Charles, Ray (originally, Robinson, Ray Charles)

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Charles, Ray (originally, Robinson, Ray Charles)

Charles, Ray (originally, Robinson, Ray Charles), legendary, genre-crossing singer/pianist; b. Albany, Ga., Sept. 23, 1930. Ray Charles grew up in Greenville, Fla., and was blinded by glaucoma at the age of seven. From 1937 to 1945 he attended the St. Augustine (Fla.) School for the Deaf and Blind, where he learned piano and, later, clarinet and alto saxophone, as well as composing and arranging. Orphaned at 15, Charles struck out on his own, performing in bands around Fla. In 1948 he moved to Seattle and formed the Maxim Trio (also known as the McSon Trio and the Maxine Trio), a group grounded in the style of Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown. As the Maxine Trio, they scored a major R&B hit in 1949 with “Confession Blues” on the Downbeat label. Charles toured with blues artist Lowell Fulson in the early 1950s, scoring R&B hits with “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” and “Kiss Me Baby” on the small, Los Angeles-based Swingtime label.

In 1952 the N.Y.-based Atlantic label bought Ray Charles’s recording contract and, shedding his Nat “King” Cole stylization and adapting gospel music techniques to blues lyrics, he soon hit with “It Should Have Been Me.” In 1954 he arranged and played piano on Guitar Slim’s top R&B hit “Things That I Used to Do” for Specialty and formed his own band. In early 1955 Charles hit in both the popular and R&B fields with his own composition, “I’ve Got a Woman.” Using top-flight studio musicians such as saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, Charles scored consistently on the R&B charts through the late 1950s with songs such as “A Fool for You,” “Drown in My Own Tears,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” and “Lonely Avenue,” the recording debut of his backup female vocal group, the Raeletts. He also became popular with jazz fans, recording two highly acclaimed records with Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson and performing a startling set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Finally, in 1959, Charles established himself as a popular recording artist and pioneer of soul music with the release of his own top R&B/smash pop hit composition “What’d I Say.” The song was later covered by a variety of artists, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, and Elvis Presley.

Sensing that Atlantic was still basically an R&B organization, Ray Charles switched to ABC-Paramount Records in late 1959. Through 1961 he scored with the top pop hits “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack” (a top R&B hit) and the major pop hits “Ruby” and “Unchain My Heart” (another top R&B hit). He also recorded Genius+ Soul = Jazz for Impulse (ABC’s jazz subsidiary label), with arrangements by Quincy Jones played by the Count Basie Band. Yielding a near- smash pop/top R&B hit with the instrumental “One Mint Julep,” this album and one recorded with Betty Carter for ABC-Paramount brought him an increasing measure of popularity with jazz fans, black and white.

In 1962 Ray Charles formed Ray Charles Enterprises, comprised of Tangerine Records, Tangerine Music, and Racer Music Company, opening studios and offices in Los Angeles in 1963. By then he was utilizing 40-piece orchestras and large vocal choruses for his recordings. With this full, commercial sound, his Modern Sounds in Country and Western became phenomenally popular, producing the crossover smash hits “I Can’t Stop Loving You” backed with “Born to Lose,” and “You Don’t Know Me.” Within a year, Volume II of country-and-western material was released with the crossover smash hits “You are My Sunshine” backed with “Your Cheating Heart,” and “Take These Chains from My Heart.” On ABC Charles scored major pop hits with “Busted,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Crying Time,” and “Together Again.” Major hits on ABC/Tangerine included “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (a top R&B hit), “Here We Go Again,” and The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

During the 1960s Ray Charles also became involved with film work, appearing in the 1962 film Swingin’ Along (a.k.a. Double Trouble) and the 1966 British film Ballad in Blue (a.k.a. Blues for Lovers), and recording the soundtracks for the films Cincinnati Kid (1965) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). By 1967 he had begun performing on the nightclub circuit, touring with his own package revue from 1969 into the 1970s.

In 1973 Ray Charles left ABC Records, retaining the rights to his ABC material and transferring his Tangerine operation to the new label Crossover. During 1976 he recorded Porgy and Bess with English songstress Cleo Laine for RCA Records. He returned to Atlantic in 1977, moving to Columbia in the 1980s and Warner Bros, in the 1990s. In 1978 Dial Press published Ray Charles’s autobiography, written with David Ritz, and in 1980 Charles appeared in The Blues Brothers movie and scored a minor country hit for his duet with Clint Eastwood, “Beers to You,” from the film Any Which Way You Can. Charles achieved a major country hit with “Born to Love Me” in 1982 and later recorded duets with country stars on Friendship. The album yielded five major country hits, including “We Didn’t See a Thing” (with George Jones), “Seven Spanish Angels” (with Willie Nelson), and “Two Old Cats Like Us” (with Hank Williams Jr.). Charles also played a major role in the recording of USA for Africa’s “We are the World” single in 1985.

Inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1982, Ray Charles was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in its inaugural year (1986). In late 1989 Charles had his first major pop hit in over 20 years with the Quincy Jones recording “I’ll Be Good to You,” featuring himself and Chaka Khan. During the 1990s Ray Charles appeared in a series of stylish commercials for Pepsi and was the subject of a PBS documentary.

In the 1990s Ray Charles continued to work about eight months a year, touring with a large orchestra. He lived in Los Angeles, where he was involved with RPM International, a corporation that includes Crossover Records, the music publishing companies Tangerine and Racer Music, and RPM Studios, where he records. In 1990 Ray Charles began recording for Warner Bros. Records, recording 1993/s My World with Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, and June Pointer.

A multitalented blind black musician, Ray Charles pioneered soul music, which became enormously popular among both black and white audiences beginning in the late 1950s. In secularizing certain aspects of gospel music (chord changes, song structures, call-and-response techniques, and vocal screams, wails, and moans) and adding blues-based lyrics, he essentially invented a new genre of popular music. Along with musicians such as Horace Silver, Charles was instrumental in leading many jazz musicians away from the abstracted and relatively inaccessible music of bebop as practiced by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and others, back to the roots of soul and funk musics.

Ray Charles’s gospel-based vocal style influenced virtually all the soul singers of the 1960s, as well as many of the white English singers that emerged in the 1960s (Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and others). In using the electric piano on his first major pop hit, “What’d I Say/’ Charles introduced the instrument to jazz and rock music. Moreover, the vocal work of his female back-up group, The Raeletts, set the standard for black vocal groups that was so successfully exploited by Motown Records in the 1960s. Additionally, in applying his gospel-oriented style to country-and-western material in the early 1960s, Ray Charles became the first black artist to score hits in the country field and the first male black singer to make a major impact on the white adult market.

With David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story (N.Y., 1978).


The Great (1957); Hallelujah I Love Her So (1957); At Newport (1958); Yes Indeed! (1958); The Genius of (1959); What’d I Say (1959); The Genius Hits the Road (1960); In Person (1960); Dedicated to You (1961); Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961); The Genius after Hours (1961); The Genius Sings the Blues (1961); The Greatest Ray Charles/Do the Twist with Ray Charles! (1961); Modern Sounds in Country and Western, Vols. 1, 2 (1962); Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul (1963); Have a Smile with Me (1964); Sweet and Sour Tears (1964); Live in Concert (1965); Meets Rhythm and Blues (1965); Together Again/Country and Western (1965); Crying Time (1966); Ray’s Moods (1966); Invites You to Listen (1967); A Man and His Soul (1967); A Portrait of Ray (1968); Doing His Thing (1969); I’m All Yours, Baby (1969); Love Country Style (1970); Volcanic Action of My Soul (1971); A Message for the People (1972); Through the Eyes of Love (1972); Come Live with Me (197A); Renaissance (1975); True to Life (1977); Love and Peace (1978); Ain’t It So (1979); Brother Ray is at It Again (1980); Wish You Were Here Tonight (1983); Do I Ever Cross Your Mind (1984); Friendship (1984); The Spirit of Christmas (1985); From the Pages of My Mind (1986); Just Between Us (1988); Seven Spanish Angels and Other Hits (1982–86) (1989); Would You Believe? (1990); The Birth of Soul—The Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952–59 (1991); Birth of a Legend (ree. 1949–52; rei. 1992); My World (1993); Strong Love Affair (1996). Milt Jackson: Soul Meeting (1952); Soul Brothers (1958). The Ray Charles Sextext (with David “Fathead” Newman): Ray Charles Sextet (1959). Betty Carter: And Betty Carter (1961). The Ray Charles Orch.: My Kind of Jazz (1970); Jazz Number II (1973); My Kind of Jazz, Part 3 (1975). Cleo Laine: Porgy and Bess (1976).


David Ritz, Ray Charles: Voice of Soul (N.Y., 1994).

—Brock Helander

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Charles, Ray (originally, Robinson, Ray Charles)

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