Ray Charles - Biography

Ray Charles was a giant who made his mark on R&B, rock and roll, jazz, country, and pop music. He may not have invented soul music, but without him the genre would not be what it is today. His 1959 classic and first Top Ten hit “What'd I Say,” was one of the first songs to combine the music of the church and the street, and it provided the foundation for what would be known as soul music. He made over 250 albums and during his long Grammy-winning career, he was a piano player, singer, composer, bandleader, arranger, businessman, record company president, and reformed drug addict. He had one of the most unique voices in popular music and was listed at number two on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.


Ray Charles Robinson was born in 1930 in Albany, Georgia. His family moved to Greenville, Florida when Charles was a baby, and his father left them soon after. Ray started loosing his sight as a child and was totally blind by the time he was seven. Just before he went blind, his younger brother drowned in a laundry-washing tub, a tragedy that stayed with him for the rest of his life. His earliest musical memories involved the radio (his mother listened to blues, Gospel, country and western, and jazz) and a neighbor named Wylie Pitman who played piano. Pitman let young Ray sit next to him on the piano stool and gave him his first music lessons.


Ray’s mother sent him to the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind where he learned to read and write music in Braille. He learned to play clarinet because he loved Artie Shaw and undertook classical piano training, but often riled his teachers when he’d break into a jazz or blues tune. At the age of 12, he wrote his first piece for the school orchestra and hearing it played was a high point in his young life. His mother died just before his 15th birthday. He left school and went to live with friends of his mother’s in Jacksonville. He soon began playing clubs for four dollars a night, performing blues, jazz, R&B, and country music with a band called The Florida Playboys. Tired of playing in cover bands, Charles took his life savings of $500 and moved to Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle, Charles met Quincy Jones and Bumps Blackwell, who later produced Little Richard’s Specialty hits. During his first week in Seattle, he played at a talent contest and was hired by the Elk’s Club to play weekends. After a month, he was hired by the Rocking Chair club, a better paying venue, to play in a trio with guitarist Gosady McGee and bassist Milton Garrett. In 1949 Jack Lauderdale of Swingtime Records offered the trio a record deal and suggested that they move to Los Angeles. His first Swingtime single, “Confession Blues,” hit number two on the R&B charts. The next single, “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand,” went to number five and he put together a band and hit the road on a double bill with Lowell Fulson.


In 1951, Atlantic Records bought Charles’s Swingtime contract and suggested he stop trying to imitate his idol Nat “King’ Cole. The also asked him to drop the Robinson from his name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. His first single with Atlantic, “It Should Have Been Me,” was a double-sided hit with the B-side “Mess Around” going to number three on the R&B chart. The first original tune he recorded was “I Got A Woman,” which also became his first number one R&B hit. The hits kept coming with “This Little Girl of Mine,” "Lonely Avenue," "Mary Ann," "Drown in My Own Tears," and "The Night Time (Is the Right Time)." These hits were compiled on Ray Charles (Atlantic) in 1957 and Yes, Indeed!! (Atlantic) in 1958. 1959’s What’d I Say (Atlantic) is a jazzy and funky live album that capitalizes on the crossover smash of “Yes Indeed,” a song that was ironically banned from white radio for being too suggestive even though it was based on the call and response singing of the Black Baptist churches of the South. Charles made three original studio albums for Atlantic as well: 1957’s The Great Ray Charles (Atlantic), an instrumental jazz album arranged by Quincy Jones; 1958’s Soul Brothers (Atlantic) with MJQ vibe master Milt Jackson and drummer Connie Kay; and 1959’s The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic), featuring members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands with lush arrangements that foreshadow his pop successes with soulful treatments of “Come Rain or Come Shine.”


In 1957, Charles added a trio of female backing singers to his line up with the Raelettes — Margie Hendrix, Ethel Darlene McCrae, and Pat Lyles. He wanted a Gospel sound in his music and when he saw the trio perform as The Cookies, he hired them. The Ray Charles Show with the Raelettes and his big band was a major concert attraction in the 1950s, but the best was yet to some. In 1959, Charles signed with ABC-Paramount and really took off. The Genius Hits the Road (ABC), released in 1960, blends pop, soul, and jazz for his first gold record. “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack” both became number one singles, and he took home four Grammys that year. Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960 ABC) features Charles on the Hammond B3 with the Count Basie Band and produced a Top 10 hit with “One Mint Julep.” Atlantic released several collections of outtakes including 1961’s The Genius Sings the Blues, while he continued his soulful pop efforts with Dedicated to You (1960 ABC) and Ray Charles and Betty Carter (1961 ABC). In 1962, he had his greatest success to date with the Grammy-winning gold album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (ABC), which is more R&B than country. His cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can't Stop Loving You” sold two million copies and remained at number one for almost four months. He followed up with another blockbuster, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2 (1962 ABC), and the R&B-flavored ingredients of 1963’s A Recipe for Soul (ABC), which won a Best R&B Recording Grammy for “I’m Busted.”


In 1965, Charles was busted for possession of heroin. He kicked the habit in a Los Angeles clinic and immediately resumed his career. The title track for 1966’s Crying Time (ABC) nabbed two more Grammys for Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Vocal. Charles continued to be a major live attraction, but his records became spotty as he aimed for a broader pop audience. In 1966, he started his own label, Tangerine Records, and released I Choose To Sing the Blues (Tangerine/ABC), which includes “Let's Go Get Stoned.” Other releases include 1967’s A Man & His Soul (Tangerine/ABC), 1969’s I'm All Yours-Baby! (Tangerine/ABC), 1970’s My Kind of Jazz (Tangerine/ABC), 1971’s Volcanic Action of My Soul (Tangerine/ABC), and 1972’s Through the Eyes of Love (Tangerine/ABC).


In 1973, he started another label called Crossover Records with the help of his old label Atlantic, but he recorded with less frequency. He released Renaissance (Crossover/Atlantic) in 1975, which won a Best R&B Vocal Grammy for his reinvention of Stevie Wonder’s “Lining for the City.” He followed with 1977’s True to Life (Crossover/Atlantic), 1978’s Love & Peace (Crossover/Atlantic), 1979’s Ain't It So (Crossover/Atlantic), and 1980’s Brother Ray Is At It Again (Crossover/Atlantic). Charles then moved to Columbia Records and released a series of country albums including 1983’s Wish You Were Here Tonight (Columbia), 1984’s Do I Ever Cross Your Mind? (Columbia) and Friendship (Columbia), 1986’s From the Pages of My Mind (Columbia), and 1988’s Just Between Us (Columbia).


In the 1990s, Charles made four albums with Warner Bros.: Would You Believe? (1990), My World (1993), A Song for You (1993), which won a Best R&B Vocal Grammy for “A Song for You,” and Strong Love Affair (1996). None of these albums were major successes. In 2002, he made Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again (Crossover) for his revived home label and had just finished Genius Loves Company (2004 Hear Music/Concord) — a duet album with pals old and new including B.B. King, Willie Nelson, and Norah Jones — when his liver gave out. He died on June 10, 2004. Charles loomed large over the 2005 Grammy Awards and won five posthumous awards for Genius Loves Company. Charles has been endlessly reissued and repackaged over the years, but the best overview may be Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (1997 Rhino), a four-disc 101-track collection with songs from every era of his career.


In 2004, the Charles biopic Ray with Jamie Fox in the title role was a box office bonanza and introduced him to another generation of music lovers. The soundtrack was assembled by Charles before he died. Both Ray! Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2004 Atlantic) and More Music From Ray (2004 Atlantic) lean heavily on his early R&B recordings. Two years after his death, Charles became a charter inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


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