Ray Charles, Bluesy Essence of Soul, Is Dead at 73
By JON PARELES and BERNARD WEINRAUB
Published: June 11, 2004
Ray Charles, the piano man with the bluesy voice who reshaped American music for a half-century, bringing the essence of soul to country, jazz, rock, standards and every other style of music he touched, died yesterday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 73.
Mr. Charles underwent successful hip replacement surgery last year and had been scheduled to start a concert tour this month, but developed other ailments and died of complications of liver disease, said his publicity agent, Jerry Digney.
Mr. Charles brought his influence to bear as a performer, songwriter, bandleader and producer. Though blind since childhood, he was a remarkable pianist, at home with splashy barrelhouse playing and precisely understated swing. But his playing was inevitably overshadowed by his voice, a forthright baritone steeped in the blues, strong and impure and gloriously unpredictable.
He could belt like a blues shouter and croon like a pop singer, and he used the flaws and breaks in his voice to illuminate emotional paradoxes. Even in his early years he sounded like a voice of experience, someone who had seen all the hopes and follies of humanity.
Leaping into falsetto, stretching a word and then breaking it off with a laugh or a sob, slipping into an intimate whisper and then letting loose a whoop, Mr. Charles could sound suave or raw, brash or hesitant, joyful or desolate, insouciant or tearful, earthy or devout. He projected the primal exuberance of a field holler and the sophistication of a bebopper; he could conjure exaltation, sorrow and determination within a single phrase.
In the 1950's Mr. Charles became an architect of soul music by bringing the fervor and dynamics of gospel to secular subjects. But he soon broke through any categories. By singing any song he prized -- from ''Hallelujah I Love Her So'' to ''I Can't Stop Loving You'' to ''Georgia on My Mind'' to ''America the Beautiful'' -- Mr. Charles claimed all of American music as his birthright. He made more than 60 albums, and his influence echoes through generations of rock and soul singers.
Joe Levy, the music editor of Rolling Stone, said, ''The hit records he made for Atlantic in the mid-50's mapped out everything that would happen to rock 'n' roll and soul music in the years that followed.''
''Ray Charles is the guy who combined the sacred and the secular, he combined gospel music and the blues,'' Mr. Levy continued, adding, ''He's called a genius because no one could confine him to one genre. He wasn't just rhythm and blues. He was jazz as well. In the early 60's he turned himself into a country performer. Except for B. B. King, there's no other figure who's been as important or has endured so long.''
In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, after being sidelined by surgery for months, Mr. Charles reflected on his career and seemed eager to be in front of an audience again.
''Yes, I'm going to keep touring, keep performing, it's in my blood,'' he said in a recording studio in Los Angeles. ''I'm like Count Basie or Duke Ellington. Until the good Lord calls my number, that's what I'm going to do.'' Several weeks after that interview he canceled a March 2 appearance at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan because of postsurgery discomfort.
''I ain't going to live forever,'' he said during the recording studio interview. ''I got enough sense to know that. I also know it's not a question of how long I live, but it's a question of how well I live.''
He had recently recorded an album of duets with such performers as Norah Jones, B. B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald and James Taylor that was planned for an August release. A movie, tentatively titled ''Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story,'' starring Jamie Foxx and directed by Taylor Hackford, has been completed, but its producers say they are uncertain if it will be released this year or next.
Mr. Charles influenced singers as varied as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Billy Joel. But he started out being influenced by a very different singer, Nat King Cole.
''When I started out I tried to imitate Nat Cole because I loved him so much,'' Mr. Charles said. ''But then I woke up one morning and I said, 'People tell me all the time that I sound like Nat Cole, but wait a minute, they don't even know my name.' As scared as I was -- because I got jobs sounding like Nat Cole -- I just said, 'Well, I've got to change because nobody knows who I am.' And my Mom taught me one thing, 'Be yourself, boy.' And that's the premise I went on.''
Ray Charles Robinson was born on Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga., a small town, and grew up in an even smaller town, Greenville, Fla. When he was 5 he began losing his sight from an unknown ailment that may have been glaucoma. He became completely blind by the time he was 7. But he began to learn piano, at first from a local boogie-woogie pianist, Wylie Pitman; he also soaked up gospel music at the Shiloh Baptist Church and rural blues from musicians including Tampa Red.
He would say years later that racism in the South affected him just as it had any other black person.
Ray Charles, Bluesy Essence of Soul, Is Dead at 73
Published: June 11, 2004
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''What I never understood to this day, to this very day, was how white people could have black people cook for them, make their meals, but wouldn't let them sit at the table with them,'' he said. ''How can you dislike someone so much and have them cook for you? Shoot, if I don't like someone you ain't cooking nothing for me, ever.''
He attended the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1945. There he learned to repair radios and cars, and he started formal piano lessons. He learned to write music in Braille and played Chopin and Art Tatum; he also learned to play clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet and organ. On the radio he listened to swing bands, country-and-western singers and gospel quartets. ''My ears were sponges, soaked it all up,'' he told David Ritz, who collaborated on his 1978 autobiography, ''Brother Ray.''
Asked recently what effect blindness had had on his career, Mr. Charles replied: ''Nothing, nothing, nothing. I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. I played music since I was 3. I could see then. I lost my sight when I was 7. So blindness didn't have anything to do with it. It didn't give me anything. And it didn't take nothing.''
He left school at 15, after his mother died, and went to Jacksonville, Fla., to earn a living as a musician. He played where he could as a sideman or a solo act, taking jobs all over the state and calling himself Ray Charles to distinguish himself from the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. He modeled himself on two urbane pianists and singers, not just Cole, but also Charles Brown, carefully copying their hits and imitating their inflections.
After three years, he put Florida far behind him and moved to Seattle. There he formed the McSon Trio, named after its guitarist, Gosady McGee, and the ''son'' from Robinson. He also started an addiction to heroin that lasted 17 years.
Mr. Charles made his first single, ''Confession Blues,'' in Seattle in 1949, credited to the Maxin (a different spelling of McSon) Trio. His second single, ''Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand'' by the Ray Charles Trio, was recorded in Los Angeles in 1950 with musicians who had played with Cole. The singles were hits on the ''race records'' (later rhythm-and-blues) charts, and Mr. Charles moved to Los Angeles.
He joined the band led by the blues guitarist Lowell Fulson, and became its musical director. After two years touring the United States, he left to resume his own career. In 1953 he signed to Atlantic Records; he also moved to New Orleans to work with Guitar Slim as pianist and arranger. Guitar Slim's ''Things That I Used to Do,'' featuring Mr. Charles on piano, became a million-selling single in 1954, and that convinced Mr. Charles to abandon his imitative style and free his own voice. He moved to Dallas and formed a band featuring the Texas saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman. After working with studio bands on his first Atlantic singles, he convinced that label to let him record with his touring band, playing arrangements that had been road-tested on the rhythm-and-blues circuit.
''I've Got a Woman,'' recorded in a radio-station studio in Atlanta with his seven-piece band, became Mr. Charles's first national hit in 1955, starting a string of bluesy, gospel-charged hits, among them ''A Fool for You,'' ''Drown in My Own Tears'' and ''Hallelujah I Love Her So.'' In the mid-1950's he expanded his band to include the Raelettes, female backup singers who provided responses like a gospel choir, and they became a permanent part of his music. It was the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era, but Mr. Charles's songs were not geared to teenagers; they had the adult concerns of the blues. Nonetheless, his songs began showing up on the pop charts as well as on the rhythm-and-blues charts.
At the same time Mr. Charles made clear his allegiance to jazz, recording an album with Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1958 and appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.
In 1959 a late-night jam session turned into ''What'd I Say.'' It was a blues with an electric-piano riff, a quasi-Latin beat and cheerful come-ons that gave way to wordless call-and-response moans. Although some radio stations banned it, it became a Top 10 pop hit and sold a million copies. But his next album, ''The Genius of Ray Charles,'' took a different tack: half of it was recorded with a lush string orchestra, half with a big band. He also recorded his first country song, a version of Hank Snow's ''I'm Movin' On.''
Mr. Charles left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount Records in 1959 when it offered him higher royalties and ownership of his master recordings. He began to reach a larger pop audience with songs including two No. 1 hits, his version of ''Georgia on My Mind'' in 1960 (one of his first songs to win a Grammy) and ''Hit the Road Jack'' in 1961. With increasing royalties and touring fees, Mr. Charles expanded his group to become a big band.
By the early 1960's Mr. Charles had virtually given up writing his own material to follow his eclectic impulses as an interpreter. He made an instrumental jazz album, ''Genius + Soul = Jazz,'' playing Hammond organ with a big band featuring Count Basie sidemen. On a duet album he made in 1961 with the jazz singer Betty Carter, two highly idiosyncratic voices sounded utterly compatible. And in 1962 he released the album ''Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,'' remaking country songs as big-band ballads. His version of ''I Can't Stop Loving You'' reached No. 1 and sold a million copies.
Ray Charles, Bluesy Essence of Soul, Is Dead at 73
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After recording ''Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2,'' Mr. Charles settled into an office building and studio in Los Angeles that remained his headquarters ever since. He returned to rhythm and blues for his other major 1960's hits: ''Busted'' in 1963 and ''Let's Go Get Stoned'' in 1966. But he was also recording standards, country songs and show tunes.
In 1965 Mr. Charles was arrested for possession of heroin. He spent time in a California sanatorium to shake his addiction and stopped performing for a year, the only break during his long career. When he emerged he resumed his old schedule: touring for up to 10 months with the big band and releasing an album or two every year. He started his own label, Tangerine, which released albums through ABC and on its own. In the mid-1970's he started another label, Crossover, which released albums through Atlantic.
His presence on the pop charts had dwindled, but he was still widely respected. In 1971 he joined Aretha Franklin for the concert she recorded as ''Aretha Live at Fillmore West.'' His version of Stevie Wonder's ''Living for the City'' won a Grammy in 1975. His autobiography became a best seller in 1978. In 1979 his version of ''Georgia on My Mind'' was named the official state song of Georgia, and in 1980 he appeared in the movie ''The Blues Brothers.''
During the 1980's Mr. Charles returned to the charts, this time in the country category. The boundary-crossing Southern music he had envisioned with ''Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music'' had been not just accepted, but treated as natural. He signed to CBS Records's Nashville division and made ''Friendship,'' an album of duets with 10 country stars, which included songs with George Jones and Willie Nelson that reached the country Top 10 in 1983. He sang ''America the Beautiful'' at the Republican National Convention in 1984.
In 1986 Mr. Charles was one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1987, and in 1989 he appeared on Quincy Jones's album ''Back on the Block,'' winning another Grammy in 1990 for a vocal duet with Chaka Khan on ''I'll Be Good to You.'' All in all he won a dozen Grammys for his recordings, as well as the achievement award. Also in 1990 he turned up in television ads for Diet Pepsi, singing, ''You got the right one, baby, uh-huh!''
Mr. Charles's private life was complicated. He was divorced twice, and leaves behind 12 children, 20 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.
Among his numerous awards were the Presidential Medal for the Arts, in 1993, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986.
In the interview earlier this year, Mr. Charles said that, having aged, he could sing only music that moved him in a way that he could not quite define.
''I guess I'm kind of a strange animal,'' he said. ''What works for me is songs that I can put myself into. It has nothing to do with the song. Maybe it's a great song. But there's got to be something in that song for me.''
Asked if most of his songs were not suffused with sadness, he shrugged and said: ''To be honest with you, I sing what I feel, what I genuinely feel. That's it. No airs.''
Photos: Ray Charles, whose voice was gloriously unpredictable, earlier this year. (Photo by Monica Almeida/The New York Times)(pg. A1); Ray Charles at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1990. In his career he influenced singers as varied as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Billy Joel. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian)(pg. B11) Chart: ''Ray Charles, a Baker's Dozen of Grammys'' Mr. Charles won 12 Grammys for recordings, as well as the 1987 Lifetime Achievement Award. YEAR: 1960 AWARD: Vocal performance, single or track SONG: ''Georgia on My Mind'' YEAR: 1960 AWARD: Vocal performance, album SONG: ''The Genius of Ray Charles'' YEAR: 1960 AWARD: Performance by a pop single artist SONG: ''Georgia on My Mind'' YEAR: 1960 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues performance SONG: ''Let the Good Times Roll'' YEAR: 1961 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues recording SONG: ''Hit the Road Jack'' YEAR: 1962 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues recording SONG: ''I Can't Stop Loving You'' YEAR: 1963 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues recording SONG: ''Busted'' YEAR: 1966 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues recording SONG: ''Crying Time'' YEAR: 1966 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues solo vocal performance SONG: ''Crying Time'' YEAR: 1975 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues vocal performance SONG: ''Living for the City'' YEAR: 1987 AWARD: Lifetime Achievement Award SONG YEAR: 1990 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues performance by a duo or group SONG: ''I'll Be Good to You'' YEAR: 1993 AWARD: Rhythm-and-blues performance SONG: ''A Song for You'' (pg. B11)
Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004), professionally known as Ray Charles, was an American singer, songwriter, musician and composer, who is sometimes referred to as "The Genius".
He pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s by combining rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues styles into the music he recorded for Atlantic Records. He also contributed to the racial integration of country and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his two Modern Sounds albums. While he was with ABC, Charles became one of the first African-American musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company.
Charles was blind from the age of seven. Charles cited Nat King Cole as a primary influence, but his music was also influenced by jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and country artists of the day, including Art Tatum, Louis Jordan, Charles Brown and Louis Armstrong. Charles' playing reflected influences from country blues, barrelhouseand stride piano styles. His best friend in music was South Carolina-born James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul".
Frank Sinatra called him "the only true genius in show business", although Charles downplayed this notion. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Charles at number ten on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", and number two on their November 2008 list of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time". In honoring him, American musician Billy Joel observed: "This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley".
Life and career
Early years (1930–45)
Ray Charles Robinson was the son of Aretha (née William) Robinson, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman. When Charles was an infant, his family moved from his birthplace in Albany, Georgia, back to his mother's hometown of Greenville, Florida.
Charles did not see much of his father growing up, and it is unclear whether his mother and father were ever married. Charles was raised by his biological mother Aretha, as well as his father’s first wife, a woman named Mary Jane. Growing up, he referred to Aretha as "Mama", and Mary Jane as "mother". Aretha was a devout Christian, and the family attended the New Shiloh Baptist Church.
In his early years, Charles showed a curiosity for mechanical objects, and would often watch his neighbors working on their cars and farm machinery. His musical curiosity was sparked at Mr. Wylie Pitman's Red Wing Cafe, when Pitman played boogie woogie on an old upright piano; Pitman subsequently taught Charles how to play piano himself. Charles and his mother were always welcome at the Red Wing Cafe, and even lived there when they were experiencing financial difficulties. Pitman would also care for Ray's brother George, to take the burden off Aretha. George drowned in Aretha's laundry tub when he was four years old, and Ray was five. After witnessing the death of his brother, Charles would feel an overwhelming sense of guilt later on in life.
Charles started to lose his sight at the age of four or five, and was completely blind by the age of seven, apparently as a result of glaucoma. Broke, uneducated and still mourning the loss of Charles' brother George, Aretha used her connections in the local community to find a school that would accept blind African American students. Despite his initial protest, Charles would attend school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945.
Charles began to develop his musical talent at school, and was taught to play the classical piano music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. His teacher Mrs. Lawrence taught him how to read music using braille, a difficult process that requires learning the left hand movements by reading braille with the right hand and learning the right hand movements by reading braille with the left hand, and then synthesizing the two parts. While Charles was happy to play the piano, he was more interested in the jazz and blues music he heard on the family radio than classical music. 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 black 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". During this time, he also performed on WFOY radio in St. Augustine.
Aretha died in the spring of 1945, when Charles was 14 years old. Her death came as a shock to Ray, who would later consider the deaths of his brother and mother to be "the two great tragedies" of his life. Charles returned to school after the funeral, but was then expelled in October for playing a prank on his teacher.
Life in Florida, Los Angeles, Seattle and first hits (1945–52)
After leaving school, Charles moved to Jacksonville with a couple who were friends of his mother. He played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla for over a year, earning $4 a night. He also joined the musicians’ union in the hope that it would help him get work. He befriended many union members, but others were less kind to him because he would monopolize the union hall’s piano, since he did not have one at home. He started to build a reputation as a talented musician in Jacksonville, but the jobs did not come fast enough for him to construct a strong identity. He decided to leave Jacksonville and move to a bigger city with more opportunities.
At age 16, Charles moved to Orlando, where he lived in borderline poverty and went without food for days. It was an extremely difficult time for musicians to find work, as since World War II had ended there were no “G.I. Joes” left to entertain. Charles eventually started to write arrangements for a pop music band, and in the summer of 1947 he unsuccessfully auditioned to play piano for Lucky Millinder and his sixteen-piece band.
In 1947, Charles moved to Tampa, where he had two jobs: one as a pianist for Charlie Brantley's Honeydrippers, a seven-piece band; and another as a member of a white country band called The Florida Playboys (though there is no historical trace of Charles' involvement in The Florida Playboys besides Charles' own testimony). This is where he began his habit of always wearing sunglasses, made by designer Billy Stickles. Ray Charles Robinson dropped his last name to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and in his early career modelled himself on Nat "King" Cole. His first four recordings — "Wondering and Wondering", "Walking and Talking", "Why Did You Go?" and "I Found My Baby There" — were supposedly made in Tampa, although some discographies also claim he recorded them in Miami in 1951, or Los Angeles in 1952.
Charles had always played piano for other people, but he was keen to have his own band. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, and, considering Chicago and New York City too big, followed his friend Gossie McKee to Seattle in March 1948, knowing that the biggest radio hits came from northern cities. Here he met and befriended, under the tutelage of Robert Blackwell, a 14-year-old Quincy Jones. He started playing the one-to-five A.M. shift at the Rocking Chair with his band McSon Trio, which featured McKee on guitar and Milton Garrett on bass. Publicity photos of the trio are some of the earliest recorded photographs of Ray Charles. In April 1949, Charles and his band recorded "Confession Blues", which became his first national hit, soaring to the second spot on the Billboard R&B chart. While still working at the Rocking Chair, he also arranged songs for other artists, including Cole Porter's "Ghost of a Chance" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Emanon".
After the success of his first two singles, Charles moved to Los Angeles in 1950, and spent the next few years touring with blues artist Lowell Fulson as his musical director.
In 1950, his performance in a Miami hotel would impress Henry Stone, who went on to record a Ray Charles Rockin' record (which never became particular popular). During his stay in Miami, Charles was required to stay in the segregated but thriving black community of Overtown. Stone later helped Jerry Wexler find Charles in St. Petersburg.
After joining Swing Time Records, he recorded two more R&B hits under the name "Ray Charles": "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951), which reached number five; and "Kissa Me Baby"(1952), which reached number eight. Swing Time folded the following year, and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.
Signing with Atlantic Records (1952–59)
Charles' first recording session with Atlantic ("The Midnight Hour"/"Roll With my Baby") took place in September 1952, although his last Swingtime release ("Misery in my Heart"/"The Snow is Falling") would not appear until February 1953. He began recording jump blues and boogie-woogie style recordings as well as slower blues ballads, where he continued to show the vocal influences of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown. "Mess Around" became Charles' first Atlantic hit in 1953; the following year he had hits with "It Should Have Been Me" and "Don't You Know". He also recorded the songs "Midnight Hour" and "Sinner's Prayer". Some elements of his own vocal style were evident in "Sinner's Prayer", "Mess Around" and "Don't You Know".
Late in 1954, Charles recorded his own composition "I Got a Woman"; the song became Charles' first number-one R&B hit in 1955, bringing him to national prominence. "I Got a Woman" included a mixture of gospel, jazz and blues elements that would later prove to be seminal in the development of rock 'n' roll and soul music. He continued through to 1958 with records such as "This Little Girl of Mine", "Drown in My Own Tears", "Lonely Avenue", "A Fool For You" and "The Night Time (Is the Right Time)".
Parallel to his R&B career, Charles also recorded instrumental jazz albums such as 1957's The Great Ray Charles. During this time, Charles also worked with jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson, releasing Soul Brothers in 1958 and Soul Meeting in 1961. By 1958, Charles was not only headlining black venues such as The Apollo Theater and The Uptown Theater, but also bigger venues such as The Newport Jazz Festival (where he would cut his first live album).
In 1956, Charles recruited a young all-female singing group named the Cookies, and reshaped them as The Raelettes. Up to this point, Charles had used his wife and other musicians to back him on recordings such as "This Little Girl of Mine" and "Drown In My Own Tears". The Raelettes' first recording session with Charles was on the bluesy-gospel inflected "Leave My Woman Alone".
Crossover success (1959–67)
Charles reached the pinnacle of his success at Atlantic with the release of "What'd I Say", a complex song that combined gospel, jazz, blues and Latin music, which Charles would later claim he had composed spontaneously as he was performing in clubs and dances with his small band. Despite some radio stations banning the song because of its sexually suggestive lyrics, the song became Charles' first ever crossover top ten pop record. Later in 1959, he released his first country song (a cover of Hank Snow's "Movin' On"), as well as recording three more albums for the label: a jazz record (later released in 1961 as The Genius After Hours); a blues record (released in 1961 as The Genius Sings the Blues); and a traditional pop/big band record (The Genius of Ray Charles). The Genius of Ray Charles provided his first top 40 album entry, where it peaked at No. 17, and was later held as a landmark record in Charles' career.
Charles' Atlantic contract expired in the fall of 1959, with several big labels offered him record deals; choosing not to renegotiate his contract with Atlantic, Ray Charles signed with ABC-Paramount Records in November 1959. He obtained a much more liberal contract than other artists had at the time, with ABC offering him a $50,000 annual advance, higher royalties than before and eventual ownership of his masters — a very valuable and lucrative deal at the time. During his Atlantic years, Charles had been heralded for his own inventive compositions, but by the time of the release of the instrumental jazz LP Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960) for ABC's subsidiary label Impulse!, Charles had virtually given up on writing original material, instead following his eclectic impulses as an interpreter.
With "Georgia on My Mind", his first hit single for ABC-Paramount in 1960, Charles received national acclaim and a Grammy Award. Originally written by composers Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael, the song was Charles' first work with Sid Feller, who produced, arranged and conducted the recording. Charles earned another Grammy for the follow-up "Hit the Road Jack", written by R&B singer Percy Mayfield. By late 1961, Charles had expanded his small road ensemble to a full-scale big band, partly as a response to increasing royalties and touring fees, becoming one of the few black artists to crossover into mainstream pop with such a level of creative control. This success, however, came to a momentary halt during a concert tour in November 1961, when a police search of Charles' hotel room in Indianapolis, Indiana, led to the discovery of heroin in his medicine cabinet. The case was eventually dropped, as the search lacked a proper warrant by the police, and Charles soon returned to music.
In the early 1960s, whilst on the way from Louisiana to Oklahoma City, Charles faced a near-death experience when the pilot of his plane lost visibility, as snow and his failure to use defroster caused the windshield of the plane to become completely covered in ice. The pilot made a few circles in the air before he was finally able to see through a small part of the windshield and land the plane. Charles placed a spiritual interpretation on the event, claiming that "something or someone which instruments cannot detect" was responsible for creating the small opening in the ice on the windshield which enabled the pilot to land the plane safely.
The 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 musical mainstream. Charles' version of the Don Gibson song I Can't Stop Loving You topped the Pop chart for five weeks, stayed at No. 1 in the R&B chart for ten weeks, and also gave him his only number one record in the UK. In 1962, he founded his own record label, Tangerine Records, which ABC-Paramount promoted and distributed. He also had major pop hits in 1963 with "Busted" (US No. 4) and Take These Chains From My Heart (US No. 8).
In 1965, Charles' career was halted once more after being arrested for a third time for heroin use. He agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time, and eventually kicked his habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. After spending a year on parole, Charles reappeared in the charts in 1966 with a series of hits composed with the fledgling team of Ashford & Simpson, including the dance number "I Don't Need No Doctor", and "Let's Go Get Stoned", which became his first No. 1 R&B hit in several years. His cover of country artist Buck Owens' "Crying Time" reached No. 6 on the pop chart and helped Charles win a Grammy Award the following March. In 1967, he had a top twenty hit with another ballad, "Here We Go Again".
Commercial decline (1967–81)
Charles' renewed chart success, however, proved to be short lived, and by the late 1960s his music was rarely played on radio stations. The rise of psychedelic rock and harder forms of rock and R&B music had reduced Charles' radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of contemporary rock and soul hits, since his earnings from owning his own masters had taken away the motivation to write new material. Charles nonetheless continued to have an active recording career, although most of his recordings between 1968 and 1973 evoked strong reactions: people either liked them a lot, or strongly disliked them. His 1972 album, A Message from the People, included his unique gospel-influenced version of "America the Beautiful", as well as a number of protest songs about poverty and civil rights. In 1974, Charles left ABC Records and recorded several albums on his own Crossover Records label. A 1975 recording of Stevie Wonder's hit "Living for the City" later helped Charles win another Grammy.
In 1977, he reunited with Ahmet Ertegün and re-signed to Atlantic Records, where he recorded the album True to Life, remaining with his old label until 1980. However, the label had now begun to focus on rock acts, and some of their prominent soul artists such as Aretha Franklin were starting to be neglected. In November 1977 he appeared as the host of NBC's Saturday Night Live. In April 1979, Charles' version of "Georgia On My Mind" was proclaimed the state song of Georgia, and an emotional Charles performed the song on the floor of the state legislature. Though he had notably supported the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, in 1981 Charles was criticized for performing at South Africa's Sun City resort during an international boycott of its apartheid policy.
Later years (1983–2004)
In 1983, Charles signed a contract with Columbia Records. He recorded a string of country albums, as well as having single hits with duet singers such as George Jones, Chet Atkins, B.J. Thomas, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Jr. and lifelong friend Willie Nelson, with whom he recorded the No. 1 country duet "Seven Spanish Angels".
Prior to the release of his first Warner release, Would You Believe, Charles made a return to the R&B charts with a cover of The Brothers Johnson's "I'll Be Good to You", a duet with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones and singer Chaka Khan which hit number-one on the R&B charts in 1990 and won Charles and Khan a Grammy for their dual work. Prior to this, Charles returned to the pop charts in another duet, with singer Billy Joel on the song "Baby Grand". In 1989, he recorded a cover of theSouthern All Stars' "Itoshi no Ellie" for a Japanese TV advert for the Suntory brand, releasing it in Japan as "Ellie My Love" where it reached No. 3 on its Oriconchart. Charles' 1993 album, My World, became his first album in some time to reach the Billboard 200, whilst his cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" would give him a hit on the adult contemporary chart as well as his twelfth and final Grammy.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Charles was reaching younger audiences with appearances in various films and TV shows. In 1980, he appeared in the film The Blues Brothers. Charles' version of "Night Time is the Right Time" was played during the popular Cosby Show episode "Happy Anniversary", although he never appeared on the show in person. In 1985, he appeared alongside a slew of other popular musicians in the USA for Africa charity recording "We Are the World". Charles' popularity increased among younger audiences in 1991 after he appeared in a series of Diet Pepsi commercials, where he popularized the catchphrase "You Got the Right One, Baby", which came from a song by Kenny Ascher, Joseph C. Caro and Helary Jay Lipsitz. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Charles made appearances on the Super Dave Osbourne TV show, featuring in a series of vignettes where he was somehow driving a car, often as Super Dave's chauffeur. During the sixth season ofDesigning Women, Charles himself sang "Georgia on My Mind" in place of the instrumental cover version which had featured in the previous five seasons. He also appeared in 4 episodes of the popular TV comedy The Nanny, playing Sammy in Seasons 4 & 5 during 1997-98. From 2001-2002, Charles appeared in commercials for the New Jersey Lottery to promote its "For every dream, there's a jackpot" campaign.
Charles appeared at two separate Presidential inaugurations, performing for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985, and for Bill Clinton's first in 1993. On October 28, 2001, several weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Charles appeared during Game 2 of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees and performed "America the Beautiful". In 2003, Ray Charles headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., which was attended by the President, First Lady, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Also in 2003, Charles 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" (the performance appears on Morrison's 2007 album The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3). 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. 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.
Marriages and children
Ray Charles was married twice, and had twelve children with ten different women. Charles' first child Evelyn was born in 1949 to his then girlfriend, Louise Flowers. Charles' first marriage was to Eileen Williams, and lasted from July 31 1951 to 1952.
Charles' second marriage to Della Beatrice Howard Robinson (called "B" by Charles) began on April 5, 1955, and lasted 12 or 13 years. Their first child together, Ray Jr., was born in 1955. Charles was not in town for the birth as he was playing a show in Texas; at first, he was afraid to hold his son because he was so small, but he got over his fear after a few months. The couple had two further children, David (1958) and Robert (1960). During their marriage, Charles felt that his heroin addiction took a toll on Della.
Charles had a six-year-long affair with Margie Hendricks, one of the original Raelettes, and in 1959 the pair had a son together, Charles Wayne. His affair with Mae Mosely Lyles resulted in another daughter, Raenee, born in 1961. In 1963, Charles had a daughter, Sheila Raye Charles Robinson, with Sandra Jean Betts. In 1966, Charles' daughter Alicia was born to a woman who remains unidentified, and another daughter, Alexandra, was also born to Chantal Bertrand. Charles divorced from Della Howard in 1977, and later that year Charles had a son, Vincent, with Arlette Kotchounian. A daughter, Robyn, was born a year later to Gloria Moffett. Charles' youngest child, son Ryan Corey, was born in 1987 to Mary Anne den Bok. Charles' long-term girlfriend and partner at the time of his death was Norma Pinella.
Substance abuse and legal issues
Charles first tried drugs when he played in McSon Trio, and was eager to try them as he thought they helped musicians create music and tap into their creativity. He experimented first with marijuana, and later became addicted to heroin, which he struggled with for sixteen years. He was first arrested in the 1950s, when he and his bandmates were caught backstage with loose marijuana and drug paraphernalia, including a burnt spoon, syringe and needle. The arrest did not deter Charles' drug use, which only escalated as he became more successful and made more money.
Charles was arrested again on a narcotics charge on November 14, 1961, whilst waiting in an Indiana hotel room before a performance. The detectives seized heroin, marijuana and other items. Charles, then 31, stated that he had been a drug addict since the age of 16. The case was dismissed because of the manner in which the evidence was obtained, but Charles's situation did not improve until a few years later. Individuals such as Quincy Jones and Reverend Henry Griffin felt that those around Charles were responsible for his drug use.
In 1964, Charles was arrested for possession of marijuana and heroin. Following a self-imposed stay at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, California, Charles received five years' probation. Charles responded to the saga of his drug use and reform with the songs "I Don't Need No Doctor", "Let's Go Get Stoned", and the release of Crying Time, his first album since having kicked his heroin addiction in 1966.
Charles played chess using a special board with holes for the pieces and raised squares. Charles referred to Willie Nelson as "my chess partner" in a 1991 concert. In 2002, he played and lost to American Grandmaster and former U.S. Champion Larry Evans. In 2001, Morehouse College honored Charles with the Candle Award for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Entertainment, and later that same year granted him an honorary doctor of humane letters. It is also the year that Charles and his longtime business manager, Joe Adams, gave a gift of $1 million to Morehouse, where Charles had approved plans for the building of the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center.
In 2003, Charles had successful hip replacement surgery and was planning to go back on tour, until he began suffering from other ailments. On June 10, 2004, as a result of acute liver disease, Charles died at his home in Los Angeles, California, surrounded by family and friends. He was 73 years old. His funeral took place on June 18, 2004, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles, with musical peers such as Little Richard in attendance.B.B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder and Wynton Marsalis each played a tribute at Charles' funeral. Charles was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
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 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 ofHarold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow", sung as a duet by Charles and Johnny Mathis; this record was 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 including "Big Bad Love" with Diana Ross. 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.
Influence on music industry
Charles possessed one of the most recognizable voices in American music. In the words of musicologist Henry Pleasants:
His style and success in the genres of rhythm and blues and jazz had an influence on a number of highly successful artists, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and Billy Joel. According to Joe Levy, a music editor for Rolling Stone, "The hit records he made for Atlantic in the mid-50's mapped out everything that would happen to rock 'n' roll and soul music in the years that followed".
The biopic Ray, released in October 2004, portrays his life and career between 1930 and 1979 and stars Jamie Foxx as Charles. Foxx won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role.
On December 7, 2007, the Ray Charles Plaza was opened in his hometown of Albany, Georgia. The plaza features a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano and the plaza's dedication was attended by his daughter, Sheila Raye Charles.
On August 4, 2013, in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters stated: "I was about 15. In the middle of the night with friends, we were listening to jazz. It was "Georgia on My Mind", Ray Charles's version. Then I thought 'One day, if I make some people feel only one twentieth of what I am feeling now, it will be quite enough for me.'"
Awards and Honors
In 1979, Charles was one of the first of the Georgia State Music Hall of Fame to be recognized as a musician born in the state. Ray's version of "Georgia On My Mind" was made the official state song for Georgia. In 1981, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was one of the first inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural ceremony in 1986. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986.
In 1987, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1991, he was inducted to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1998 he was awarded thePolar Music Prize together with Ravi Shankar in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2004 he was inducted to the National Black Sports & Entertainment Hall of Fame. The Grammy Awards of 2005 were dedicated to Charles.
He was presented with the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, during the 1991 UCLA Spring Sing.
In 2003, Charles was awarded an honorary degree by Dillard University. Upon his death, he endowed a professorship of African-American culinary history at the school, which is the first such chair in the nation. A $20 million performing arts center at Morehouse College was named after Charles and was dedicated in September 2010.
The United States Postal Service issued a forever stamp honoring Ray Charles as part of it Musical Icons series on September 23, 2013.
Contributions to Civil Rights Movement
On March 15, 1961, not long after releasing the hit song "Georgia on My Mind" (1960), Charles (born in Albany, Georgia) was scheduled to perform for a dance at Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. However, he cancelled after learning from students of Paine College that the larger auditorium dance floor would be restricted to whites, while blacks would be obligated to sit in the Music Hall balcony; he immediately left town after letting the public know why he wouldn't be performing. The promoter sued Charles for breach of contract, Charles was fined $757 in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta on June 14, 1962. Although the 2004 film Ray portrays Charles as being banned from performing thereafter in Georgia, this was later reported to be untrue. However, Charles performed again at a desegregated Bell Auditorium concert the following year with his backup group, the Raelettes, on October 23, 1963.
On December 7, 2007, Ray Charles Plaza was opened in Albany, Georgia, with a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano.
The Ray Charles Foundation
Founded in 1986, The Ray Charles Foundation maintains the mission statement of financially supporting institutions and organizations researching hearing disorders. The foundations original title, "The Robinson Foundation for Hearing Disorders" was renamed to its current state in 2006, and has since provided financial donations to numerous institutions involved in hearing loss research and education. The organizations philanthropic views stem from Ray Charles' own views toward giving, as the musician often contributed cochlear implant donations to those who could not afford the procedure. Specifically, the purpose of the Foundation has been "to administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes; to encourage, promote and educate, through grants to institutions and organizations, as to the causes and cures for diseases and disabilities of the hearing impaired and to assist organizations and institutions in their social educational and academic advancement of programs for the youth, and carry on other charitable and educational activities associated with these goals as allowed by law".
Recipients of donations include Benedict College, Morehouse College, and numerous other universities. The foundation has taken action against donation recipients which do not use funds in accordance to its mission statement; in such cases where the Albany State University was made to return its $3 Million donation after not using its funds for over a decade. The foundation currently houses its executive offices at the RPM International Building, originally the home of Ray Charles Enterprises, Inc. The first floor of this historic building is also home to the Ray Charles Memorial Library, founded on September 23, 2010 (what would be Charles' 80th birthday). This library was founded to "provide an avenue for young children to experience music and art in a way that will inspire their creativity and imagination". The library is not open to the public without reservation, as the main goal is to educate mass groups of underprivileged youth and provide art and history to those without access to such documents.
Main article: Ray Charles discography
- "I Got a Woman" (1954)
- "What'd I Say" (1959)
- "Georgia on My Mind" (1960)
- "Hit the Road Jack" (1961)
- "One Mint Julep" (1961)
- "Unchain My Heart" (1961)
- "I Can't Stop Loving You" (1962)
- Swingin' Along (1961)
- Ballad in Blue (1964)
- The Big T.N.T. Show (1966) (documentary)
- The Blues Brothers (1980)
- Limit Up (1989)
- Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (1990) (documentary)
- Love Affair (1994)
- Spy Hard (1996)
- The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave (2000)
- Blue's Big Musical Movie (2000)
- Who's the Boss, episode "Hit the Road, Chad" (February 3, 1987) (himself)
- St. Elsewhere, episode "Jose, Can You See?" (February 4, 1987) (Arthur Tibbits)
- Moonlighting, episode "A Trip To The Moon" (1987) (himself)
- Wings, episode "A Decent Proposal" (May 12, 1994) (himself)
- The Nanny (1999) as Sammy
Ray Charles (also known as Ray Charles Robinson) (b. September 23, 1930, Albany, Georgia - d. June 10, 2004, Beverly Hills, California) was an pianist, singer, composer, and bandleader, a leading African American entertainer billed as "the Genius." Charles was credited with the early development of soul music, a style based on a melding of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz music.
When Charles was an infant his family moved to Greenville, Florida, and he began his musical career at age five on a piano in a neighborhood cafe. He began to go blind at six, possibly from glaucoma, and had completely lost his sight by age seven. He attended the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, where he concentrated on musical studies, but left school at age 15 to play the piano professionally after his mother died from cancer (his father had died when the boy was 10). Charles built a remarkable career based on the immediacy of emotion in his performances. After emerging as a blues and jazz pianist indebted to Nat King Cole's style in the late 1940s. Charles recorded the boogie-woogie classic "Mess Around" and the novelty song "It Should've Been Me" in 1952-53. His arrangement for Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used To Do" became a blues million-seller in 1953. By 1954, Charles had created a successful combination of blues and gospel influences and signed on with Atlantic Records. Propelled by Charles' distinctive raspy voice,"I've Got a Woman" and "Hallelujah I Love You So" became hit records. "What'd I Say" led the rhythm and blues sales charts in 1959 and was Charles' own first million-seller.
Charles' rhythmic piano playing and band arranging revived the "funky" quality of jazz, but he also recorded in many other musical genres. He entered the pop market with the best-sellers "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) and "Hit the Road Jack" (1961). His album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962) sold more than a million copies, as did its single "I Can't Stop Loving You." Thereafter, his music emphasized jazz standards and renditions of pop and show tunes. From 1955, Charles toured extensively in the United States and elsewhere with his own big band nd in gospel-style female backup quartet called the Raeletts. He also appeared on television and worked in films such as Ballad in Blue (1964) and The Blues Brothers (1980) as a featured act and sound track composer. He formed his own custom recording labels, Tangerine in 1962 and Crossover Records in 1973. The recipient of many national and international awards, he received 13 Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award in 1987. In 1986, Charles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center Honor. He published an autobiography, Brother Ray, Ray Charles' Own Story (1978), written with David Ritz.
In 2003, Charles had successful hip replacement surgery and was planning to go back on tour, until he began suffering from other ailments. On June 10, 2004, as a result of acute liver disease, Charles died at his home in Los Angeles, California, surrounded by family and friends. He was 73 years old. His funeral took place on June 18, 2004, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles, with musical peers such as Little Richard in attendance. B. B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder and Wynton Marsalis each played a tribute at Charles' funeral. Charles was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Ray Charles Robinson was sometimes referred to as "The Genius". He pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s by combining rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues styles into the music he recorded for Atlantic Records. He also contributed to the racial integration of country and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his two Modern Sounds albums. While he was with ABC, Charles became one of the first African-American musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company.
Charles was blind from the age of seven. Charles cited Nat King Cole as a primary influence, but his music was also influenced by jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and country artists of the day, including Art Tatum, Louis Jordan, Charles Brown and Louis Armstrong. Charles' playing reflected influences from country blues, barrelhouse and stride piano styles. His best friend in music was South Carolina-born James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul".
Frank Sinatra called him "the only true genius in show business", although Charles downplayed this notion. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Charles at number ten on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", and number two on their November 2008 list of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time".