Ray Charles: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the life, career, and death of Ray Charles. His legacy and contributions to the development of popular music will be explored, and the significant events in his life will be considered.

Ray Charles in 2003.
Ray Charles

Ray Charles: Defying Genres, Building Bridges

Ray Charles was one of the most distinctive and genre defying American musicians to emerge in the rock & roll era. Although Charles did not play rock & roll in the same sense that Elvis Presley or Little Richard did, his fearless blend of gospel and blues traditions reflected the eclecticism of the era. He is recognized as one of the originators of soul music. The fact that Ray Charles had been blind since childhood made his musical skills all the more impressive, and provided a special dimension to his stage persona.

Early Life and Career

Ray Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia in 1930. He would later adopt the stage name Ray Charles in order to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. After he was born, the family moved to Greenville, Florida where he would spend the majority of his childhood. At the age of five, his family noticed that his eyesight was beginning to falter. By seven, he was completely blind. Although the cause was unknown at the time, glaucoma is the most likely culprit.

Growing up in the Deep South, Charles was surrounded by both gospel music and the blues. The local Baptist church provided the sacred side of the musical equation, while local blues and boogie-woogie musicians like Wiley Pitman and Tampa Red provided the secular side. He began formally studying the piano when he attended Saint Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. Along with piano, he would become proficient in saxophone, trumpet, and clarinet. While studying at Saint Augustine, Charles would also learn to read and write music in Braille.

The highly popular musician Nat 'King' Cole was an important influence on Ray Charles' early career. He would try to imitate Cole's style during his early stage performances, but soon learned to carve out a style of his own. In 1948, Charles moved to Seattle, Washington in the hopes of improving his fortunes. There he would meet and play with numerous musicians, including Robert Blackwell and a young Quincy Jones. In Seattle, Charles recorded his first two singles, 'Confession Blues,' and 'Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.' During this period he also started using heroin.

The 1950s

Ray Charles performing in 1971.
Ray Charles performing

The 1950s were a time of intense creativity for Ray Charles. The growing interest in rhythm and blues, rock & roll, and other related styles would open the door for his own distinct hybrid of gospel and blues. Throughout the 1950s, he would join numerous bands, collaborate with musicians all over the country, and continue to develop his sound.

'I've Got a Woman,' recorded in 1955, was a major hit for Charles. American audiences were still quite racially segregated then, but this song transcended these boundaries. He continued having success by augmenting the gospel elements of his sound with records like 'A Fool for You,' 'Drown in My Own Tears' and 'Hallelujah I Love Her So.' In addition to his breaking of racial barriers, he was also successful in overcoming age gaps. Whereas contemporaries like Elvis Presley or Little Richard were marketed almost exclusively to teenagers, Charles appealed to a wider variety of age groups.

In 1959, Charles left his previous label Atlantic for ABC - Paramount. Here he would record many of his most famous songs in the late 1950s, such as 'Georgia on my Mind' and 'Hit the Road Jack.' These tracks would distinguish Ray Charles as a musician who was most gifted at reinterpreting other people's songs. This period would see him continue to experiment with disparate styles and genres including big band jazz and country & western. This latter style was very unusual for an African-American musician, but his forays into this genre were widely praised.

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