Ray Charles was a legendary pianist, songwriter, and bandleader who overcame tremendous obstacles in his youth to become the creator of what is today called “Soul Music”.
Born into severe poverty in the deep segregated south during the depression period, Ray would witness the drowning death of his younger brother at age 5, and then suffer from complete blindness by age 7.
Both his parents would be dead by the time he was 15.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930 in Albany Georgia to Bailey and Aretha Robinson. Unfortunately, his father abandoned the family when he was very young, so his mother moved him and his younger brother to Greenville, Florida, where he was soon exposed to the sounds of the blues, boogie-woogie and big-band swing.
By age 3, Ray was already learning how to tickle the “ebonies and the ivories” with the help of a local shopkeeper named Wylie Pitman, who played “stride” piano. But after an untreated condition of glaucoma developed in his eyes at age 6, Ray would loose all remaining sight in both eyes the very next year.
Unfortunately, Ray Charles’ beloved mother passed away while he was still in school. He would go on to find work as a musician in Florida performing with a local hillbilly band called “The Florida Playboys” after he left school.
Ray was always mindful to keep his word to his late mother not to let his blindness hinder his dream.
Ray’s early career brought him all the way to Seattle, Washington, where he landed a gig at a hip Rhythm & Blues joint called “The Rocking Chair”. It is here where the budding musical genius would meet his life-long friend and fellow music-collaborator, Quincy Jones, as well as make his first connections in the music business.
Ray Robinson, changed his stage name to Ray Charles to avoid any confusion with the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson at the time, and would go on to record his first Top Ten single “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” on Swing Time Records in 1951.
It was after Ray crossed paths with Ahmet Ertegün of Atlantic Records in 1952 that he finally started to develop his own voice and innovative style.
Because of his early musical influences of singing in the church, Ray’s piano playing and vocals had a noticeable “gospel sound” to them.
But then he combined his use of sacred gospel chords and vocalizations with the romantic and often “suggestive” lyrics of Rhythm & Blues.
This was never done before and some thought his new sound was sacrilegious. Nevertheless, the real Ray Charles emerged in 1955 with his number-two hit record “I Got A Woman”.
Ray’s other “gospel-sounding” R&B hits, like “Drown in My Own Tears”, “The Right Time”, and “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, ruffled a few feathers within the church-going community.
But in 1959, Ray Charles pushed the envelope even further with his sexually charged rock n’ roll crossover hit “What'd I Say”. This smash record was originally conceived as a simple riff Charles had invented while in concert, but went on to become a Top Ten hit on the POP charts, which bridged the gap between black audiences and white audiences.
“What'd I Say” would be the last single Ray would record with Atlantic as he was whisked away for a much better record deal with ABC, which allowed Charles much greater control and creative expression over his music.
Charles won two Grammy Awards for his 1960 single “Georgia On My Mind”, and would later be declared the official song of the state of Georgia in 1979.
In 1962, Ray Charles shocked many of his pop fans when he released what is considered his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which was a reinterpretation of some of the greatest country music songs ever written.
Once again, Ray had fused together elements of his gospel and R&B roots to breathe new life into the traditional style of country music, inspiring a whole new set of listeners and artists alike. Many thought this move was a risky and unthinkable act (including his record label).
In the 1980’s Ray Charles appeared in a number of brief television, film, and commercial spots to increase his popularity with younger audiences.
First in 1980, Ray appeared as a music shop owner in the film “The Blues Brothers”, where he gives a demonstration of a Rhodes piano singing “Shake Your Tail Feather”
Click the link above to see why this clip was so popular back in the mid 80’s, and watch six-year old Keshia Knight Pulliam as she steals the show!
In the 80’s, Ray Charles did a number of television commercial spots for Diet Pepsi, which also helped to increase his recognition with younger audiences (I’ll admit, as a kid I didn’t know who he was either).