Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 - June 10, 2004) was an American musician known as Ray Charles (to avoid confusion with champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson). He was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm and 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.Frank Sinatra called Charles "the only true genius in show business," although Charles downplayed this notion.
The influences upon his music were mainly jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and country artists of the day such as Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Louis Armstrong. His playing reflected influences from country blues, barrelhouse and stride piano styles.
Rolling Stone ranked Charles number ten 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.
Early life: 1930-1945 edit:
Ray Charles Robinson was the son of Aretha (Williams) Robinson, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman. Aretha 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 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 Aretha. However, George drowned in Aretha's laundry tub when he was four years old. After witnessing the death of his brother, Ray would feel an overwhelming sense of guilt later on in life.
Charles started to lose his sight at the age of five and went completely blind by the age of seven, apparently due to glaucoma. 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 father died when he was 10, his mother five 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 French town section of Tallahassee, just west of Greenville; they, as well as Freddy and Margaret Bryant, took Charles in. He worked the register in the Bryants' store under the direction of their daughter Lucille. 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 the musical act "Lawyer Smith and his Band" in 1943 at the Red Bird Club and Deluxe Clubs in Frenchtown and roadhouse theaters around Tallahassee, as well as the Governor's Ball. (Ray Charles wears the sunglasses because he is blind)
Early career: 1946-1952 edit:
Charles left school after his mother died in 1946, when he was 15 years old. He moved to 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 at 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, under the tutelage of Robert Blackwell, 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 No.2 on the R&B charts.
In 1950, he played in a Miami hotel, impressing Henry Stone, who recorded a Ray Charles Rockin' record which never became very 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.
He joined Swing Time Records and under his own name ("Ray Charles" to avoid being confused with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) recorded two more R&B hits, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (No. 5) in 1951 and "Kissa Me Baby" (No. 8) in 1952. The following year, Swing Time folded and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.
Atlantic Records: 1953-1958 edit:
Charles' first recording session with Atlantic ("The Midnight Hour"/"Roll With my Baby") came in September 1952, although his last Swingtime release ("Misery in my Heart"/"The Snow is Falling") would not come 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 and he later had hits the following year 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 showed up in "Sinner's Prayer", "Mess Around" and "Don't You Know".
Late in 1954, Charles recorded his own composition, "I Got a Woman", and the song became Charles' first number-one R&B hit in 1955 and brought him to national prominence. The elements of "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 repeated this pattern throughout 1955 continuing through 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)".
While still promoting 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. It was at the Newport festival where he cut his first live album. In 1956, Charles recruited a young all-female singing group named the Cookies, and reshaped them as The Raelettes. Before then, Charles had used his wife and other musicians to back him up 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: 1959-1967 edit:
See also: What'd I Say (song) and Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
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 and a song that Charles would later say he 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 a crossover top ten pop record, Charles' first record to do so. Later in 1959, he released his first country song, a cover of Hank Snow's "Movin' On", and had recorded three more albums for the label including 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 but Charles saw a bigger opportunity following his Atlantic contract expiring in the fall of 1959 when 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, obtaining a much more liberal contract than other artists had at the time. Following the success of "What'd I Say" and The Genius of Ray Charles, ABC offered Charles a $ 50,000 annual advance, higher royalties than previously offered and eventual ownership of his masters -- a very valuable and lucrative deal at the time. During his Atlantic years, Charles was heralded for his own inventive compositions, however, 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 and had begun to follow his eclectic impulses as an interpreter.
With his first hit single for ABC-Paramount, Charles received national acclaim and a Grammy Award for the Sid Feller-produced "Georgia on My Mind", originally written by composers Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael, released as a single by Charles in 1960. The song served as Charles' first work with Feller, who arranged and conducted the recording. Charles also 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 in November 1961, as a police search of Charles' hotel room in Indianapolis, Indiana, during a concert tour 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 his focus on music and recording.
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 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 No. 1 R&B for ten weeks in 1962. It 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). With the rise of younger soul performers such as James Brown, Otis Redding and Motown singers such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and its own blind artist, Stevie Wonder, Charles' successes on the pop and R&B charts peaked after 1964 though he remained a huge concert draw.
In 1965, Charles' career halted after being arrested for a third time for heroin use. He agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time. Charles kicked his habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. After spending a year on parole, Charles reemerged on 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" (later covered in a hard rock style by British supergroup Humble Pie), "Let's Go Get Stoned", which became his first No. 1 R&B hit in several years, and "Crying Time", which reached No. 6 on the pop chart and later 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: 1968-1981 edit:
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 reduced Charles' radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of then-modern day rock and soul hits--his earnings from owning his own masters taking away motivation to write new material. Most of his recordings between 1968 and 1973 evoked strong reactions--people either liked them a lot or disliked them a lot. Nonetheless, Charles continued to have an active recording career. Charles' 1972 album, Message from the People, included his unique gospel-influenced version of "America the Beautiful". In 1974, he left ABC Records and recorded several albums on his own Crossover Records label. His 1975 recording of Stevie Wonder's hit, "Living for the City" later helped Charles win another Grammy.
In 1977, he reunited with Ahmet Ertegun and re-signed to Atlantic Records where he recorded the album, True to Life. However, the label had now begun focusing on rock acts and some of the label's prominent soul artists such as Aretha Franklin were starting to be neglected. Charles stayed with his old label until 1980. 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. An emotional Charles performed the song on the floor of the state legislature. Though he notably supported the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1960s, Charles would be criticized for performing at South Africa's Sun City resort in 1981 during an international boycott of its apartheid policy.
Later years: 1983-2004 edit:
In 1983, Charles signed a contract with Columbia Records and recorded a string of country albums. Charles also began having a string of country hits often with duet singers such as George Jones, Chet Atkins, B.J. Thomas, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Jr. and lifelong friend Willie Nelson, for which he recorded the No. 1 country duet, "Seven Spanish Angels". Aft. Records]]. Prior to the release of his first Warner release, Would You Believe, Charles made a return on the R&B charts with a cover of The Brothers Johnson's "I'll Be Good to You", a duet with his lifelong buddy Quincy Jones and singer Chaka Khan. The song 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 on the pop charts in another duet, with singer Billy Joel on the song, "Baby Grand" and in 1989, recorded a cover of the Southern All Stars' "Itoshi no Ellie", releasing it as "Ellie My Love" for a Japanese TV ad for Suntory releasing it in Japan where it reached No. 3 on its Oricon chart. Charles' 1993 album, My World became his first album in some time to reach the Billboard 200 and his cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" gave him a charted hit on the adult contemporary chart as well as his twelfth and final Grammy he would receive in his lifetime.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Charles would reach younger audiences by appearances in various films and TV shows. In 1980, he appeared on the film, The Blues Brothers. While he never appeared on the show, Charles' version of "Night Time is the Right Time" was played during the popular Cosby Show episode "Happy Anniversary". In 1985, he appeared among 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" The catchphrase came from a song that was composed by Kenny Ascher, Joseph C. Caro and Helary Jay Lipsitz.
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 TV show, where he performed and appeared in a few vignettes where he was somehow driving a car, often as Super Dave's chauffeur. 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. From 2001-2002, Charles appeared in commercials for the New Jersey Lottery to promote its "For every dream, there's a jackpot" campaign.
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 a stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful".
In 2003, Ray Charles headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C. where the President, First Lady, 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. 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.
Georgia state edit:
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 and, according to the biopic Ray (2004), Charles was banned from performing thereafter in Georgia. (Although this later was reported to be a Hollywood embellishment. Charles never, in fact, was banned from Georgia.) However, Charles performed again at a desegregrated Bell Auditorium concert the following year with his backup group, The Raelettes, on October 23, 1963.
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.
On December 7, 2007, Ray Charles Plaza was opened in Albany, Georgia, with a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano.
Personal life edit:
Charles was married twice and had 12 children with nine different women. His first marriage to Eileen Williams was brief: July 31, 1951 to 1952. He had three children from his second marriage to Della Beatrice Howard Robinson from April 5, 1955 to April 26, 1977. His long-term girlfriend and partner at the time of his death was Norma Pinella. His first child, Evelyn, was born in 1950 to girlfriend, Louise Mitchell. His three children with Della, Ray Charles, Jr., David and Robert, were born in 1955, 1958 and 1960, respectively. Another son, Charles Wayne, was born in 1959 during his six-year-long affair with original Raelettes vocalist, Margie Hendricks. In 1961 a daughter, Raenee, was born during an affair with Mae Mosely Lyles. Two years later in 1963 Charles and Sandra Jean Betts welcomed daughter, Sheila Raye Charles Robinson. In 1966 a daughter, Alicia, was born by a woman who remains unidentified to this day, followed by another daughter, Alexandra, born to a woman named Chantal Bertrand. Charles' next child, Vincent, came from a relationship with Arlette Kotchounian following his divorce from Della Howard in 1977. Daughter, Robyn, was born a year later to a woman named Gloria Moffett. Charles' youngest child, son Ryan Corey, was born in 1987 to Mary Anne den Bok.
Charles gave 10 of his 12 children each a check for one million $ (USD) in December 2002 at a family luncheon, while the other two could not make it.
Substance abuse and legal issues edit:
On November 14, 1961, Charles was arrested on a narcotics charge in an Indiana hotel room, where he waited to perform. The detectives seized heroin, marijuana and other items. Charles, then 31, stated that he had been a drug addict since the age of 16. While the case was dismissed because of the manner in which the evidence was obtained, 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.
By 1964 Charles' drug addiction caught up with him and he 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 his first album since having kicked his heroin addiction in 1966, Crying Time.
Other interests edit:
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.
Charles died on June 10, 2004, at 11:35 a.m. due to liver failure/hepatitis C 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.
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; 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. 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.
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 ev in full voice, sometimes in an 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.
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 the Polar Music Prize together with Ravi Shankar in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2004 he was inducted to the Jazz Hall of Fame, and inducted to the National Black Sports & Entertainment Hall of Fame. The Grammy Awards of 2005 were dedicated to Charles.
On December 7, 2007, Ray Charles Plaza was opened in Albany, Georgia, with a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano. 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 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.