Ray Charles - Biography

Ray Charles

Ray Charles 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."

Early years

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia to Bailey and Aretha Robinson. The family moved to the small North Florida hamlet of Greenville 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.

After 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.

Middle years

Charles 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.

The 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.

Shortly 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".

Ray had 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."

He then 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".

In 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.

Later years

In 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.

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."

Film 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."

Then in 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.

Final performances

Charles performed his classic "Georgia On My Mind" during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 2002 Charles headlined during the Cognac festival in southern France. At 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 song.

One of Charles' last public performances was in 2003 at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, 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.

He died at age 73 on June 10, 2004 (11:35 a.m.) of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California, surrounded by family and friends. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

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, 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.

Out of 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

Charles 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.

Before 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."

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 5 great grandchildren. Many of today's artists continue to honor the legacy of Charles. The 2005 Grammy Awards were dedicated to him.

In 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

Besides 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

Despite 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) rally."

A 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."

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.

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