Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004) known by his stage name Ray Charles, was a pioneering American pianist and soul musician who shaped the sound of rhythm and blues. He brought a soulful sound to country music, pop standards, and a rendition of "America the Beautiful" that Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes called the "definitive version of the song, an American anthem — a classic, just as the man who sang it."
Frank Sinatra called him "the only true genius in the business." And in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Ray Charles #10 on their list of The Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia to Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman, and Aretha Williams, who stacked boards in a sawmill; the two were never married. The family moved to Greenville, Florida, when Ray was an infant. Bailey had two more families, leaving Aretha to raise the family. When Charles was five, he witnessed his younger brother drown in his mother’s large portable laundry tub.
When he was six, Charles began to go blind, becoming totally blind by the age of seven. Charles never knew exactly why he lost his sight, though there are sources which suggest Ray’s blindness was due to glaucoma. He attended school at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida. He also learned how to write music and play various musical instruments. While he was there, his mother died. His father died two years later.
After he left school, Charles began working as a musician in several bands that played in various styles, including jazz and, in Tampa “with a hillbilly band called The Florida Playboys."
Charles moved to Seattle in 1947 or 1948. He soon started recording, first for the label Swingtime Records, achieving his first hit with "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" in 1951, then signed with Ahmet Ertegün at Atlantic Records a year later. When he entered show business, his name was shortened to Ray Charles to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson
Almost immediately after signing with Atlantic, Charles scored his first hit singles with the label with the rap-like "It Should Have Been Me" and the Ertegun-composed "Mess Around", both making the charts in 1953. But it was Charles’ "I Got a Woman" (composed with band mate Renald Richard) that brought the musician to national prominence. The song reached the top of Billboard’s R&B singles chart in 1955 and from there until 1959, Charles would have a series of R&B chart-toppers including "This Little Girl of Mine", "Lonely Avenue", "Mary Ann", "Drown in My Own Tears" and "The Night Time (Is the Right Time)". During this time of transition, he recruited a young girl group from New York named the Cookies as his background singing group, changing their name to the Raelettes in the process. In 1959, Charles crossed over to top 40 radio with the release of his impromptu blues number, "What’d I Say", which was initially conceived while Charles was in concert. The song would reach number 1 on the R&B list and would become Charles’ first top ten single on the pop charts, peaking at number 6. Charles would also record one of his finest albums, The Genius of Ray Charles, before leaving Atlantic for a more lucrative deal with ABC in 1959. Hit songs such as "Georgia On My Mind", "Hit the Road Jack" and "Unchain My Heart" helped him transition to pop success and his landmark 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, helped to bring country into the mainstream.
In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which he had been addicted for nearly 20 years . It was his third arrest for the offense, but he avoided prison time after kicking the habit in a clinic in Los Angeles. He spent a year on parole in 1966.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Charles’ releases were hit-or-miss, with some big hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that was dismissed as unoriginal and staid. His version of "Georgia On My Mind", was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of "America the Beautiful." In November 1977 Charles appeared as the host of NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
In the late 1980s a number of events increased Charles’ recognition among young audiences. He made a cameo appearance in the popular 1980 film The Blues Brothers. In 1985, "The Right Time" was featured in the episode "Happy Anniversary" of The Cosby Show on NBC. The cast members used the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that helped the show secure its wide audience.. Charles’ new connection with audiences helped secure an advertising spot for Diet Pepsi. In a Pepsi Cola commercial of the early 1990s, Charles popularized the catchphrase "You Got the Right One, Baby!"
In 1989, Charles recorded a cover version of the Japanese band Southern All Stars’ song "Itoshi no Ellie" as "Ellie My Love" for a Suntory TV advertisement, reaching #3 on Japan’s Oricon chart. Eventually, it sold more than 400,000 copies, and became that year’s best-selling single performed by a Western artist for the Japanese music market.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Charles made appearances on The Super Dave Osbourne Show, where he performed and appeared in a few vignettes where he was somehow driving a car, often as Super Dave’s chauffeur. At the height of his newfound fame in the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals for quite a few projects. He also appeared (with Chaka Khan) on long time friend Quincy Jones’ hit "I’ll Be Good To You" in 1990, from Jones’ album Back on the Block.
Following Jim Henson’s death in 1990, Ray Charles appeared in the one-hour CBS tribute, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. He gave a short speech about the deceased, stating that Henson "took a simple song and a piece of felt and turned it into a moment of great power". Charles was referring to the song It’s Not Easy Being Green, which Charles later performed with the rest of the Muppet cast in a tribute to Henson’s legacy.
During the sixth season of Designing Women, Ray Charles vocally performed "Georgia On My Mind", rather than the song being rendered by other musicians without lyrics as in the previous five seasons.
Gladys Knight performed Charles’ "Georgia On My Mind" during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 2000, Charles made a special guest appearance on Blues Clues Big Musical Movie as a fictional character named G-Clef. The Temptations also made a guest appearance as his companions. Charles recorded "There It Is" during and after filming with Steve Burns and Traci Paige Johnson. After recording, Charles commented "This has been the most fun I ever had since I met President Reagan in ’84."
In 2002 Charles headlined during the Blues Passions Cognac festival in southern France. At one point in the performance a young fan rose to his feet and began to sing an a cappella version of Charles’ early song, "Mess Around"; Charles responded by performing the song.
In 2002 he took part – with other musician – in a peace concert in Rome, which was the first event to take place inside the city’s ancient Colosseum since 404 A.D. The event was organized in partnership with the Glocal Forum and the Quincy Jones Listen Up Foundation.
In June, 2003, Ray 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 from the Moondance album, "Crazy Love". This performance is captured 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., at what may have been his final performance in public. Ray Charles’ 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
He died on June 10, 2004 of "liver disease", at his home in Beverly Hills, California, surrounded by family and friends. His death was not due to liver cancer as was erroneously reported on certain websites He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
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; that recording was later 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 1997-2005 with artists were personally chosen by Ray Charles. Ray Sings, Basie Swings consists of archived vocals of Ray Charles from a live 1973 performance added to Count Basie’s music. Charles’ vocals recorded from the concert mixing board were added to a new accompaniment by the Count Basie Orchestra (among others). Gregg Field, who had performed as a drummer with both Charles and Basie, produced this album.
Controversies and criticisms
Despite his support of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and his support for the American Civil Rights Movement, Charles courted controversy when he toured South Africa in 1981, during an international boycott of the country because of its apartheid policy.
Charles was married twice and fathered twelve children by seven different women. He was married for the first time to Eileen Williams on July 31, 1951. This marriage produced no children and ended in divorce in 1952. Three children are from his second marriage to Della Beatrice Howard Robinson, one of his original Raelettes, whom he married on April 5, 1955. They divorced in 1977. His long term girlfriend and partner at the time of his death was Norma Pinella.
His children were:
- Charles Wayne Hendricks (son of Marge Hendricks – one of the Raelettes)
- Evelyn Robinson (daughter of Louise Mitchell)
- Raenee Robinson (daughter of Mae Mosely Lyles)
- Sheila Robinson (daughter of Sandra Jean Betts)
- Vincent Kotchounian (son of Arlette Kotchounian – worked with him as photographer on Would You Believe album)
- David Robinson (son of Della Robinson)
- Ray Charles Robinson, Jr. (son of Della Robinson)
- Reverend Robert Robinson (son of Della Robinson. The only child allowed to attend his funeral)
- Reatha Butler
- Alexandria Bertrand (daughter of Chantelle Bertrand)
- Robyn Moffett
- Ryan Corey Robinson den Bok (son of Mary Anne den Bok)