Sept. 23, 1930-June 10, 2004
Occupation: Singer, Composer
From the time of his birth in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930, life became an unending challenge for Ray Charles Robinson. He may have been the love child of Bailey Robinson and Aretha Robinson. His life was not only defined by grinding poverty but also by death, disease, and deprivation. When Charles was only five years old, his brother George drowned as Charles helplessly watched. Within two years, glaucoma stripped him of his eyesight, but Aretha Robinson never allowed him to wallow in self-pity. Two recurring maternal messages have followed him throughout life. The first was when well-meaning friends protested her decision to send her son to the State School for the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida. Charles and David Ritz wrote in Brother Ray that Aretha's response was: "He's blind, but he ain't stupid. He's lost his sight, but he ain't lost his mind." The second was her strict moral code: "You do not beg and you do not steal." The decision to send the young boy away was a sound one because Charles learned to read Braille, mastered workshop crafts, and learned the rudiments of car mechanics and typing. He was exposed to classical and big band music, learned to play the piano and clarinet, and expanded his knowledge of gospel, country, and blues music on his own.
While still a teenager, Charles sat in with Julian "Cannonball" Adderly, then a college student but later a leading jazz saxophonist. Adderly's college band was Charles' first real gig and, as he got older, he became more skillful at writing band arrangements by dictating the notes. It was soon apparent that he was not only musically gifted but also a quick study in many areas. All the knowledge and experience gained at the school and in fledgling bands would be needed to prepare the teenager to become an independent adult. At the age of 15, Charles' world fell apart with the unexpected death of his mother. He was at school with no one to comfort him. In his autobiography, he wrote: "Nothing had ever hit me like that. Not George drowning. Not going blind... Mama had raised me, and now she was gone ... for a while, I went a little crazy." He had to regroup quickly and focus on surviving in a world where he was now a sightless orphan without even a high school diploma.
After leaving school, Charles joined the Musician's Local Union 632 in Jacksonville, Florida. Although he was still a teenager, he was laying the foundation for a career in music. In Brother Ray he wrote: "Music's the only way I've ever thought about making a living. ... I suppose I could have been a mechanic, or a carpenter, or a weaver. But I never featured those things in those early days when I first hit the streets. It was music that drove me."
It was rough and he met rejection head on. In 1946, he was turned down by Lucky Millinder, a prominent black band leader of that era. Charles, while trying to find his niche in music, even played with the Florida Playboys, a white country-and-western band. By 1948 there was nothing left for him in Florida and he moved to Seattle, Washington, where he permanently adopted the name "Ray Charles" and began developing his own style. Times were still hard and, in a Rolling Stone interview, Charles related the severity of his plight: "I became very ill a couple of times. I suffered from malnutrition, you know. I was really messed up ... and I wouldn't beg ... hell, I'd starve first."
The Seattle stay was notable for three reasons. He cut his first record for the Los Angeles-based Swing Time label and had two minor R&B hits in 1949 and 1951. He also unknowingly fathered his first child, a fact that came to light years later. Lastly, Charles discovered the deceptive pleasures of hard drugs, a youthful diversion that would lead to a 20-year heroin addiction.
When Charles moved to Los Angeles, his biggest break was becoming pianist and musical director for Lowell Fulson, a big name blues artist in the 1950s. As Charles's own style began to evolve, major companies began to pay attention, especially Atlantic Records, which in 1952 bought his Swing Time contract for $2,500. He continued to travel across the country and, in New Orleans, arranged and produced Guitar Slim's million-seller single "The Things That I Used to Do." Larkin called the artist an "impassioned, almost crude blues performer." Guitar Slim was a strong influence on Charles's increasing use of the gospel-based style of singing. English music critic John Broven cited this period as the time "when Ray Charles had just started that church thing."
That "church thing" would prove to be Charles' emancipation from the early dual influences of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown. All the church music he had heard in the Deep South plus the influence of gospel artists he had heard on the road were being incorporated into a new, energetic, spirit-filled music that spread like wildfire.
In 1954, Charles had his first big hit, exactly nine years after his mother's death. According to Marc Silver, this was the time when Charles "gave his earthy voice its freedom, hammered some gospel chords on the piano, and invented soul music." That hit, "I've Got a Woman," was quickly followed by many more, all reflecting the same sure-fire formula that thrilled his fans and infuriated church folk. In his autobiography Charles described it as "my first real smash. ... This spiritual-and-blues combination of mine was starting to hit."
Charles responded to the black church that criticized his blues/gospel songs as blasphemy. He said in Nowhere to Run, "I got a lot of criticism from the churches, and from musicians, too. They said I must be crazy ... and then ... everybody started doing it ... it worked, so I was a genius." He was not a gospel singer who defected to the pop music scene. Since spirituals were not copyrighted, he never stole that music, as claimed by critics. Charles, to his credit, steadfastly refused to perform religious and popular music at the same venue. In his autobiography he defended his stance: "I was raised to believe that you can't serve two gods."
Charles became successful now for other reasons as well. He put together a background group that became the archetype for "doo-wop girls." The Raeletts came into existence in 1957 for a recording date and then as a permanent fixture for concerts. Charles had long admired such female gospel soloists as Albertina Walker and gospel groups, in particular the Davis Sisters of Philadelphia. He stated in his autobiography, "I wanted the flavor of ... my voice set against women ... that was what I was searching for." After molding the group totally to his satisfaction, he changed its original name "Cookies" to the Raeletts and always sought to get the effect he wanted, as further stated: "I liked that male/female friction and once I had it, I never let it go." The Raelett sound helped define the major hits, most notably "Hit the Road, Jack," "What'd I Say," "Tell the Truth," and "The Night Time is the Right Time."
Charles was always determined not to be pigeonholed in any one musical category and after moving to ABC Records, he branched out and recorded in any musical genre he chose. According to Piazza in The New York Times, "He turned out to be not merely a good interpreter of popular standard material but a great one. A series of albums in the 1960s ... earned him a wider, whiter popular market than that of any soul singer of the time, with the possible exception of Sam Cooke."
This was the era when the term "cross-over" gained a new meaning as Charles, a black soul singer, conquered and redefined the idiosyncrasies of country-and-western (C&W) music, described by Piazza as "Southern white soul music." The best examples of Charles' country songs are his 1959 version of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" and the 1962 remake of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You," the latter selling 2.5 million copies and topped the R&B, pop, and C&W charts for 14 weeks.
From 1961 to 1965, Charles was named the top male American vocalist by Downbeat magazine. Although he spent the mid-1960s touring abroad, Charles also began to exert his independence from record companies and management agencies. In 1963, he established RPM International to oversee his own recording, publishing, and management concerns and, in 1965, he began producing his own records. The control of his professional life sharply contrasted with his own personal life and the debilitating effects of his longtime drug habit. Having started with marijuana as a teenager in Seattle, he soon moved on to heroin despite the efforts of older musicians to dissuade him. Charles never blamed anyone or any circumstance for his decision to use drugs. In a Blues Revue article, he said: "Every experience I've had good and bad has taught me something. I was born a poor boy in the South. I once fooled with drugs, but all of it was like going to school and I tried to be a good student. I don't regret a damn thing."
Charles labeled himself as being a "junkie" but insisted that he was always in control of his money, his career, and his life. In 1958 and 1961 he was involved in drug raids. The first time, charges were dropped due to lack of evidence; the next time, he was actually in possession of heroin but charges against the officers for illegal entry and search worked in his favor. In 1964, however, he was arrested in Boston on a charge of heroin possession by federal narcotics agents. This time, prison was a possibility and Charles realized the effect this could have on his family. Vowing to kick the habit, he entered a Los Angeles clinic and went "cold turkey" while rejecting the clinic's regimen. During that time, he learned to play chess and eventually became an expert player. Because of positive recommendations from the clinic psychiatrist, sentencing was postponed for a year while Charles underwent random periodic checks for drug use. The next year, he received a five-year probated sentence. He was finally free of a harrowing addiction and the threat of a prison sentence, either of which could have seriously imperiled a brilliant career.
Real "Brother Ray" aficionados know that Charles is also a superb jazz musician. His 1960s big bands are still considered by music critics to be among the premier jazz bands of all time. When Charles switched labels, he was accused of becoming too middle-of-the-road and of having lost his characteristic sharp edge. He began to cover the songs of such pop composers as Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman, and the Beatles.
As if in refutation of charges of becoming too predictable and mainstream, Charles became involved in quite diverse musical ventures. He has appeared quite often on television's Sesame Street with the Muppets and made "It's Not Easy Being Green" his personal song. He also did the searing vocal on the soundtrack for the movie In the Heat of the Night. He was a major participant on the USA for Africa release of "We Are the World," a blockbuster hit engineered by his colleague, Quincy Jones. With a Raelett-like trio, Charles cut one of the most popular television commercials ever for Pepsi-Cola; he had previously done others for Coca-Cola, Olympia Beer, and Scotch recording tape. In November of 1997 Charles appeared on the television show The Nanny as the fiancé of the main character's Jewish grandmother, Yetta. Some of his finest television appearances are on video: An Evening with Ray Charles (1981); The Legends of Rock 'n' Roll (1989); and Ray Charles Live (1991).
Charles has definite opinions on the current state of music and the music industry. When asked if he could begin a music career today, he told Silver for U.S. News and World Report: "No. When I was coming up, the record people looked at the talent. I made about four records at Atlantic [Records] 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." Commenting on rap music, he said in the same source that "You can't even print what I think. ... Just to talk to music, I did that years ago on 'It Should've Been Me' and 'Greenbacks'."
But Charles has groomed, nurtured, and influenced many outstanding musicians in the same ways he was helped during his formative years. Quincy Jones, prolific composer and Hollywood arranger, and Hank Crawford, jazz saxophonist, arranger, and musical director, were early sidemen, arrangers, and musical directors for the Ray Charles big bands. In a Rolling Stone article, David Wild noted that Charles has influenced singers "from Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood to Michael Bolton," to which Charles replied. "It's the ultimate compliment. When I started out, all I wanted to do was sing like Nat King Cole."
Charles has reached the half-century mark of performing, composing, and arranging his own music and that of anybody else's he chooses. The 101-song, five-CD box set that commemorated his fiftieth anniversary is testament to a life devoted to music. He told People magazine: "Music is my life, my bloodstream, my breathing. I'm gonna make music until the good Lord says to me, 'Ray, you've been a good horse. It's time to put you out to pasture.'"
In the summer of 1996, Charles received an honorary doctorate of music from Occidental College in Los Angeles. This was the culmination of a succession of public accolades starting at the beginning of his illustrious career. For example, he won the New Star Award, Downbeat Critic's Poll (1958, 1961- 64). He was named Number One Male Singer in the International Jazz Critic's Poll (1968) and named to the Playboy Jazz and Pop Hall of Fame and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. In 1975, he received the Man of Distinction Award from the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease. Charles was named honorary life chairman for the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and became a member of Ebony Black Music Hall of Fame. B'nai B'rith named him Man of the Year. In 1983 he received the NAACP Image Award and in 1986 a Kennedy Center Honors Medal. Charles was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and received the Ebony Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He has also won 11 Grammy awards.
Charles' feelings about his fame and his musical talents were best expressed to a Rolling Stone writer in 1993: "When people call me a genius or a legend, they're just showing the ultimate respect for my music. I know very well that I'm far from a genius. I'm just a guy who does a lot of things in music pretty well."
March 6, 2004: Charles was inducted into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Hall of Fame. Source: USA Today, March 8, 2004.
April 30, 2004: The city of Los Angeles honored the Ray Charles Studios on Washington Boulevard with an historic landmark designation. Source: CNN.com, April 30, 2004.
August 31, 2004: Charles' last album, Genius Loves Company, was released by Concord Records. The recording features duets with many artists, including B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Norah Jones, and Diana Krall. Source: The New York Times, August 31, 2004.
August 31, 2004: Charles' album, Genius Loves Company, was released posthumously. Source: All Music Guide, September 2, 2004.
September 8, 2004: Charles' final album, Genius Loves Company, made its debut at No. 2. Source: Reuters, September 9, 2004.
October 2004: The film biography Ray was released. The film went on to win two Oscars in 2005, including an award for best actor for Jamie Foxx. Sources: New York Times, January 11, 2009 and IMDB.com, January 11, 2009.
February 13, 2005: Charles won five posthumous Grammy Awards, including record of the year and best pop collaboration with vocals, both for "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones; best gospel performance, for "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight; and album of the year and best pop vocal album, both for Genius Loves Company. Source: Grammys.com, February 14, 2005.
April 1, 2005: The Ray Charles Museum will open in late 2007 at the RPM Building in Los Angeles, California, in the former Los Angeles Studios, where Charles recorded throughout his career. Source: The New York Times, April 1, 2005.
April 2005: Newly discovered tapes at the Library of Congress include a live recording of a Carnegie Hall benefit concert, dated November 29, 1957, and featuring Charles and others. Source: New York Times, April 25, 2005.
August 26, 2005: A Los Angeles post office near the studio where Charles recorded many of his hits was renamed the Ray Charles Station. Source: Yahoo News, August 26, 2005.
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: The New York Times, February 9, 2006.
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Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009.
Document Number: K1622000072