Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004), better known by his shortened stage name Ray Charles, was an American musician. Ray was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm & blues, gospel, and blues styles into his early recordings with Atlantic Records. He also helped racially integrate country and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his Modern Sounds albums. While with ABC, Charles became one of the first African-American musicians to be given artistic control by a mainstream record company.
Rolling Stone ranked Charles number 10 on their list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" in 2004, and number two on their November 2008 list of "100 Greatest Singers of All Time". In honoring Charles, Billy Joel noted: "This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley. I don't know if Ray was the architect of rock & roll, but he was certainly the first guy to do a lot of things . . . Who the hell ever put so many styles together and made it work?"
Ray Charles Robinson was the son of Aretha Williams, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman. Aretha Williams was a devout Christian and the family attended the New Shiloh Baptist Church. When Ray was an infant, his family moved from Albany, Georgia, where he was born, to the poor black community of Jellyroll on the western side of Greenville, Florida.
In his early years, Charles showed a curiosity for mechanical things and he often watched the neighborhood men working on their cars and farm machinery. His musical curiosity was sparked at Mr. Wiley Pit's Red Wing Cafe when Pit played boogie woogie on an old upright piano. Pit would care for George, Ray's brother, so as to take the burden off Williams. However, George drowned in the Williams' wash tub when he was four years old.
Charles started to lose his sight at the age of five. He went completely blind by the age of seven. Though some sources suggest his blindness was due to glaucoma, most suggest that Ray began to lose his sight from an infection caused by soapy water to his eyes which was left untreated. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945, where he developed his musical talent. During this time he performed on WFOY radio in St. Augustine. His mother died when he was 15, and his father died three years later.
In school, Charles was taught only classical music, but he wanted to play the jazz and blues he heard on the family radio. While at school, he became the school's premier musician. On Fridays, the South Campus Literary Society held assemblies where Charles would play piano and sing popular songs. On Halloween and Washington's birthday, the Colored Department of the school had socials where Charles would play. It was here he established "RC Robinson and the Shop Boys" and sang his own arrangement of "Jingle Bell Boogie." He spent his first Christmas at the school, but later the staff pitched in so that Charles could return to Greenville, as he did each summer.
Henry and Alice Johnson, who owned a store not unlike Mr. Pit's store in Greenville, moved to the Frenchtown section of Tallahassee, just west of Greenville; and they, as well as Freddy and Margaret Bryant, took Charles in. He worked the register in the Bryants' store under the direction of Lucille Bryant, their daughter. It's said he loved Tallahassee and often used the drug store delivery boy's motorbike to run up and down hills using the exhaust sound of a friend's bike to guide him. Charles found Tallahassee musically exciting too and sat in with the Florida A&M University student band. He played with the Adderley brothers, Nat and Cannonball, and began playing gigs with Lawyer Smith and his Band in 1943 at the Red Bird Club and DeLuxe Clubs in Frenchtown and roadhouses around Tallahassee, as well as the Governor's Ball.
After his mother died in 1945, Charles was 15 years old and didn't return to school. He lived in Jacksonville with a couple who were friends of his mother. For over a year, he played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla, earning $4 a night. Then he moved to Orlando, and later Tampa, where he played with a southern band called The Florida Playboys. This is where he began his habit of always wearing sunglasses, made by designer Billy Stickles.
Charles had always played for other people, but he wanted his own band. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, but Chicago and New York City were too big. After asking a friend to look in a map and note the city in the United States that was farthest from Florida, he moved to Seattle in 1947 (where he first met and befriended a 14 year old Quincy Jones) and soon started recording, first for the Down Beat label as the Maxin Trio with guitarist G.D. McKee and bassist Milton Garrett, achieving his first hit with "Confession Blues" in 1949. The song soared to #2 on the R&B charts. He joined Swing Time Records and under his own name ("Ray Charles" to avoid being confused with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) recorded two more R&B hits, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (#5) in 1951 and "Kissa Me Baby" (#8) in 1952. The following year, Swing Time folded and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.
Charles possessed one of the most recognizable voices in American music. In the words of musicologist Henry Pleasants:
"Sinatra, and Bing Crosby before him, had been masters of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm... It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He can’t tell it to you. He can’t even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair — or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message."
Ray Charles is usually described as a baritone, and his speaking voice would suggest as much, as would the difficulty he experiences in reaching and sustaining the baritone's high E and F in a popular ballad. But the voice undergoes some sort of transfiguration under stress, and in music of gospel or blues character he can and does sing for measures on end in the high tenor range of A, B flat, B, C and even C sharp and D, sometimes in full voice, sometimes in a ecstatic head voice, sometimes in falsetto. In falsetto he continues up to E and F above high C. On one extraordinary record, "I’m Going Down to the River’ . . . he hits an incredible B flat . . . giving him an overall range, including the falsetto extension, of at least three octaves.
Almost immediately after signing with Atlantic, Charles scored his first hit singles. "Mess Around" was an R&B hit in 1953. "It Should Have Been Me" and "Don't You Know" both made the charts in 1954, but it was "I Got a Woman" (composed with band mate Renald Richard) which brought him to national prominence.
The song reached the top of Billboard's R&B singles chart in 1955 and from there until 1959 he would have a series of R&B successes including "A Fool For You" (#1), This Little Girl of Mine", "Lonely Avenue", "Mary Ann", "Drown in My Own Tears" (#1) and the #5 hit "The Night Time (Is the Right Time)", which were compiled on his Atlantic releases Hallelujah, I Love Her So, Yes Indeed!, and The Genius Sings the Blues.
During this time of transition, he recruited a young girl group from Philadelphia, The Cookies, as his background singing group, recording with them in New York and changing their name to the Raelettes in the process.
In 1959, Charles crossed over to Top 30 radio with the release of his impromptu blues number, "What'd I Say", initially conceived while Charles was in concert. The song reached number one on the R&B list and would become Charles's first top-ten single on the pop charts, peaking at number 6. Charles would also record The Genius of Ray Charles, before leaving Atlantic for a more lucrative deal with ABC-Paramount Records (later renamed ABC Records) in 1960 which gave Charles a higher royalty rate, complete artistic control and eventual ownership of the master tapes.
Hit songs such as "Georgia On My Mind" (US #1 Pop, #3 R&B), "Hit the Road Jack" (US #1 Pop and R&B), "One Mint Julep (#8 Pop, #1 R&B) and "Unchain My Heart" (#9 Pop, #1 R&B) helped his transition to pop success, and his landmark 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, helped to bring country into the mainstream of music. His version of the Don Gibson song, I Can't Stop Loving You topped the Pop chart for five weeks and stayed at #1 R&B for ten weeks in 1962. It also gave him his only number one record in the UK. In 1963, he founded his own record label, Tangerine Records which ABC-Paramount distributed. He also had major pop hits in 1963 with "Busted" (US #4) and Take These Chains From My Heart (US #8), and a Top 20 hit four years later, in 1967, with "Here We Go Again" (US #15) (which would be a duet with Norah Jones in 2004).
In 1965, Ray Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which he had been addicted for nearly 20 years. It was his third arrest for the offense, but he avoided jail time after kicking the habit in a clinic in Los Angeles. He spent a year on parole in 1966, when his single "Crying Time" reached #6 on the charts.
During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Charles's releases were hit-or-miss, with some big hits and critically acclaimed work. His version of "Georgia On My Mind" was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, and he performed it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of "America the Beautiful".
In November 1977 he appeared as the host of NBC's Saturday Night Live. In the 1980s a number of other events increased Charles's recognition among young audiences. He made a cameo appearance in the popular 1980 film The Blues Brothers. In 1985, "The Right Time" was featured in the episode "Happy Anniversary" of The Cosby Show on NBC. The next year, he sang America The Beautiful at Wrestlemania 2. In a Pepsi Cola commercial of the early 1990s – composed by Kenny Ascher, Joseph C. Caro, and Helary Jay Lipsitz – Charles popularized the catchphrase "You Got the Right One, Baby!" and he was featured in the recording of "We Are the World" for USA for Africa.
After having supported Martin Luther King, Jr. and for the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Charles courted controversy when he toured South Africa in 1981, during an international boycott of the country because of its apartheid policy.
In 1989, Charles recorded a cover version of the Japanese band Southern All Stars' song "Itoshi no Ellie" as "Ellie My Love" for a Suntory TV advertisement, reaching #3 on Japan's Oricon chart. Eventually, it sold more than 400,000 copies, and became that year's best-selling single performed by a Western artist for the Japanese music market.
Charles also appeared at two Presidential inaugurations in his lifetime. In 1985, he performed for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, and in 1993 for Bill Clinton's first.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, 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, often as Super Dave's chauffeur. At the height of his newfound fame in the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals for several 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. Following Jim Henson's death in 1990, Ray Charles appeared in the one-hour CBS tribute, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. He gave a short speech about Henson, stating that he "took a simple song and a piece of felt and turned it into a moment of great power". Charles was referring to the song "It's Not Easy Being Green", which he later performed with the rest of the Muppet cast in a tribute to Henson's legacy.
During the sixth season of Designing Women, Charles sang "Georgia on My Mind", instead of the song being rendered instrumentally by other musicians as in the previous five seasons. He also appeared in 4 episodes of the popular TV comedy The Nanny in Seasons 4 & 5 (1997 & 1998) as 'Sammy', in one episode singing "My Yiddish Mamma" to December romance and later fiancee of character Gramma Yetta, played by veteran actress Ann Guilbert.
In 2000, Charles made a special guest appearance on Blue's Clues Big Musical Movie as a fictional character named G-Clef. The Persuasions also made a guest appearance as his companions. Charles recorded "There It Is" during and after filming with Steve Burns and Traci Paige Johnson. After recording, Charles commented "This has been the most fun I have had since I met President Reagan in '84."
In 2001 Charles played a memorable show in a sold out Teatro Teresa Carreño in Caracas, Venezuela. In 2002 Charles headlined during the Blues Passions Cognac festival in southern France. Charles, along with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall, paid a visit to Salt Lake City Tuesday night on October 15, 2002 and played a benefit concert for the Regence Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association's 10th Annual Caring Foundation for Children Gala.
In 2002, he took part with other musicians in a peace concert in Rome, the first event to take place inside the city's ancient Colosseum since A.D. 404. It was organized in partnership with the Global Forum and the Quincy Jones Listen Up Foundation. Charles appeared with Travis Tritt on CMT Crossroads in December of that year. He was invited to Star Academy (France) season 2 the 30th November for sing "Hit the Road Jack" with Emma Daumas.
In 2003, Ray Charles headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C. which President and Mrs. Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice attended. He also presented one of his greatest admirers, Van Morrison, with his award upon being inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the two sang Morrison's song "Crazy Love". This performance appears on Morrison's 2007 album, The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3.
On Friday, April 11, 2003, Ray Charles sang 'America The Beautiful' at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, prior to the rained out Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.
In 2003 Charles performed "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful" at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, D.C., at what may have been his final performance in public. His 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.
Charles died on June 10, 2004 at 11:35 a.m. of liver cancer at his home in Beverly Hills, California, surrounded by family and friends. He was 73 years old. His body was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery. Following the funeral, a BBC spokesman commented: "it did not go unnoticed that Susaye [Susaye Greene, former member of the Raelettes as well as of the Supremes and Wonderlove, and currently a solo artist] was the only Raelette to sing at Ray's funeral."
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, and Johnny Mathis. The album won eight Grammy Awards, including five 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. The album included a version of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow", sung as a duet by Charles and Johnny Mathis, which recording was later played at his memorial service. Two more posthumous albums, Genius & Friends (2005) and Ray Sings, Basie Swings (2006), were released. Genius & Friends consisted of duets recorded from 1997 to 2005 with his choice of artists. Ray Sings, Basie Swings consists of archived vocals of Ray Charles from live mid-1970s performances added to new instrumental tracks specially recorded by the contemporary Count Basie Orchestra and other musicians. Charles's vocals recorded from the concert mixing board were added to new accompaniments to create a "fantasy concert" recording. Gregg Field, who had performed as a drummer with both Charles and Basie, produced the album.
He was married twice and had many girlfriends. He had 12 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Blind from glaucoma since age 6.
Awarded honorary doctor of humane letters by Wilberforce University, a private, historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio (December 1999)
Awarded the Polar Music Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music Award, in 1998.
His best known hit in America was his 1962 pop hit "I Can't Stop Loving You," which spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 charts.
One of the few black performers to have a No. 1 song on Billboard magazine's country charts, that being a 1985 duet with Willie Nelson called "Seven Spanish Angels".
Charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
24 November 2003 - Underwent hip replacement surgery in L.A.
He struggled with a heroin addiction for nearly 20 years before quitting cold turkey in 1965 after an arrest at the Boston airport.
Dropped the "Robinson" from his name as a young performer to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Had a hip replacement in the fall of 2003 in which he had to cancel his very first concert in 53 years of performing on the road.
Had three #1 pop hits with "Georgia On My Mind" (1960), "Hit the Road Jack" (1961), and "I Can't Stop Loving You" (1962).
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the institution's inaugural 10-member class that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis. He also received the Recording Academy's lifetime achievement award at the 1987 Grammy Awards.
Despite his blindness, he was a chess-playing fanatic who was known to set up games between sets and concerts.
At the time of his death, a feature film originally titled "Unchain My Heart, the Ray Charles Story" (renamed for release as Ray (2004/I)), starring Jamie Foxx, was being completed.
He inspired many blind musicians to pursue careers such as Ronnie Milsap and Terri Gibbs.
He was voted the 10th Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Artist of all time by Rolling Stone.
Became the big winner at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards in L.A. getting eight Grammys for his final album, Genius Loves Company, becoming album of the year, and his song, Here We Go Again, featuring Norah Jones, becoming record of the year.
Had twelve children: Ray Charles Robinson, Jr., David Robinson, Robert Robinson (all of Della Beatrice Robinson), Charles Wayne Hendricks (son of the late Margie Hendricks - one of the Raelettes), Reatha Butler, Alexandra Bertrand (daughter of Chantal Bertrand), Robyn Moffett (daughter of Gloria Moffett), Evelyn Robinson (daughter of Louise Mitchell), Raenee Robinson (daughter of Mae Mosely Lyles), Sheila Robinson (daughter of Sandra Jean Betts), Vincent Kotchounian (son of Arlette Kotchounian), and Ryan Corey Robinson den Bok (son of Mary Anne den Bok).
He was a longtime supporter of Israel, and was named "Man of the Year" by the B'nai Brith in 1976.
Performed at Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985 and also at Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993.
Legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives to award him the Congressional Gold Medal. (February 2005)
Was an admirer of singer Nat 'King' Cole and even imitated his style in his early performances, which guaranteed him continued work before perfecting his own style.
He was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts in 1993 by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C.
One of the first singers to own his own master recordings.
Was the first artist to combine both R&B and Gospel together.
Not to be confused with the choral director, Ray Charles, of The Ray Charles Singers on "Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall" (1948) (1955-1963).
In 1981 he was heavily criticized for touring South Africa.
Biography in: "The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives". Volume 7, 2003-2005, pages 78-80. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007.
Voted the second greatest singer of the rock era in a Rolling Stone magazine poll in 2008.
He was awarded the Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.