Ray CharlesSep 1st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1930-2004 Ray Charles was a multitalented musician who artfully combined disparate musical traditions into his own pioneering genre. He overcame blindness and tragedy to become one of the most beloved and popular musicians of the 20th century.
Tragedy in Childhood
Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Greenville, Florida, and it was there that Charles, only five years old, watched helplessly as his baby brother drowned in a washtub. Charles was devastated, and soon after, he began to lose his sight to glaucoma. By the age of seven, he was officially blind. His mother secured him a scholarship at the Florida State School for the Blind and Deaf in St. Augustine.
Music had always been part of Charles’ life, from the gospel music he sang in church to the country and western music he listened to on the Grand Old Opry radio show. He loved the blues of Muddy Waters and the jazz of Duke Ellington. At school, Charles developed his extraordinary musical talent by learning composition, classical piano, organ, trumpet, alto sax, and clarinet. Learning to read and write music in Braille was no simple feat. Charles had to read a few bars of music with his fingers, then play it, read a few more bars, play those, and then memorize the entire piece. Just as his musical ability was blossoming, tragedy struck again when Charles’ mother died. It was a dark period, but he was determined to live up to the goals his mother had set for him: to be independent and industrious.
Charles went to stay with family friends in Jacksonville, and began performing music wherever he could. He loved the music of Nat King Cole, and his uncanny imitation of Cole’s voice helped him get jobs. But Charles wanted to develop his own style. Looking for a change and inspiration at age 18, he took $500 in savings, moved to Seattle, and formed his own band.
In Seattle, Charles met a teenaged Quincy Jones who became his lifelong friend. He also decided to drop his surname, Robinson, so that people wouldn’t confuse him with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. A small record company, Swing Time Records, offered to record Charles and his band. The recording was good enough to tour on, and the group played a host of rowdy dance halls while boarding in seedy rooming houses. Segregation was in effect, and even famous black performers were forced to use restrooms and water fountains marked “Colored,” and forbidden from eating in restaurants that were for “Whites Only.” During these tours, Charles began a struggle with heroin addiction that would last more than 20 years.
Success and Stardom
After moving to Los Angeles and recording two more albums on the Swing Time label, Charles landed a hit in 1954 with Atlantic Records and “I Got a Woman.” The song climbed to number one on the R&B chart in 1955, and defined the new style Charles had wanted to create. He came to be known as “The Genius” at Atlantic, and enjoyed an unusual level of freedom during his tenure there. He enjoyed a string of hits that climbed the R&B and pop charts, and appeared at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival. In 1959, Charles made a move to the ABC Paramount label on the condition that he be given a high percentage of royalties and ownership of his master recordings. It was an unprecedented concession to an artist, and one that ranked Charles’ business sense on a par with his music ability.
Throughout the 1960s, Charles recorded hit after hit and continued to tour. Songs like “Georgia on My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Unchain My Heart,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” sold millions of records, won numerous awards, and became a part of the American songbook. Charles managed to meld jazz, blues, country, and soul music into his own singular fusion, something no other recording artist had accomplished. In 1964, he confronted his addiction to heroin after an arrest in Boston. He stopped using the drug and remained as popular as ever. Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, Charles also recorded scores for motion pictures including Sidney Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night. His most overtly political album, A Message from the People, was released in 1972.
His autobiography, the 1978 Brother Ray, became a national bestseller. In the 1980s, Charles had a cameo role in The Blues Brothers starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, was the voice of “Raisin Ray” in the California raisin commercials, was honored with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also branched out musically, focusing on the country music he had loved in his youth, and making recordings with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and George Jones. In 1987, he created the Ray Charles Robinson Foundation, which helps provide expensive hearing implant surgery to those who need it. Late in his career, Charles also endowed Morehouse College and Albany State University with million-dollar contributions. Financially secure going into his 60s, Charles continued to record, perform, and take on surprising new projects.
On June 10, 2004, at age 73, Charles died of liver disease. During his 58-year career, he made more than 250 records, won 12 Grammy Awards, and received the Presidential Medal for the Arts. He received an NAACP Image Award and was named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. In 2004, Ray, the movie of his life starring Jamie Foxx, won two Academy Awards and was nominated for four others. Although the film laid bare some of the most painful and least flattering parts of Charles’ life, it cemented his place in the culture and history of America. He left behind generations of musicians who were influenced by his unique and powerful performances, his intense work ethic, and his strong independence.