Ray Charles (Ray Charles Robinson) (September 23, 1930 – June 10,
2004), was a pioneering American pianist and soul singer who helped shape
the sound of rhythm and blues and brought a soulful sound to everything
from country music to pop standards to a now-iconic rendition of "America
the Beautiful." Frank Sinatra called him "the only genius in
He was born Ray Charles Robinson in [[Albany, Georgia}in1930. His name
was shortened to Ray Charles when he entered show business to avoid confusion
with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Charles began going blind at around age
five and was totally blind by age seven. He said that the causes were undiagnosed,
but many believe it was as a result of glaucoma. Just before his eyes began
to fail, he witnessed his younger brother, George, drown in a washtub.
He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in
St. Augustine, Florida as a charity case; he learned how to read Braille,
as well as to write music and play various instruments. While he was there,
his mother, who had raised him, died.
After he left school, Charles began working as a musician in Florida,
eventually moving to Seattle in 1947. He soon started recording, achieving
his first hit song with "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951).
Early influences on his work were Nat King Cole (both his vocals and
piano playing) and Charles Brown. While his first recordings were only
skillful imitations of his heroes, Charles' music soon became more innovative.
He toured with Lowell Fulson and worked with Guitar Slim and Ruth Brown.
After joining Atlantic Records, Charles' sound became more original.
For example, Charles controversially adapted secular lyrics to many gospel
songs, and then played them with jazz backgrounds.
His first hit in this mode was "Mess Around," which was based
on the 1929 classic "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith
and written by Ahmet Ertegun, his producer at Atlantic Records. He had
another hit with the rap-like urban jive of "It Should Have Been
Me," but went into high gear with the gospel drive of "I Got
A Woman." (1955) This was followed by "This Little Girl of
Mine," "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hallelujah I Love
Her So," and "Lonely Avenue," half of them were gospel
songs converted with secular lyrics, and the others blues ballads.
Although Charles was criticized for singing gospel songs with secular
lyrics, there is a long tradition of putting religious lyrics to popular
songs and vice versa. See Thomas A. Dorsey, one of the founders of gospel
music, who also had a significant career in secular music. Solomon Burke
and Little Richard also moved between the two styles.
After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he achieved mainstream
success with "(The Night Time is) The Right Time" and his 1957
signature song, "What'd I Say." The essence of this phase of
his career can be heard on his live album Ray Charles In Person, recorded
before a mostly African American audience in Atlanta in 1958. This album
also features the first public performance of "What'd I Say." It
broke out as a hit in Atlanta from the tape, months before it was recorded
in the studio in a two-part version with better fidelity.
Charles had already begun to go beyond the limits of his blues-gospel
synthesis while still at Atlantic, which now called him The Genius. He
recorded with large orchestras and with jazz artists like Milt Jackson
and even made his first country music cover with Hank Snow's "I'm
Then, he moved on to ABC Records. At ABC, Charles had a great deal of
control over his music, and broadened his approach, not on experimental
side projects, but with pop music, resulting in such hits as "Unchain
My Heart" and "Hit the Road, Jack." In 1962, Charles surprised
his new, broad audience with his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country
and Western Music, which included the numbers "I Can't Stop Loving
You" and "You Don't Know Me." This was followed by a series
of hits, including "You Are My Sunshine," "Crying Time," "Busted" and "Unchain
In 1961, Charles cancelled a concert scheduled to take place in the
Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia to protest segregated seating. Contrary
to what the biopic Ray says, he was never banned in Georgia, although
he did have to pay the promoter compensation.
In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which
he had been addicted for seventeen years. It was his third arrest for
the offense, but he avoided prison time after kicking the habit in a
clinic in Los Angeles. He spent a year on parole and defiantly released
Ashford and Simpson's "Lets Go Get Stoned." (1966)
After the 1960s, Charles' releases were hit-or-miss, with some massive
hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that was dismissed
as unoriginal and staid. He concentrated largely on live performances,
although his version of "Georgia On My Mind," a Hoagy Carmichael
song originally written for a girl named Georgia, was a hit and soon
was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, with Charles
performing it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success
with his unique version of "America the Beautiful." In 1980
Charles made a musical cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers.
In the late 1980s, a number of events increased Ray's recognition among
young audiences. In 1985, "Night Time is the Right Time" was
featured in the episode "Happy Anniversary" of The Cosby Show.
Cast members used the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that
helped the show secure its wide viewership. In 1986, he collaborated
with Billy Joel on "Baby Grand" for Joel's album The Bridge.
In 1987, Charles guest-starred in the episode "Hit the Road, Chad," of
Who's the Boss. Charles performed the song, "Always a Friend." Charles'
new connection with audiences helped secure a spokesmanship for Diet
Pepsi. In this highly successful advertising campaign, Charles popularized
the catchphrase "You've got the right one, baby!" At the height
of his newfound fame in the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals
for quite a few projects. These included the INXS song "Please (You've
Got That...)," on the Full Moon, Dirty Hearts album, as well as
the theme song for Designing Women in its sixth season. He also appeared
(with Chaka Khan) on long time friend Quincy Jones' hit I'll Be Good
To You in 1990. In 2004 he did a duets album, Genius Loves Company, which
got nominated in the Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of
the year and Record of the year. He won Album of the year and record
of the year. A duet with Norah Jones, Here We Go Again, was nominated
for Best Song.
Cover of a posthumous release, Genius Loves Company. One of Charles'
last public performances was in 2003 at a televised annual electronic
journalist banquet held in Washington, D.C. He performed "Georgia
On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful," though the singer
was a bit slower and had some more vocal difficulty than in his younger
days. Ray Charles' final public appearance came on April 30, 2004, at
the dedication of his music studio as an historic landmark in the city
of Los Angeles.
He died at age 73 of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, surrounded
by family and friends. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery
in Inglewood, California.
His final album, Genius Loves Company, released 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
Unlike a similar Frank Sinatra album, the duets were recorded face-to-face,
with both performers in the studio at the same time.
Charles was significantly involved in the critically-acclaimed biopic
Ray, an October 2004 film which portrays his life and career between
1930 and 1966 and stars Jamie Foxx as Charles. Foxx won the 2005 Best
Actor Academy Award for the role.
Before shooting could begin, however, director Taylor Hackford brought
Foxx to meet Charles, who heard that the younger man was an accomplished
pianist and insisted that they sit down at two pianos and jam. For two
hours, Charles challenged Foxx, who revealed the depth of his talent,
and finally, Charles stood up, hugged Foxx, and proclaimed, "He's
the one...he can do it," thus giving his blessing.
Charles was able to attend a showing of the completed film, but he died
before it opened in theaters.
The film's credits note that he is survived by 12 children, 21 grandchildren,
and five great grandchildren.
Many of today's artists continue to honor the legacy of Charles. The
2005 Grammy Awards were dedicated to him, and Alicia Keys performed a
virtual duet with Charles — that is, a clip of Charles performing "America
the Beautiful" was played on the Jumbotron screen, while Keys sang
live — at Super Bowl XXXIX.
Charles was posthumously awarded a Grammy
for his work on Genius Loves Company.
Charles's estate is worth an estimated $100 million.
Recognition in Halls of Fame
He was an original inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is
also a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of
Fame, the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Jazz
Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Florida Artists Hall
of Fame, and the Playboy Hall of Fame.
Despite his support of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s and his
support for the civil rights movement, Charles courted controversy when
he toured South Africa in 1981 despite an international boycott of the
country because of its apartheid policy. He faced pickets in South Africa
and in 15 North American cities he toured subsequently including Albany,
Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. The United Nations agency supporting
the boycott asked him to apologize and promise not to visit South Africa
until the abolition of apartheid to which he responded that they could "kindly
kiss (my) far end." Despite having described himself as a "Hubert
Humphrey Democrat," Charles accepted $100,000 to perform "America
the Beautiful" at former U.S. president Ronald Reagan's second inaugural
ball. In response to criticism, his manager, Roy Adams, commented: "For
that kind of money he would have sung 'America the Beautiful' at a Ku
Klux Klan rally."
A notorious ladies' man, Charles was married twice and fathered twelve
children by seven different women. In a 60 Minutes profile, he admitted
to Ed Bradley that he "auditioned" his female back-up singers.
The saying was, "To be a Raelette, you've got to let Ray."
From the time of his switch from straight rhythm and blues with a combo,
Charles was often accused of selling out. He left behind his classic
formulation of rhythm and blues to sing country music, pop songs, and
soft-drink commercials. In the process, he went from a niche audience
to worldwide fame.
When I started to sing like myself — as opposed to imitating Nat
Cole, which I had done for a while — when I started singing like
Ray Charles, it had this spiritual and churchy, this religious or gospel
sound. It had this holiness and preachy tone to it. It was very controversial.
I got a lot of criticism for it." — (San Jose Mercury News,
Do it right or don’t do it at all. That comes from my mom. If there’s
something I want to do, I’m one of those people that won’t
be satisfied until I get it done. If I’m trying to sing something
and I can’t get it, I’m going to keep at it until I get where
I want it." — (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 1998)
The fact of the matter is, you don’t give up what’s natural.
Anything I’ve fantasized about, I’ve done." — (Los
Angeles Times, 1989)
(1959) The Genius of Ray Charles
(1962) Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
(1991) The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings
(2004) Genius Loves Company
Songs in movies
In 1980, Shake Your Tailfeather was in the movie Blues Brothers.
In 1987, Mess Around was featured in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,
'performed' by John Candy in a rental car.
In 1993, You Don't Know Me was featured in the movie Groundhog Day, with
Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.
In 2001, I Can't Stop Loving You was featured over the largely-silent
ending climax of the animated film Metropolis.