Charles, Ray (Robinson, Ray Charles)

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Charles, Ray (Robinson, Ray Charles)

September 23, 1930
June 10, 2004

Ray Charles's achievements mark him as one of the most important and influential U.S. musicians of the postwar period. He is often called the Father of Soul, both for his innovative blending of gospel, blues, and jazz, and for his enormous versatility as a singer, pianist, songwriter, composer-arranger, saxophonist, and band leader.

Born into a poor family in Albany, Georgia, Ray Charles Robinson was raised in Greenville, Florida. At the age of five he contracted glaucoma; it was left untreated and soon blinded him. His mother, Aretha, sent him to the School for the Deaf and Blind in Saint Augustine, where he spent the next eight years studying composition, learning to write musical scores in braille, and mastering various instruments (trumpet, alto saxophone, clarinet, organ, and piano). After his mother died in 1945, he left school to form a combo, and after he had saved enough

money he moved to Seattle, where he played in a number of jazz trios, gradually developing a piano and vocal style heavily influenced by Nat "King" Cole. At around this time, Ray Charles dropped his surname in order to avoid being confused with prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson.

Charles developed a significant following in Seattle and soon began to record for various labels. His first hits, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951) and "Kiss Me Baby" (1952) were recorded for the Swing Time label. In 1952 he began to record for Atlantic Records, where he made his first musical breakthrough with "I've Got a Woman" (1955), a blendstartlingly unconventional for the timeof coarse bluesy sexuality with the intense emotionality of gospel. Many of his musical ideas in this period were taken from gospel music, but his adaptations provoked much criticism for combining sexually explicit lyrics with the vocal techniques of "testifying." The style nevertheless provided Charles with some of his most successful songs, among them, "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (1956), "The Right Time" (1959), and "What'd I Say" (1959).

As his fame increased, Charles increasingly found favor with white audiences. In 1959 he left Atlantic for ABC/Paramount; the move signaled a turn toward country-and-western music and popular standards. While his early recordings with ABC (such as "Georgia on My Mind," "Hit the Road Jack," and "I Can't Stop Loving You") are generally considered the equals of those of his Atlantic period, some critics charged that his music was gradually becoming conventional and uninspired. Nevertheless, throughout the 1960s Charles turned out scores of Top-Ten hits (including "You Are My Sunshine," "Let's Go Get Stoned," and "Here We Go Again"), and a number of successful LPs.

Charles's rise to fame was not without its struggles. Along the way he developed an addiction to heroin, and in 1955, 1961, and 1965 he was arrested for possession of narcotics. He never served a long prison term, but he stopped performing for a year after his last arrest, during which time he worked successfully to overcome his seventeen-year-long addiction, after which the record shows a steady series of successes and honors. In 1966 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a special resolution honoring Charles for his musical achievement. In the late 1960s he founded his own record label and music publishing firm. In 1979 Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind," perhaps Charles' best-known recording, was adopted as the official song of Georgia. In 1986 Charles was among the first ten artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

During his career, Charles appeared in several films, including Blues for Lovers (also known as Ballad in Blue, 1965) and The Blues Brothers (1980), and has performed on the soundtracks of many more, including The Cincinnati Kids (1965) and In the Heat of the Night (1967); his song "What'd I Say" was the subject of Cosmic Ray, an experimental film by Bruce Conner, in 1961.

Charles was also active in various social causes, including civil rights, African famine relief, and aid to the disabled. In 1985 he attributed the presence of several bombs found under a bandstand where he was to perform to his public statements opposing racism. In 1987 he made an appeal to Congress for federal aid for the deaf and established the Robinson Foundation for Hearing Disorders with an endowment of $1 million.

In addition to making frequent concert appearances and appearing in several popular commercials (most notably the phenomenally successful Diet Pepsi ads in the early 1990s), Charles remained active in producing and recording his own albums. His LP Friendship rose to number one on the country-and-western charts in 1985. In 1990 he performed with B. B. King in the Philip Morris Superband and released an album, Would You Believe? His autobiography, Brother Ray (1978, with David Ritz), was rereleased in a revised and updated edition in 1992. Charles won eleven Grammy Awards, the title of Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Hall of Fame Award (1983), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (1989).

Ray Charles died in 2004, the same year that Ray, a motion picture based on his life and starring Jamie Foxx, was released. The movie was a critical and box office success, with Foxx earning an Academy Award for best actor. Charles won five posthumous Grammy Awards in 2005 for his final album, Genius Loves Company, which features duets with many artists, including B. B. King, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Norah Jones, and Diana Krall.

See also Blues, The; Cole, Nat "King"; Gospel Music; Jazz


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Brelin, Christa, and William C. Matney Jr., eds. Who's Who Among Black Americans, 7th ed. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Lydon, Michael. Ray Charles: Man and Music. New York: River-head, 1998.

Marsh, Dave. "Ray Charles." In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. New York: Grove, 1986.

Shaw, Arnold. Black Popular Music in America. New York: Schirmer, 1986.

White, James L. Ray: A Tribute to the Movie, the Music, and the Man. New York: Newmarket, 2004.

robert w. stephens (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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