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Ray Charles Biography - Lost His Sight at an Early Age, Seasoned on the Road, Developed Unique Sound

music atlantic blues soul

1930-2004

Musician, singer, composer, arranger

Charles, Ray, photograph. Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images.

Above all his many talents, singing great Ray Charles had the ability to interpret and sing songs in such a way as to fill the words from the depths of his own heart, carrying this emotion to the listener. "I sing the songs for what they mean to me," Charles was quoted in Joe Goldberg's Jazz Masters of the Fifties. However, his highly regarded singing long tended to obscure his other considerable accomplishments as a blues pianist, band leader, composer, and arranger. "Jazz musicians speak of a quality called 'the cry,' a quality that echoes the blues no matter what is being played. The cry of blues permeates every Charles performance," wrote Goldberg.

Despite being born into extreme poverty, Ray Charles created a prolific body of work spanning five decades. Proficient in numerous styles, Ray's recordings are rich in blues, jazz, and country, and he was often spoken of as the nation's best rock n' roll singer, best jazz singer, and best pop singer, his preeminence challenged only by Frank Sinatra. Frequently imitated, and honored with countless awards during his career, Charles is best known as the "Father of Soul Music." Charles himself never cared to be pigeonholed into any one category. When told that he had successfully avoided all attempts to be categorized, he replied in Goldberg's book: "I consider that a compliment. I don't want to be branded. I don't want the rhythm-and-blues brand, or the pop brand, or any other. That's why I try all these different things.… I know not everybody likes everything I do. Some like one thing, and some another. But I try to please everybody, while doing what I want. I'm an entertainer."

Lost His Sight at an Early Age

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. Charles's absent father, Bailey Robinson, was a migrant railroad worker who never knew his son. Charles and his beloved mother Aretha moved to Greenville, Florida, when Charles was six months old. Times were tough for the young family. In his autobiography, Brother Ray, Charles recalled that "Even compared to the other blacks in Greenville, we were at the bottom of the ladder." Tragically, at the age of five, young Ray helplessly watched as his four-year-old brother George drowned in a washtub. Thereafter, Charles's eyesight worsened considerably from glaucoma, leaving him completely blind by the age of seven. Charles then attended a state school in St. Augustine for the deaf and blind.

While in St. Augustine, Charles learned to read, compose, and write music in braille, as well as to play the clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, and keyboards. Though Charles became familiar with classical music there, it was at the upright piano of Wylie Pittman, a local grocer, where Charles first experienced playing the piano. Robert Palmer writes that Charles fondly recalls visiting Wylie's after school, where "… he'd let me sit on the piano stool or in the chair next to him and bang on the piano with him." Charles credits four pianists as influencing him the most as a child: Art Tatum, Bud Powell, King Cole, and Oscar Peterson. Ray's excellence as a blues pianist is evident on his instrumental albums, including The Great Ray Charles. Arranger Quincy Jones credits Chalres's piano abilities as a major factor in the success of his recordings. Young Charles possessed a natural talent for music and, by age twelve, was reportedly able to arrange and score all parts of big band or orchestral music. As a child, Charles listened to a wide variety of blues and swing along with the weekly Grand Ole Opry and gospel music of his Baptist church.

While in St. Augustine at age 15, Charles learned of his mother's death. Ray's father had also died several years earlier. With no immediate family left, Charles moved to Jacksonville, Florida, in search of work. Charles recalled those days as being rough times, however, he felt that his youth provided him with a certain resilience. Soon, Charles was playing in numerous small bands across the state of Florida. By 1948, now 18 years old, Charles was a seasoned road musician. By this time, however, Charles had become acquainted with heroin, which he continued using for many years to come. However, the ambitious Charles was determined to make his way in music and he purchased an early wire recorder, recording some demo tapes in Tampa, Florida.

Seasoned on the Road

Once he had saved around $600 from performances, Charles traveled to the West Coast, settling for a time in Seattle. Out west, Charles met Quincy Jones and Bumps Blackwell, producer of the original Little Richard hits. Charles also successfully assembled a trio of guitar, bass, and piano, dropping his last name Robinson so as not to be confused with then popular boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson. Charles's trio came to the attention of Jack Lauderdale of Downbeat and later Swing-time records. By 1950, Charles had moved to Los Angeles and was cutting records for Swingtime. One of Charles's daughters was also born during this year by a woman named Louise. (He would ultimately father twelve children.)

In 1951, Charles recorded a hit popular with the black community known as "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," which reached the Top 10 on the rhythm-and-blues charts. This, along with other Swingtime singles, were in the style of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, as young Charles had not yet mastered his own style. Charles tried to sound like them in order to get work, especially club work.

During this same period, Charles toured with blues singer Lowell Fulsom and became the pianist for Fulsom's band. Near the end of 1951, Swingtime records opted to drop Charles, and Atlantic Records partners Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Abramson, and Jerry Wexler snatched Charles up without ever having seen him, paying around $2,500 for his contract. For his beginning sessions with Atlantic, Charles was teamed with an extraordinarily talented group of New York studio players under the direction of Jesse Stone, including guitarist Mickey Baker, drummer Connie Kay, and bassist Lloyd Trotman. For Atlantic, Charles was never considered as just another artist. To them, Charles was a musical genius with a lot more to offer than writing and singing songs.

At a Glance …

Born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, GA; died June 10, 2004, in Beverly Hills, CA; son of Bailey and Aretha Robinson; married twice, to Eileen and Della; children: twelve children.

Career: Recording artist, 1956-2004. Began touring with dance bands at age 15; recording artist, for Atlantic Records, 1952-59, ABC-Paramount, 1959-65, and his own labels, Tangerine Records 1965-73, and Crossover Records Co., 1973-2004.

Selected Awards: 16th International Jazz Critics Poll, named #1 male singer, 1968; NAACP, Image Award, 1983; Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee, 1986; Kennedy Center Honors recipient, 1986; 12 Grammy awards, including Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987; National Medal of Arts, 1993; Ebony magazine, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994.

Charles worked out of New Orleans for much of 1953, the final period of his formative years. However, the Louisiana rhythm had less effect on his overall work than some have speculated. By this time, Charles was well on his way to a comfortable, innovative style. Actually, his mid-fifties band arrangements more closely resembled the style of James Brown than New Orleans rhythm-and-blues. Charles's original style also emerged as a result of his work with "Guitar Slim," whose crude gospel blues greatly influenced him. Charles even arranged Slim's million-selling single, "Things That I Used to Do." Early recordings are based on blues and gospel forms, including the soulful, "A Fool For You," "What Would I Do Without You?," "It's Allright," and "Drown In My Own Tears." During this time, Charles divorced his wife of approximately 16 months, a beautician named Eileen, and subsequently remarried a woman by the name of Della.

Developed Unique Sound

By 1954, Charles began to create songs which differed radically from his expert imitations of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, and Louis Jordan. Charles united gospel and blues music to help form a sound known as soul music. Once Charles's new music caught on, he became known as "The Genius" and "The Bishop." From New Orleans, Charles moved on to Dallas, where he put together his first true band, with bandleader Renald Richard. The band began performing with Ruth Brown from El Paso throughout Florida. During this time, saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman joined the band, and Charles and Richard developed the song, "I Got a Woman," which marked the turning point in Charles's music from rhythm-and-blues to soul, exuding the fervor of the Baptist Church. In November of 1954 Charles extended an invitation to Atlantic executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler to come hear his new music at the Peacock Club in Atlanta. It was there that Wexler first realized the overall change in Charles's music. However, Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet's brother, acknowledged that Charles's style was not necessarily unique, as noted by author Robert Palmer, "Ray was not the first to do this, combine gospel and blues. He is the best of a long tradition, but there were people singing this way twenty years ago. But Ray was able to bring so much of his own to it."

Early Atlantic recordings were made with Charles while he performed in Atlanta, Florida, and New York. Nesuhi Ertegun viewed this as an advantage for recording purposes, as it gave Charles a chance to work out his arrangements on the road. Upon Charles's return to Atlanta, Wexler and Ertegun managed to produce his first number one hit album, Ray Charles, a confirmation of the greatness of Ray Charles. The single "I Got a Woman" also soared to number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts. The extraordinary success of his new style, both commercially and artistically, spurred similar hit songs to follow, including, "This Little Girl of Mine" (1955), "Talkin' 'Bout You" (1957), and "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" (1959), whose call-and-response style was fully realized with Charles's mega-hit, "What'd I Say?" in 1959. This song remains a favorite closing number among performing soul singers worldwide.

It was during this period that America's white youth discovered recordings by black artists. Elvis Presley had helped to erode racial barriers and, in fact, was somewhat of a Ray Charles fan. However, despite the fact that Atlantic executives wished to pursue sales in the white pop marketplace, Charles refused to compromise his musical style with the simpler beat, adolescent lyrics, and smoother singing. Charles continued with his soulful music, and his recordings continued to sell, albeit largely among the black community. Atlantic continued to support Charles in his endeavors, hence, his soul music was undiluted and some of his landmark songs from this time were even more soulful than his earlier recordings, including "Come Back Baby," "Drown In My Own Tears," and "Hallelujah I Love Her So."

Became "Father of Soul"

Despite his early success in soul music, Charles never fully accepted the accolade of "father of soul." Said Charles to Robert Palmer: "When people ask me what I think about soul music.… I think all these terms are names that the media give the music in order to try to describe what they mean. I don't know the difference between rhythm-and-blues, soul music, and the black version of disco; the rhythm patterns are the same." Charles also shied away from taking credit for the creation of rock 'n' roll, feeling that his music was more adult and filled with despair, considering rhythm-and-blues as genuine down-to-earth Negro music. Of all Charles's tunes from the mid-fifties, only "Swanee River Rock" remotely resembles rock 'n' roll, and it became Charles's first significant pop hit, reaching number 34 on the Billboard chart. In Jazz Masters of the Fifties, Charles spoke of his work in this way: "The things I write and sing about concern the general Joe and his general problems. There are four basic things: love, somebody runnin' his mouth too much, having fun, and jobs are hard to get.… When I put myself in the place of the…general Joe I'm singing about,… I sing with all the feeling I can put into it, so that I can feel it myself."

Luckily for Charles his band was both flexible and talented enough to accommodate his sense of musical perfection. Until 1959, Charles's band had two saxophonists, with Charles playing a third, alto sax. He realized a stroke of luck when, around this time, baritone saxophonist Leroy "Hog" Cooper joined the band. The band now consisted of Hank Crawford on alto, Newman on tenor, and Cooper on baritone sax. There were also two trumpeters, Joe Bridgewater and Marcus Belgrave, with William Peoples as the primary drummer and Roosevelt Sheffield as bassist. Between 1957 and 1959, with the expansion of his band, Charles delved into greater musical forays, including an extended interest in country and western music. From here, Charles recruited three female singers to contrast against his voice, reminiscent of traditional call-and-response gospel singing. The female singers included Mary Ann Fisher, Darlene McRae, and Margie Hendrix. Thereafter, the chorus became known as the "Raeletts." The hit single, "What Kind of Man Are You" is a splendid example of the intense, spiritual feel added by the Raeletts. "What'd I Say?" his first million-seller song, was one of the finest renderings of the call-and-response pattern between Ray Charles and his new girls. The suggestion of sex in this particular song, however, resulted in its first being played only by black radio stations until it was played by Elvis Presley, at which time the white radio stations also picked it up.

Despite past inconsistencies in terms of concert arrival times, drug abuse, and temperamental ways, Charles was always a superb musician and gracious performer who captivated his audience. Fortunately, Atlantic records took advantage of Charles's live audience appeal, recording two in-person appearances, Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles in Person, where the live vocals take on a quality not easily captured in the studio. It was the Atlantic executives who first recognized Charles as a genius, not hesitating to call him such, as they considered Charles's whole approach to music as very different from anybody else's. During his final days with Atlantic, Charles experimented with a passion, leaving Atlantic with his final recording, The Genius of Ray Charles, which freed him from the stereotype of rock 'n' roll singer and sealing him firmly as "Mr. Soul." Charles had a large hand in the arrangement of this album, resulting in three triumphant singles, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'," "Am I Blue," and "Come Rain or Come Shine." When Charles's Atlantic contract expired in late 1959, ABC-Paramount made him a rare and generous offer and he moved on.

Experienced Highs and Lows

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter collaborated on an album that produced the hit, "Baby It's Cold Outside." While Atlantic felt a terrible loss when Charles left, ABC was well satisfied as Charles churned out one mega-hit after another, including, "Georgia on My Mind" in 1960 and "Hit the Road Jack" in 1961, thereby establishing himself as an international artist. In 1962, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was released to massive sales. A single from this album, "I Can't Stop Loving You," sold three million copies. Though Charles's crossover into country music caused significant controversy, the popularity of his recording spawned a second volume under the same name with several more hits. Charles did not become mainstream, like most black country artists, but rather, retained his gospel-blues sound. Charles changed stylistically somewhat, though, in 1961, as he moved from a blues shouter to a crooner of soul, achieving a phenomenal sweep of four Grammy awards in 1961 for Best Vocal Performer (male), Best Single ("Georgia on My Mind"), Best Album (The Genius of Ray Charles), and Best Song ("Let the Good Times Roll").

While Charles was an unquestioned musical success, he was also a long-term drug user. On November 14, 1961, Charles was arrested on a narcotics charge in an Indiana hotel room, where he waited to perform. The detectives seized heroin, marijuana, and other items. Charles, then 31 years old, stated that he had been a drug addict since the age of 16. While the case was dismissed because of the manner in which the evidence was obtained, Charles's situation did not improve until a few years later. Individuals who cared for Charles, such as Quincy Jones and Reverend Henry Griffin, felt that those around Charles were responsible for his drug use, as he was unable to obtain or administer drugs to himself, given his blindness. By 1964 Charles's drug addiction caught up with him and he was arrested for possession of marijuana and heroin. Following a self-imposed stay at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, California, where he kicked his drug habit in 96 hours, Charles received five years probation. Charles responded to the saga of his drug abuse and reform with the songs "I Don't Need No Doctor," "Let's Go Get Stoned," and the release of his first album since kicking his heroin habit in 1966, the impassioned Crying Time.

From the late 1960s onward, Charles was no longer at the forefront of musical innovation, but that did not mean that he wasn't producing excellent music. His musical releases had shifted from strong gospel and R&B to softer pop, jazz, and country songs, and he recorded many popular songs. In 1973, Charles left ABC to form Crossover Records with Atlantic, his original company. He continued to influence other musicians such as Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Steve Winwood, and Joe Cocker, earning numerous awards and countless hits along the way. By the late 1970s, however, Charles's 20-year marriage to Della Robinson had ended. His lengthy absences and womanizing were contributing factors to the breakdown of the marriage.

A Lifetime of Achievement

From the 1970s onward, Ray Charles was a major celebrity, recording numerous albums, accumulating awards, and making several film and television appearances. He composed songs for films and television shows, including the theme song for the sitcom Three's Company and "Beers to You" for the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can. He appeared in the film The Blues Brothers as well as television's Moonlighting. In 1979, his rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" was officially named Georgia's state song. Charles was one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and in 1988 he was awarded the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1991 Charles's selection by Pepsi-Cola to act as their spokesman with a catchy "Uh-Huh" theme introduced his music to a new generation of listeners. In 1994, Charles was honored with a twelfth Grammy Award for his rendition of "Song for You." A 1997 collection of his hits, Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection, had critics and fans taking a trip down memory lane.

Charles continued to tour and to make music until the very end of his life. His last tour, in 2003, was cut short by illness, yet despite his illness he worked that year to produce an album of duets, Genius Loves Company, which featured Charles performing with such greats as Norah Jones, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King. When Charles died in his Beverly Hills, California, home on June 10, 2004, the music world mourned the passing of a legend. Performers and executives from across the industry celebrated his great career, and Newsweek commented that "Generations of singers have wanted to sound like him. No one comes close." A movie celebrating Charles's life, Ray, was already in the works, and its release in October of 2004 was greeted with critical accolades, especially the performance of Jamie Foxx in the lead role.

Selected discography

Ray Charles, Atlantic, 1957; re-released as Hallelujah, I Love Her So, WEA International, 2003.

What'd I Say, Atlantic, 1958.

Ray Charles at Newport, Atlantic, 1958.

What'd I Say, Atlantic, 1959.

The Genius of Ray Charles, Atlantic, 1959.

The Genius Sings the Blues, Atlantic, 1960.

Ray Charles in Person, Atlantic, 1960.

The Genius Hits the Road, ABC, 1960.

Genius + Soul = Jazz, ABC, 1961.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western, ABC, 1961.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Volume 2, ABC, 1962.

Crying Time, ABC, 1966.

Ray's Moods, ABC/Paramount, 1966.

Doing His Thing, ABC/Tangerine, 1969.

Volcanic Action of My Soul, ABC/Tangerine, 1971.

Brother Ray Is at It Again, Atlantic, 1980.

The Spirit of Christmas, Rhino, 1985.

My World, Warner Brothers, 1993.

Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection, Rhino, 1997.

Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again, Crossover, 2002.

Genius Loves Company, Concord/Hear Music, 2004.

Sources

Books

Charles, Ray, with David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story, Dial Press, 1978, revised, 1992.

Goldberg, Joe, Jazz Masters of the Fifties, Macmillan, 1965.

Lydon, Michael, Ray Charles: Man and Music, Rout-ledge, 2004.

Palmer, Robert, The Birth of Soul (discography booklet insert), Atlantic Records, 1991.

White, Timothy, Rock Lives, Henry Holt, 1990.

Winski, Norman, Ray Charles, Melrose Square, 1994.

Periodicals

Newsweek, June 21, 2004.

Time, June 21, 2004.

On-line

Ray Charles, www.raycharles.com (November 4, 2004).

—Marilyn Williams and

Tom Pendergast

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