was the stage name of Ray Charles Robinson (September
23, 1930 – June 10, 2004). He overcame the handicap of
blindness to become a pioneering American pianist and soul
musician who shaped the sound of rhythm and blues and
brought a soulful sound to everything from country music to
pop standards to a now-famous rendition of "America the
Beautiful." Frank Sinatra called him "the only true genius
in the business."
Charles Robinson was born in
Albany, Georgia to
Bailey and Aretha Robinson. The family moved to the small
North Florida hamlet of
when he was only a few months old. His father wasn't around
much. He worked and had two more families, leaving his
mother to raise the family with the aid of his father's wife
Mary Jane, who helped raise Ray. When Ray was 5 his younger
brother, George, who was around 4, drowned in an outside
tub. Ray witnessed him fall and tried to pull him out, but
he was too heavy for Ray. Ray began going blind soon after
and was totally blind by the age of seven. He said that the
causes were undiagnosed. (* Note - there are sources which
attribute Ray's blindness to glaucoma.) 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
musical instruments. While he was there, his mother Aretha
died. His father died two years later.
he left school, Charles began working as a musician in
Florida in several bands that played in various styles
including jazz and country music, eventually moving to
Seattle in 1947 at the age of seventeen. He soon started
recording, first for the label Swingtime Records, achieving
his first hit songs with "Confession Blues" (1949) and
"Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951) before signing with
Atlantic Records in 1952. When he entered show business, his
name was shortened to Ray Charles to avoid confusion with
boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
scored his first Atlantic hit in 1953 with the release of
the Ahmet Ertegun-composed "Mess Around" single, he had
another hit with the version of "It Should Have Been Me,"
but his career 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.
essence of this phase of his career can be heard on his live
album Ray Charles In Person, recorded by radio
station WAOK before a mostly African American audience in
Atlanta in 1956. 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.
afterward, in an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he
achieved mainstream success with "The Night Time (Is The
Right Time)" which appeared on Ray Charles at Newport
(1959) and his signature song, "What'd I Say".
already begun to go beyond the limits of the blues-gospel
synthesis while still at Atlantic, which now called him
The Genius. He recorded with very large orchestras and
with jazz artists like Milt Jackson and even made his first
country music cover song with Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On."
moved on to ABC Records, where he was given 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", "You Are My Sunshine", and
the #1 hits on the Billboard pop charts, "Georgia On
My Mind" 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".
1961, Charles cancelled a concert scheduled to take place in
the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia to protest against
segregated seating. He wasn't banned from the state of
Georgia as inaccurately claimed in the biopic, Ray.
1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug
to which he had been addicted for 17 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 in 1966.
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
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
audiences enthusiastic for a soul music and R&B resurgence,
fueled in part by the music performances of comic frontmen
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the April 22, 1978, episode
of Saturday Night Live, snapped up albums, heavily
requested Top 40 releases and swelled the box office take of
summer 1980's The Blues Brothers. In one of the
film's notable cameos, Ray Charles plays a blind music store
owner and offers a lively "Shake Your Tailfeather."
the late 1980s, a number of events increased Charles'
recognition among young audiences. In 1985, "Night Time is
the Right Time" was featured in the episode "Happy
Anniversary" of The Cosby Show. The cast members used
the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that helped
the show secure its wide viewership. In 1986, he performed
his rendition of "America the Beautiful" at WrestleMania 2.
Charles' new connection with audiences helped secure a
spokesmanship for Diet Pepsi. In this highly successful
advertising campaign, Charles popularized the catchphrase
"You Got the Right One, Baby!" As well, Charles made
appearances on The Super Dave Osbourne Show, where he
performed and appeared in a few vignettes where he was
somehow driving a car. At the height of his newfound fame in
the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals for quite a few
projects. He also appeared (with Chaka Khan) on long time
friend Quincy Jones' hit "I'll Be Good To You" in 1990, from
Jones' album Back on the Block.
performed his classic "Georgia On My Mind" during the
Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in
Charles headlined during the
Cognac festival in southern
one point in the performance a young fan rose to his feet
and began to sing a cappella version of Charles' early song,
Mess Around. Charles adored this show of respect and bravery
and decided to show this fan his admiration by playing the
Charles' last public performances was in 2003 at a televised
annual electronic media journalist banquet held in
D.C. He performed "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the
Beautiful." Ray Charles' final public appearance came on
April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as a
historic landmark in the city of Los Angeles.
at age 73 on June 10, 2004 (11:35 a.m.) of liver disease at
his home in
surrounded by family and friends. He was interred in the
Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
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, Idina Menzel, and Johnny Mathis. The album won 8
Grammy Awards, including 5 for Ray Charles for 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.
all of the songs from his huge catalogue of recordings, Ray
requested Over The Rainbow, his duet recorded with
Johnny Mathis be played at his memorial service.
Ray biopic and legacy
was significantly involved in the 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 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role.
shooting could begin, however, director Taylor Hackford
brought Foxx to meet Charles, who insisted that they sit
down at two pianos and play together. For two hours, Charles
challenged Foxx, who revealed the depth of his talent, and
finally, Charles stood up, hugged Foxx, and gave his
blessing, proclaiming, "He's the one... he can do it."
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 5
great grandchildren. Many of today's artists continue to
honor the legacy of Charles. The 2005 Grammy Awards were
dedicated to him.
August 2005, the United States Congress honored Charles by
renaming the former West Adams Station post office in
Los Angeles the "Ray Charles Station".
Halls of Fame and Other Honors
winning dozens of Grammy Awards in his career, Charles was
also honored in many other ways. In 1976, he was one of the
first honorees of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame being
recognized for being a musician born in the state, a full
three years before his version of "Georgia On My Mind" was
made into the official state song. In 1981, he was given a
star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was one of the first
inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural
ceremony in 1986. In 1991, he was inducted to the Rhythm &
Blues Foundation, and in 2004 he was inducted to the Jazz
Hall of Fame.
Controversies and criticisms
his support of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and his
support for the American 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, New York; Los Angeles; New York City; 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 did not
respond well. 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 Joe Adams commented: "For that kind of money he
would have sung 'America the Beautiful' at a Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
notorious ladies' man, Charles was married twice and
fathered twelve children by seven different women. His first
marriage, to Eileen Williams
on July 31, 1951, resulted in one child and ended in divorce
in 1952. Three additional children are from his second
marriage, on April 5, 1955, to
Della Beatrice Howard Robinson. She was not one of
his original Raelettes. Their marriage ended in divorce in
1977. 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."
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.
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