Ray Charles was a pioneer of soul music, integrating R&B, gospel, pop and country to create hits like “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.” A blind genius, he is considered one of the greatest artists of all time.
Born in Georgia in 1930, Ray Charles was a legendary musician who pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s. Often called the “Father of Soul,” Charles combined blues, gospel and jazz to create groundbreaking hits such as “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.” He died in 2004, leaving a lasting impression on contemporary music.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a sharecropper, moved the family to Florida when he was an infant. One of the most traumatic events of his childhood was witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother.
Soon after his brother’s death, Charles gradually began to lose his sight. He was blind by the age of 7, and his mother sent him to a state-sponsored school, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida—where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille. He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet and trumpet. The breadth of his musical interests ranged widely, from gospel to country, to blues.
Charles’s mother died when he was 15, and for a year he toured on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the South. While on the road, he picked up a love for heroin.
At the of age 16, Charles moved to Seattle. There, he met a young Quincy Jones, a friend and collaborator he would keep for the rest of his life. Charles performed with the McSon Trio in 1940s. His early playing style closely resembled the work of his two major influences—Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. Charles later developed his distinctive sound.
In 1949, he released his first single, “Confession Blues,” with the Maxin Trio. The song did well on the R&B charts. More success on the R&B charts followed with “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” and “Kissa Me Baby.” By 1953, Charles landed a deal with Atlantic Records. He celebrated his first R&B hit single with the label, “Mess Around.”
A year later, Charles’s now classic song, “I Got a Woman,” reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. The song reflected an advance in his musical style. He was no longer a Nat King Cole imitator. His fusion of gospel and R&B helped to create a new musical genre known as soul. By the late 1950s, Charles began entertaining the world of jazz, cutting records with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Fellow musicians began to call Charles “The Genius,” an appropriate title for the ramblin’ musician, who never worked in just one style, but blended and beautified all that he touched (he also earned the nickname “Father of Soul”). Charles’s biggest success was perhaps his ability to cross over into pop music too, reaching No. 6 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart with his hit “What’d I Say.”
The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for “Georgia on My Mind,” followed by another Grammy for the single “Hit the Road, Jack.” For his day, he maintained a rare level of creative control over his own music. Charles broke down the boundaries of music genres in 1962 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. On this album, he gave his own soulful interpretations of many country classics. While thriving creatively, Charles struggled in his personal life. He continued to battle with heroin addiction. In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession.
Charles avoided jail after his arrest for possession by finally kicking the habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. His releases in the 1960s and ’70s were hit-or-miss, but he remained one of music’s most respected stars. Charles won a Grammy Award for his rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” Three years later, he released his autobiography Brother Ray.
In 1980, Charles appeared in the comedy The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The music icon received a special honor a few years later as one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Charles was recognized for his contributions to the genre alongside such fellow luminaries as James Brown, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly.
Charles returned to the spotlight in the early 1990s with several high-profile appearances. He also recorded commercials for Pepsi-Cola, singing “You Got the Right One, Baby!” as his catchphrase, and performed “We Are the World” for the organization USA for Africa alongside the likes of Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson.
DEATH AND LEGACY
In 2003, Charles had to cancel his tour for the first time in 53 years. He underwent hip replacement surgery. While that operation was successful, Charles soon learned he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts.
Longtime friend Quincy Jones was just of many who mourned the passing of Charles. “There will never be another musician who did as much to break down the perceived walls of musical genres,” Jones stated, according to The New York Times. “Ray used to say that if he had a dime, he would give me a nickel. Well, I would give that nickel back to have him still be here with us, but I know that heaven has become a much better place with him in it.” More than 1,500 people came to say goodbye to the musical legend at his funeral. B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder were among those who performed at the service.
Charles’s final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries. His life story became a hit film entitled Ray later that year. Jamie Foxx starred as the legendary performer, and he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charles.