot to land the plane safely.
The 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, helped to bring country music into the musical mainstream. Charles’s version of the Don Gibson song “I Can’t Stop Loving You” topped the Pop chart for five weeks, stayed at number 1 on the R&B chart for ten weeks, and gave him his only number-one record in the UK. In 1962, he founded his own record label, Tangerine Records, which ABC-Paramount promoted and distributed. He had major pop hits in 1963 with “Busted” (US number 4) and Take These Chains from My Heart (US number 8).
In 1965, Charles’s career was halted once more after he was arrested for a third time for possession of heroin. He agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time and eventually kicked his habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. After spending a year on parole, Charles reappeared in the charts in 1966 with a series of hits composed with the fledgling team of Ashford & Simpson, including the dance number “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, which became his first number-one R&B hit in several years. His cover version of “Crying Time”, originally recorded by the country artist Buck Owens, reached number 6 on the pop chart and helped Charles win a Grammy Award the following March. In 1967, he had a top-twenty hit with another ballad, “Here We Go Again”.
Charles’s renewed chart success, however, proved to be short lived, and by the 1970s his music was rarely played on radio stations. The rise of psychedelic rock and harder forms of rock and R&B music had reduced Charles’ radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of contemporary rock and soul hits, since his earnings from owning his masters had taken away the motivation to write new material. Charles nonetheless continued to have an active recording career. Most of his recordings between 1968 and 1973 evoked strong reactions: people either liked them a lot or strongly disliked them. His 1972 album A Message from the People included his unique gospel-influenced version of “America the Beautiful” and a number of protest songs about poverty and civil rights. Charles was often criticized for his version of “America the Beautiful” because it was very drastically changed from the song’s original version. The common argument against this is that the words are scattered and changed, but the music in the background remains beautiful and untouched. Many people believed that this was a perfect representation of the freedom Americans are given, free to do what they want, so long as they follow the laws (of music) that we are given.
In 1974, Charles left ABC Records and recorded several albums on his own label, Crossover Records. A 1975 recording of Stevie Wonder’s hit “Living for the City” later helped Charles win another Grammy. In 1977, he reunited with Ahmet Ertegün and re-signed to Atlantic Records, for which he recorded the album True to Life, remaining with his old label until 1980. However, the label had now begun to focus on rock acts, and some of their prominent soul artists, such as Aretha Franklin, were starting to be neglected. In November 1977, he appeared as the host of the NBC television show Saturday Night Live. In April 1979, his version of “Georgia on My Mind” was proclaimed the state song of Georgia, and an emotional Charles performed the song on the floor of the state legislature. Although he had notably supported the American Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, Charles was criticized for performing at the Sun City resort in South Africa in 1981, during an international boycott protesting that country’s apartheid policy.
In 1983, Charles signed a contract with Columbia Records. He recorded a string of country albums and had hit singles in duets with singers such as George Jones, Chet Atkins, B. J. Thomas, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Jr., Dee Dee Bridgewater (“Precious Thing”) and his longtime friend Willie Nelson, with whom he recorded the number 1 country duet “Seven Spanish Angels”.
Prior to the release of his first album for Warner, Would You Believe, Charles made a return to the R&B charts with a cover of the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good to You”, a duet with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones and the singer Chaka Khan, which hit number one on the R&B chart in 1990 and won Charles and Khan a Grammy for their duet. Prior to this, Charles returned to the pop charts with “Baby Grand”, a duet with the singer Billy Joel. In 1989, he recorded a cover of the Southern All Stars’ “Itoshi no Ellie” for a Japanese TV advertisement for the Suntory brand, releasing it in Japan as “Ellie My Love”, where it reached number 3 on its Oricon chart. In the same year, he was a special guest at the Arena di Verona during the tour promoting Oro Incenso & Birra of the italian singer Zucchero Fornaciari.
Charles’s 1993 album My World became his first album in some time to reach the Billboard 200, whilst his cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” gave him a hit on the adult contemporary chart and his twelfth and final Grammy. By the beginning of the 1980s, Charles was reaching younger audiences with appearances in films and TV shows. In 1980, he appeared in the film The Blues Brothers. Charles’s version of “Night Time Is the Right Time” was played during The Cosby Show episode “Happy Anniversary”, but he did not appear on the show. In 1985, he appeared among a group of other musicians in the USA for Africa charity recording “We Are the World”. Charles’s popularity increased among younger audiences in 1991 after he appeared in a series of Diet Pepsi television commercials, which featured him singing the catchphrase “You Got the Right One, Baby”. Two more slickly produced adult contemporary albums followed, Strong Love Affair (1996) and Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again (2002); both failed to chart and were soon forgotten.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he made appearances on the television show Super Dave Osbourne in a series of vignettes in which he was somehow driving a car, often as Super Dave’s chauffeur. During the sixth season of Designing Women, Charles sang “Georgia on My Mind” in place of the instrumental cover version which had been used in the previous five seasons. He also appeared in four episodes of the popular TV comedy The Nanny, playing Sammy in seasons 4 and 5 in 1997–1998. In 2001 and 2002, Charles appeared in commercials for the New Jersey Lottery to promote its campaign “For every dream, there’s a jackpot”. During this same period, Charles toured in numerous countries around the world; he was extremely popular in Japan. When he appeared in London and Paris, he usually flew in the Concorde, while his band arrived separately in a 747.
Charles performed at two US Presidential inaugurations: Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, in 1985, and Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993. On October 28, 2001, several weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Charles appeared during game 2 of the World Series, between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees, and performed “America the Beautiful”. In the same year, he collaborated once again with Zucchero Fornaciari who sampled a piece of melody coming from “What’d I Say” in the album Shake.
In 2003, he headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., attended by President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Also in 2003, Charles presented Van Morrison with Morrison’s award upon being inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the two sang Morrison’s song “Crazy Love” (the performance appears on Morrison’s 2007 album The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3). In 2003, Charles performed “Georgia on My Mind” and “America the Beautiful” at a televised annual banquet of electronic media journalists held in Washington, D.C. His final public appearance was on April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as a historic landmark in Los Angeles.
In 2003, Charles had successful hip replacement surgery and was planning to go back on tour, until he began suffering from other ailments. He died at his home in Beverly Hills, California of complications resulting from acute liver disease, on June 10, 2004, aged 73, surrounded by family and friends. His funeral took place on June 18, 2004, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles with numerous musical figures in attendance. B. B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder and Wynton Marsalis each played a tribute at the funeral. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
His final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B. B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Johnny Mathis. The album won eight Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (for “Here We Go Again”, with Norah Jones), and Best Gospel Performance (for “Heaven Help Us All”, with Gladys Knight); he also received nods for his duets with Elton John and B. B. King. The album included a version of Harold Arlen’s and E. Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow”, sung as a duet with Johnny Mathis, which was played at Charles’s memorial service.
Two more posthumous albums were released: Genius & Friends (2005), a selection of duets recorded from 1997 to 2004 with artists of Charles’s choice, including “Big Bad Love” with Diana Ross, and Ray Sings, Basie Swings (2006), which combined live vocal performances by Charles from the mid-1970s recorded from the concert mixing board with new instrumental tracks specially recorded by the contemporary Count Basie Orchestra and other musicians to create a “fantasy concert” recording.
Scott #4807 was released on September 23, 2003, the third entry in the United States Postal Service’s Music Icons stamp series. The stamp features a photo by Yves Carrére taken late in Charles’ career. The stamp and full pane were designed to resemble a 45 RPM record sleeve, with the pane picturing part of a record peeking through the top. There were two first day of issues ceremonies, one at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and the other at the Ray Charles Preforming Arts Center in Atlanta. The “Forever” self-adhesive stamp was offset printed in sheets of 144 (nine panes of 16) by the Banknote Corporation of America for Sennett Security Products and perforated with serpentine die cuts of 10½. It was sold at the 46-cent first class letter rate for one ounce at the time of its release. There were 60,000,000 of the stamps printed.
Ray Charles possessed one of the most recognizable voices in American music. In the words of musicologist Henry Pleasants:
“Sinatra, and Bing Crosby before him, had been masters of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm… It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He can’t tell it to you. He can’t even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair—or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message.“
His style and success in the genres of rhythm and blues and jazz had an influence on a number of highly successful artists, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Billy Joel, and Steve Winwood. According to Joe Levy, a music editor for Rolling Stone, “The hit records he made for Atlantic in the mid-50’s mapped out everything that would happen to rock ‘n’ roll and soul music in the years that followed”. Charles was also an inspiration to Pink Floyd member Roger Waters, who told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet: “I was about 15. In the middle of the night with friends, we were listening to jazz. It was “Georgia on My Mind”, Ray Charles’s version. Then I thought ‘One day, if I make some people feel only one-twentieth of what I am feeling now, it will be quite enough for me.'”
Ray, a biopic portraying his life and career between the mid-1930s and 1979, was released in October 2004, starring Jamie Foxx as Charles. Foxx won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role. On December 7, 2007, the Ray Charles Plaza was opened in his hometown of Albany, Georgia, featuring a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano. The plaza’s dedication was attended by his daughter Sheila Raye Charles.