The influences upon his music were mainly jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and country artists of the day such as Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, Louis Armstrong. His playing reflected influences from country blues and barrelhouse, and stride piano styles.
Rolling Stone ranked Charles number 10 on their list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" in 2004, and number two on their November 2008 list of "100 Greatest Singers of All Time". In honoring Charles, Billy Joel noted: "This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley. I don't know if Ray was the architect of rock & roll, but he was certainly the first guy to do a lot of things . . . Who the hell ever put so many styles together and made it work?".
Ray Charles Robinson was the son of Aretha Williams, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman. Aretha Williams was a devout Christian and the family attended the New Shiloh Baptist Church. When Ray was an infant, his family moved from Albany, Georgia, where he was born, to the poor black community on the western side of Greenville, Florida. In his early years, Charles showed a curiosity for mechanical things and he often watched the neighborhood men working on their cars and farm machinery. His musical curiosity was sparked at Mr. Wiley Pit's Red Wing Cafe when Pit played boogie woogie on an old upright piano. Pit would care for George, Ray's brother, so as to take the burden off Williams. However, George drowned in the Williams' wash tub when he was four years old.
Charles started to lose his sight at the age of five. He went completely blind by the age of seven, apparently due to glaucoma. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945, where he developed his musical talent. During this time he performed on WFOY radio in St. Augustine. His father died when he was 10 and his mother died five years after.
In school, Charles was taught only classical music, but he wanted to play the jazz and blues he heard on the family radio. While at school, he became the school's premier musician. On Fridays, the South Campus Literary Society held assemblies where Charles would play piano and sing popular songs. On Halloween and Washington's birthday, the Colored Department of the school had socials where Charles would play. It was here he established "RC Robinson and the Shop Boys" and sang his own arrangement of "Jingle Bell Boogie." He spent his first Christmas at the school, but later the staff pitched in so that Charles could return to Greenville, as he did each summer.
Henry and Alice Johnson, who owned a store not unlike Mr. Pit's store in Greenville, moved to the Frenchtown section of Tallahassee, just west of Greenville; and they, as well as Freddy and Margaret Bryant, took Charles in. He worked the register in the Bryants' store under the direction of Lucille Bryant, their daughter. It's said he loved Tallahassee and often used the drug store delivery boy's motorbike to run up and down hills using the exhaust sound of a friend's bike to guide him. Charles found Tallahassee musically exciting too and sat in with the Florida A&M University student band. He played with the Adderley brothers,
Nat and Cannonball, and began playing gigs with Lawyer Smith and his Band in 1943 at the Red Bird Club and DeLuxe Clubs in Frenchtown and roadhouse theatres around Tallahassee, as well as the Governor's Ball.
After his mother died in 1945, Charles was 15 years old and didn't return to school. He lived in Jacksonville with a couple who were friends of his mother. For over a year, he played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla, earning $4 a night. Then he moved to Orlando, and later Tampa, where he played with a southern band called The Florida Playboys. This is where he began his habit of always wearing sunglasses, made by designer Billy Stickles.
Charles had always played for other people, but he wanted his own band. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, but Chicago and New York City were too big. After asking a friend to look in a map and note the city in the United States that was farthest from Florida, he moved to Seattle in 1947 (where he first met and befriended a 14 year old Quincy Jones) and soon started recording, first for the Down Beat label as the Maxin Trio with guitarist G.D. McKee and bassist Milton Garrett, achieving his first hit with "Confession Blues" in 1949. The song soared to No. 2 on the R&B charts. He joined Swing Time Records and under his own name ("Ray Charles" to avoid being confused with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) recorded two more R&B hits, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (No. 5) in 1951 and "Kissa Me Baby" (No. 8) in 1952. The following year, Swing Time folded and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.
Almost immediately after signing with Atlantic, Charles scored his first hit single. "Mess Around" was an R&B hit in 1953. "It Should Have Been Me" and "Don't You Know" both made the charts in 1954, but "I Got a Woman" (composed with band mate Renald Richard) brought him to national prominence.
The song reached the top of Billboard's R&B singles chart in 1955 and from there until 1959 he would have a series of R&B successes including "A Fool For You" (No. 1), "This Little Girl of Mine", "Lonely Avenue", "Mary Ann", "Drown in My Own Tears" (No. 1) and the No. 5 hit "The Night Time (Is the Right Time)", which were compiled on his Atlantic releases Hallelujah, I Love Her So, Yes Indeed!, and The Genius Sings the Blues.
During this time of transition, he recruited a young girl group from Philadelphia, The Cookies, as his background singing group, recording with them in New York and changing their name to the Raelettes in the process.
After his Atlantic Records contract had ended, Ray Charles signed with ABC-Paramount Records in November 1959, obtaining a much more liberal contract than other artists had at the time. Following his commercial and pop crossover breakthrough with the complex hit single "What'd I Say" earlier that year, ABC offered Charles a $ 50,000 annual advance, higher royalties than previously offered and eventual ownership of his masters — a very valuable and lucrative deal at the time. Composed by Charles himself, the single furthered Charles's mainstream appeal, while becoming a Top 10 pop hit and selling a million copies in the United States, despite the ban placed on the record by some radio stations, in response to the song's sexually-suggestive lyrics. However, by the time of the release of the instrumental jazz LP Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960) for ABC's subsidiary label Impulse!, Charles had virtually given up on writing original material and had begun to follow his eclectic impulses as an interpreter.
With his first hit single for ABC-Paramount, Charles received national acclaim and a Grammy Award for the Sid Feller-produced "Georgia on My Mind", originally written by composers Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael, released as a single by Charles in 1960. The song served as Charles's first work with Feller, who arranged and conducted the recording. Charles also earned another Grammy for the follow-up "Hit the Road Jack", written by R&B singer Percy Mayfield. By late 1961, Charles had expanded his small road ensemble to a full-scale big band, partly as a response to increasing royalties and touring fees, becoming one of the few black artists to crossover into mainstream pop with such a level of creative control. This success, however, came to a momentary halt in November 1961, as a police search of Charles's hotel room in Indianapolis, Indiana during a concert tour led to the discovery of heroin in his medicine cabinet. The case was eventually dropped, as the search lacked a proper warrant by the police, and Charles soon returned his focus on music and recording.
The 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, helped to bring country into the mainstream of music. His version of the Don Gibson song, I Can't Stop Loving You topped the Pop chart for five weeks and stayed at No. 1 R&B for ten weeks in 1962. It also gave him his only number one record in the UK. In 1963, he founded his own record label, Tangerine Records which ABC-Paramount distributed. He also had major pop hits in 1963 with "Busted" (US No. 4) and Take These Chains From My Heart (US No. 8), and a Top 20 hit four years later, in 1967, with "Here We Go Again" (US No. 15) (which would be a duet with Norah Jones in 2004).
In 1965, Ray 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 jail time after kicking the habit in a clinic in Los Angeles. He spent a year on parole in 1966, when his single "Crying Time" reached No. 6 on the charts.
During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Charles's releases were hit-or-miss, with some big hits and critically acclaimed work. His version of "Georgia On My Mind" was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, and he performed it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of "America the Beautiful".
In November 1977 he appeared as the host of NBC's Saturday Night Live. In the 1980s a number of other events increased Charles's 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 next year, he sang America The Beautiful at Wrestlemania 2. In a Pepsi Cola commercial of the early 1990s – composed by Kenny Ascher, Joseph C. Caro, and Helary Jay Lipsitz – Charles popularized the catchphrase "You Got the Right One, Baby!" and he was featured in the recording of "We Are the World" for USA for Africa.
After having supported Martin Luther King, Jr. and for the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Charles courted controversy when he toured South Africa in 1981, during an international boycott of the country because of its apartheid policy.
Charles with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1984.
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 No. 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.
Charles also appeared at two Presidential inaugurations in his lifetime. In 1985, he performed for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, and in 1993 for Bill Clinton's first.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Charles made appearances on the Super Dave Osbourne TV 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 several projects. He also appeared (with Chaka Khan) on long time friend Quincy Jones' hit "I'll Be Good to You" in 1990, from Jones's 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 Henson, stating that he "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 he later performed with the rest of the Muppet cast in a tribute to Henson's legacy.
During the sixth season of Designing Women, Charles sang "Georgia on My Mind", instead of the song being rendered instrumentally by other musicians as in the previous five seasons. He also appeared in 4 episodes of the popular TV comedy The Nanny in Seasons 4 & 5 (1997 & 1998) as 'Sammy', in one episode singing "My Yiddish Mamma" to December romance and later fiancee of character Gramma Yetta, played by veteran actress Ann Guilbert.
In 2003, Ray Charles headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C. where the President, First Lady, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice attended. He also 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 "Crazy Love". This performance appears 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. His 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.
Ray Charles Robinson, (*23 de septiembre de 1930 - 10 de junio de 2004) fue un cantante y pianista de soul, R&B y jazz nacido en Albany, Georgia (Estados Unidos) y ciego desde la infancia.
El genio del piano nació en Albany, Georgia. Perdió la vista durante su infancia, a los 7 años, por un glaucoma. Fue autodidacta del piano, pero también recibió clases de música en braille en la "St Augustine School", un centro para no videntes. Paralelamente, tuvo que ganarse la vida como músico, cuando fallecieron sus padres. A finales de la década de los cuarenta, Ray Charles Robinson consigue colocar un disco en las listas de su país, y en 1951 obtiene su primer Top Ten, gracias a "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand". Fue criticado por cantar canciones gospel con letras populares, aunque hay una gran tradición al poner letras religiosas a canciones y viceversa. Thomas A. Dorsey, uno de los fundadores de la música gospel, que también tuvo una carrera significativa en la música popular. Solomon Burke y Little Richard incluso se movieron entre los dos estilos.
Después de una aparición en el Newport Jazz Festival logró un éxito importante con "(The Night Time is) The Right Time" y su canción más popular de 1959, "What'd I Say". La esencia de esta fase de su carrera se puede escuchar en su álbum en vivo Ray Charles en Persona, grabado ante una gran audiencia afroamericana en Atlanta en 1959.
Ray comenzó a ir más allá de los límites de su síntesis blues-gospel mientras seguía con Atlantic, que ahora lo llamaba El Genio. El grabó con muchas orquestas y muchos artistas de Jazz como Milt Jackson e incluso hizo su primer cover de música country con el "I'm Movin' On" de Hank Snow.
Luego, se cambió a ABC Records. En ABC, Charles tuvo mucho control sobre su música y extendió su enfoque no en proyectos laterales experimentales sino con música pop, dando como resultado la canción "Unchain My Heart" y el número 1 en los listados de Billboard, "Hit the Road, Jack". En 1962, Charles sorprendió su nueva audiencia externa con su importante álbum Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, que incluye los temas "I Can't Stop Loving You" y "You Don't Know Me". Esto fue seguido por una serie de éxitos, incluyendo "You Are My Sunshine", "Crying Time", "Busted" y "Unchain My Heart".
En 1961, Ray canceló un concierto programado en el Bell Auditorium en Augusta (Georgia) para protestar por las ubicaciones segregadas. Contrario a lo que la película autobiográfica de Ray dice, Ray nunca fue vetado en Georgia, aunque tuvo que pagar la compensación del promotor. Ese mismo año el hizo un dueto en un álbum con la vocalista de jazz Betty Carter.
En 1965, Ray fue arrestado por posesión de heroína, a la que fue adicto durante 17 años. Fue su tercer arresto por el delito, pero pudo evitar ir a prisión después de dejar el hábito en una clínica en San Francisco. Pasó un año en libertad condicional y realizó el "Let's Go Get Stoned" de Ashford y Simpson (1966)
Después de 1970, Ray realizó lo que sería un éxito o su pérdida, con algunos éxitos populares y trabajos aclamados por la crítica y alguna música que fue desechada como copia y permanente. Se concentró en espectáculos en vivo, aunque su versión de "Georgia on My Mind", una canción originalmente escrita para una chica llamada Georgia, fue un éxito y pronto fue proclamada como la canción por excelencia de Georgia en 24 de abril, de 1979, con la aparición de Charles en el piso de la legislatura del estado. Incluso tuvo éxito con su única versión de "America the Beautiful". En 1980 Charles hizo una breve aparición en The Blues Brothers y años más tarde en su secuela Blues Brothers 2000. También hizo repetidas apariciones en Barrio Sésamo y en el Show de los teleñecos .
Charles con el Presidente de Estados Unidos Ronald Reagan y la Primera Dama Nancy Reagan en 1984.
Finalizando 1980, se incrementó el reconocimiento de Ray entre su audiencia. En 1985, "The Night Time is the Right Time" fue usada en el episodio "Happy Anniversary" del The Cosby Show. Los actores usaron la canción para mostrar un canto popular que aumentó el rating del show. En 1986, él colaboró con Billy Joel en "Baby Grand" para el álbum de Joel The Bridge, participó en U. S. A. for Africa. En 1987, Charles apareció en el episodio "Hit the Road, Chad," de Who's the Boss. Ray canto la canción, "Always a Friend". También apareció muchas veces en el espectáculo The Nanny, tocando con Yetta (Ann Guilbert). La nueva colección de Charles con el público ayudó a una campaña de la Pepsi Dietética. En su campaña publicitaria más exitosa, Charles popularizó la frase "You've got the right one, baby!" A la altura de esta fama reencontrada a comienzos de los 90s, Charles invitó vocalistas para algunos proyectos. Esto incluía a la canción de INXS "Please (You've Got That...)", en el Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, así como la canción Designing Women en su sexta sesión. El también apareció (con Chaka Khan) con un viejo amigo Quincy Jones' en el éxito I'll Be Good To You de 1990. En 2004 Charles realizó un álbum de duetos, Genius Loves Company, que fue nominado en los premios Grammy a Mejor Álbum vocal pop, Álbum del año, y canción del año. El ganó Álbum del año y canción del año. Un dueto con Norah Jones, "Here We Go Again", fue nominado a Mejor canción.
En 1996, Ray Charles hizo un cameo en la película Espía como puedas.
Falleció a la edad de 73 años, el 10 de junio de 2004 en su casa de California. Sus restos se encuentran en el Cementerio Inglewood Park de Los Ángeles, California.
En el año 2004 se estrenó la película Ray, que narra toda su vida. Fue ganadora de 2 Oscars, incluyendo Mejor Actor y Mejor Banda Sonora, y además nominada a mejor película. Desde entonces se han seguido publicando recopilatorios en CD e incluso se grabaron algunas canciones por el artista inéditas en el disco de la película. También se ha publicado su autobiografía titulada Brother Ray, que narra toda su vida de la manera más cercana a la realidad posible.
La revista Rolling Stone lo nombra #10 en su lista de los 100 mejores artistas de todos los tiempos. En 2009 publica la lista de los 100 mejores cantantes de la historia, los cuales han sido elegidos por todos los cantantes y personas relacionadas con la música. Entre todos ellos Ray ha sido nombrado como mejor cantante masculino y como el segundo mejor cantante de todos los tiempos, sólo superado por Aretha Franklin.