Born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, GA; died on June 10, 2004, in Beverly Hills, CA; son of Bailey and Aretha Robinson; divorced, 1977; children: nine. Education: Attended St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind. Addresses: Production company--Ray Charles Entertainment, 2107 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90018.
Singer and pianist Ray Charles's popularity, undiminished by his death in 2004, has spanned several generations. Toddlers may have seen Charles singing the alphabet with Elmo on Sesame Street. Teenagers may remember a catchy Pepsi commercial with Charles singing in his gravely voice, "You Got the Right One, Baby, Uh-huh!" Many adults, however, grew up listening to his blend of gospel, blues, and rock and roll songs that cemented Charles's name in the history books. He was one of the first soul stars, and became a major influence for the musicians who would follow him. He recorded all styles of music, from gospel to jazz to country western. A compilation of his work was released in 1997 titled Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection. He has won countless awards, including 12 Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As he stated in his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, "Music is nothing separate from me. It is me."
Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930, he was raised in Greenville, Florida, in extreme poverty. Ray Charles Robinson did not have an easy childhood. At five, he witnessed the death of his younger brother, George, who fell into a washtub in the backyard and drowned. Soon after, Charles contracted the degenerative eye disease glaucoma, which went untreated. He could look directly at the sun when he was four, and by age seven he was permanently blind. His father died when he was ten, and his mother died when he was 15, leaving Charles to fend for himself. Charles later told Jet that his mother had given him valuable advice before she died. "My mom would say, 'You might not be able to do things like a person who can see. But there are always two ways to do everything. You've just got to find the other way.'"
An inkling of the musical talent that Charles embodied revealed itself when he was three, when he sang with the Shiloh Baptist Church choir. At four, he sang in the Red Wing Cafe, where the owner let him play the piano. In 1937 Charles entered the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind as a charity student. He studied classical piano and clarinet, and learned to read and write music in Braille, and that gave him a greater understanding of music. He told Alan Paul of People, "Because in Braille music, you can only read so many bars at a time. You can't play it and see it at the same time, so your memory and understanding expand." When the death of Charles's mother left him an orphan at 15, he left school and joined a few dance bands in Jacksonville, Florida. He made enough money to help him relocate to Seattle, Washington, where he entered a talent contest the first night he was there. He was offered a job playing at the local Elks' Club, where he crooned Nat "King" Cole-style. He formed the McSon Trio, and planned his next move.
Genius Took Shape
After playing several clubs in Washington, Charles and his trio moved to Los Angeles and recorded their first single, "Confession Blues," which was written by Charles. In 1949 Charles worried that his original last name, Robinson, would cause the public to confuse him with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, so he dropped it and went by Ray Charles. The McSon Trio released several singles, including "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," which hit the American R&B chart in 1951. In 1952 Atlantic Records signed Charles to a major contract, and he began recording and touring regularly. His first commercial success came when he went to New Orleans in 1953 to work with Guitar Slim. Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do" sold over a million copies and featured Charles on piano. This success gave Charles the confidence to form a larger band that included saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman.
Charles achieved commercial success with his new band and Atlantic in 1954 with "It Should Have Been Me." Charles admitted to Marc Silver of U.S. News and World Report that he wasn't exactly an overnight success. "When I was coming up, the record people looked at the talent. I made about four records at Atlantic before I got a hit. Ain't no way I could be with a big company today and make four records that was not hits and they'd still keep me." Luckily, Atlantic kept him. Over the next several years, Charles's popularity skyrocketed as he hit the R&B charts regularly with songs like "I Got a Woman," "Don't You Know," "This Little Girl of Mine," "Drown In My Own Tears," and "Hallelujah I Love Her So." In 1957 Atlantic released Charles's debut album, simply titled Ray Charles.
At this stage of his career, Charles's musical style was a mix of gospel and blues. His distinctively raspy, soulful voice backed by his raucous piano became a trademark in his songs, especially the romping "What'd I Say." That song was a major hit in 1959, the first for Charles that sold over a million copies. The song crossed over to hit the U.S. popular music chart at number six, after hitting number one on the R&B chart. By now, Charles was a major name in the music industry, arranging and performing with several other artists, as well as composing his own hits. He was nicknamed the "Genius," after the Atlantic release of The Genius of Ray Charles in 1960. That same year, Charles's version of Hoagy Charmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" reached number one on the pop charts and sold over a million copies. In 1961 Charles won three Grammy Awards, two for "Georgia On My Mind," and one for the album The Genius of Ray Charles.
The Genius On His Way
Executives at ABC-Paramount Records took note of Charles's crossover success and persuaded him to sign with them in 1959. Charles continued his success with the album The Genius Hits the Road, which reached number nine on the pop charts. Three more "Genius" albums did very well in the charts: Genius + Soul = Jazz, The Genius After Hours, andThe Genius Sings the Blues. The single "Hit the Road Jack," written by Charles's friend Percy Mayfield, reached number one and sold over a million copies. In 1962 another album, Modern Sounds in Country And Western Music, solidified Charles's place in music history by remaining at the top of the pop charts for 14 weeks. The album included Charles's renditions of Hank Williams and Floyd Tillman songs. One of the singles from the album, "I Can't Stop Loving You," was the year's best-selling single at over two million copies.
His versatility--and willingness to take risks--allowed Charles to record many different styles of music. As he told Down Beat, "My music's not about pleasing critics; it's about pleasing me." Charles's forays into so many different styles--gospel, jazz, R&B, pop, and country--often gave his music the reputation of being "eclectic." Charles claimed that he always had the confidence to record any music that sounded interesting to him because he had the backing of his record companies. He told Chris Morris of Billboard, "The way I look at it, I have a deal with record companies. I say, 'Look, if you don't bother me about my music, I won't bother you about your marketing, because I don't know nothing about marketing, and I don't figure you know that much about what I'm doing.'"
Charles spent the 1960s recording and touring, until he hit a bump in the road in 1964. After embarking on a world tour that included shows in Japan and Europe, Charles was arrested at Boston's Logan Airport for possession of narcotics. Customs officials found heroin and marijuana. After his arrest, Charles confessed to having been addicted to heroin since the age of 15. After the confession, he checked into a rehabilitation center in California and quit heroin in four days, never to go back. By the time he faced trial in 1966 for the arrest, he had been found clean and sober by several random drug tests throughout 1965. He was convicted of possession but was given a suspended sentence, a fine, and four years' probation. In 1966 Charles responded to the ordeal with the timely single "I Don't Need No Doctor."
In 1966 Charles expanded his horizons with a cameo role in the film Ballad in Blue. He also formed his own custom record company with ABC called Tangerine Records, and his first hit on that label was "Let's Go Get Stoned." In 1973 Charles left ABC to form Crossover Records with Atlantic, his original company. He continued to influence other musicians, including Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Steve Winwood, and Joe Cocker, earning numerous awards and countless hits along the way. Towards the end of the 1960s, however, his musical style had shifted from strong gospel and R&B to softer pop, jazz, and country songs.
In the 1970s Ray Charles was a major celebrity, recording an album each year of the decade, accumulating awards, and making film and television appearances. He composed songs for films and television shows, including the theme song for 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. While critics claimed that his music had taken on a softer touch, lacking the harder edge of his earlier gospel and blues mixes, fans continued to flock to his worldwide performances. Charles returned to country music with Friendship (1984), an album of duets pairing him with leading country stars including George Jones and even country-bluegrass vocalist Ricky Skaggs. He helped compose and then performed on the song "We Are the World" for the United States' fundraising efforts for Africa (USA for Africa) in 1985.
Charles's long career earned him several prestigious awards. 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 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. Some critics thought that the 101 songs included on Genius and Soul weren't enough. J. D. Cosidine of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Given the way many sets leave listeners moaning 'enough!,' isn't it nice to be left hungry for more?"
Though Charles's recording pace slowed during the last years of his life, he remained a sell-out draw in good-sized venues whenever he chose to tour. He released Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again on his own Crossover label in 2002, and the following year he began recording Genius Loves Company, a duet project pairing him on mostly classic pop songs with famed partners ranging from bluesman B.B. King and country singer Willie Nelson to newcomer chanteuse Norah Jones.
Charles fell ill with acute liver disease during the recording sessions, but the finished album was termed "modest, friendly, laid-back, and pleasing" by Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide, and it gave the singer a new burst of publicity. That burst turned into an explosion after Charles's death on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California, when the world learned it had lost a true musical genius. "Of course, a great soul has gone on," vocalist Aretha Franklin told Jet. "He was a fabulous man, full of humor and wit. A giant of an artist, and of course, he introduced the world to secular soul singing."
At the Grammy Awards ceremony in February of 2005, Genius Loves Company won eight awards, including best album and record of the year for "Here We Go Again," Charles's duet with Norah Jones. The posthumous wins were the first since those for John Lennon's Double Fantasy in 1982, and the album shot to the top of the Billboard sales chart for the week following the ceremony. What promised to be a decades-long process of examining the musical legacy of Ray Charles had already begun in the fall of 2004, with the release of the biographical film Ray, featuring actor Jamie Foxx in the role of Charles. Part of the film's success---it won five Academy Awards, including a best actor nod for Foxx---was due to its solid-gold soundtrack of Ray Charles songs, the use of which Charles had approved before his death.
by Christine Morrison and James M. Manheim
Ray Charles's Career
Permanently blinded at age seven by glaucoma, 1937; attended school for deaf and blind, where he learned to read music in Braille and play piano and clarinet, 1937-45; moved to Seattle to play with local bands, 1947; composed and recorded first single with McSon Trio, "Confession Blues," 1949; signed with Atlantic, 1952; recorded several singles with Atlantic, including "I Got A Woman," 1954; released debut album, Ray Charles, 1957; recorded first million-seller, "What'd I Say," 1959; signed with ABC-Paramount, 1959-65; recorded for his own production company, Tangerine Records, 1965-73; started production company Crossover Records, 1973; appeared in several films and television programs; recorded frequently in 1980s and 1990s; released Genius Loves Company, 2004.
Ray Charles's Awards
Down Beat Critics Poll, New Star Award, 1958, 1961-64; NAACP Image Award, 1968; Down Beat Critics Poll, Best Soul and R&B Artist, 1984; Songwriters Hall of Fame honorary lifetime chairman; Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame; charter inductee of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1986; NAFEO Leadership Award, 1991; Grammy Awards, Best Rhythm & Blues Performance, Best Performance by a Pop Single Artist, Best Vocal Performance Album (Male), Best Vocal Performance Single Record Or Track (Male), 1960; Best Rhythm & Blues Recording, 1961-63; Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance, Best Rhythm & Blues Recording 1966; Best R&B Vocal Performance (Male), 1975; Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987; (with Chaka Khan) Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, 1990; Best R&B Vocal Performance (Male), 1993; (With Norah Jones) Record of the Year, Album of the Year, (With Norah Jones) Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals, Best Pop Vocal Album, (With Gladys Knight) Best Gospel Performance, 2004.
- Selected discography
- "Drown In My Own Tears," Atlantic, 1956.
- "Hallelujah I Love Her So," Atlantic, 1956.
- "Georgia on My Mind," Atlantic, 1960.
- "Ruby," ABC, 1960.
- "Hit the Road Jack," ABC, 1961.
- "Unchain My Heart," ABC, 1961.
- "I Can't Stop Loving You," ABC, 1962.
- "Born to Lose," ABC, 1962.
- "You Don't Know Me," ABC, 1962.
- Ray Charles Atlantic, 1957.
- What'd I Say Atlantic, 1958.
- The Genius of Ray Charles Atlantic, 1959.
- The Genius Sings the Blues 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.
- Ingredients in A Recipe for Soul ABC, 1963.
- Crying Time ABC, 1966.
- A Portrait of Ray ABC, 1968.
- Doing His Thing ABC, 1969.
- Volcanic Action of My Soul ABC, 1971.
- Brother Ray Is at It Again Atlantic, 1980.
- Wish You Were Here Tonight Columbia, 1983.
- Friendship Columbia, 1984.
- From the Pages of My Mind Columbia, 1986.
- Just Between Us Columbia, 1988.
- Would You Believe? Warner Brothers, 1990.
- My World Warner Brothers, 1993.
- Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection Rhino, 1997.
- Strong Love Affair Warner Brothers, 1996.
- Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again Crossover, 2002.
- Genius Loves Company Concord, 2004.
February 8, 2006: Charles won a Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media Grammy Award, posthumously, for the soundtrack to the movie Ray. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, February 9, 2006.
- Crampton, Luke, and Dafydd Rees, editors, Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, DK Publishing Inc., 1996.
- Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
- Romanowski, Patricia, editor, The New Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
- Billboard, February 15, 1997.
- Down Beat, January 1998.
- Eyeneer Music Archives, 1997.
- Jet, February 20, 1995; September 22, 1997; June 28, 2004.
- Maclean's, July 13, 1998.
- New York Times, February 14, 2005.
- Palo Alto Weekly, September 26, 1997.
- People, September 22, 1997.
- U.S. News and World Report, September 22, 1997.
- "Ray Charles," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 27, 2005).