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Ray Charles

50s 60s 70s 80s 90s 00s 10s
Born: 9/23/1930
Died: 6/10/2004

Ray Charles
Wrote lyrics
Performed songs

Born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia.

Ray Charles Robinson shortened his name to Ray Charles when he entered show business to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.  Charles began going blind at around age five and was totally blind by age seven.  He said that the causes were undiagnosed, but many believe it was as a result of glaucoma.  Just before his eyes began to fail, he witnessed his younger brother, George, drown in a washtub.

He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida as a charity case.  He learned how to read Braille, as well as to write music and play various instruments.  While he was there, his mother, Aretha, who had raised him, died.  His father, Bailey, died two years later.

After he left school, Charles began working as a musician in Florida in several bands that played in various styles including jazz and country, eventually moving to Seattle in 1947 at the age of sixteen.  He soon started recording, first for the label Swingtime Records, achieving his first hit song with "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951).

Early influences on his work were Nat King Cole (both his vocals and piano playing) and Charles Brown.  While his first recordings were only skillful imitations of his heroes, Charles' music soon became more innovative.  He toured with Lowell Fulson and worked with Guitar Slim and Ruth Brown.  After joining Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles' sound became more original.  For example, Charles controversially adapted secular lyrics to many gospel songs, and then played them with jazz backgrounds.

His first hit in this mode was "Mess Around," which was based on the 1929 classic "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith and written by Ahmet Ertegun, his producer at Atlantic Records.  He had another hit with the rap-like urban jive of "It Should Have Been Me," but went into high gear with the gospel drive of "I Got A Woman" (1955) which borrowed from the hymn "My Jesus is All the World to Me."  This was followed by "This Little Girl of Mine," "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," and "Lonely Avenue," half of them were gospel songs converted with secular lyrics, and the others blues ballads.

Although Charles was criticized for singing gospel songs with secular lyrics, there is a long tradition of putting religious lyrics to popular songs and vice versa.  Solomon Burke and Little Richard also moved between the two styles.

After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he achieved mainstream success with "(The Night Time is) The Right Time" and his 1959 signature song, "What'd I Say."  The essence of this phase of his career can be heard on his live album Ray Charles In Person, recorded before a mostly African American audience in Atlanta in 1959.  This album also features the first public performance of "What'd I Say."  It broke out as a hit in Atlanta from the tape, months before it was recorded in the studio in a two-part version with better fidelity.

Charles had already begun to go beyond the limits of his blues-gospel synthesis while still at Atlantic, which now called him The Genius.  He recorded with large orchestras and with jazz artists like Milt Jackson and even made his first country music cover with Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On."

Then, he moved on to ABC Records.  At ABC, Charles had a great deal of control over his music, and broadened his approach, not on experimental side projects, but with pop music, resulting in such hits as "Unchain My Heart" and the #1 hit on the Billboard pop charts, "Hit the Road, Jack."  In 1962, Charles surprised his new, broad audience with his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which included the numbers "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me."  This was followed by a series of hits, including "You Are My Sunshine," "Crying Time," "Busted" and "Unchain My Heart."

In 1961, Charles cancelled a concert scheduled to take place in the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia to protest segregated seating.  Contrary to what the biopic Ray says, he was never banned in Georgia, although he did have to pay the promoter compensation.  That same year he did a duet album with accomplished jazz vocalist Betty Carter.

In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which he had been addicted for seventeen years.  It was his third arrest for the offense, but he avoided prison time after kicking the habit in a clinic in Los Angeles.  He spent a year on parole and defiantly released Ashford and Simpson's "Lets Go Get Stoned." (1966)

After the 1960s, Charles' releases were hit-or-miss, with some massive hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that was dismissed as unoriginal and staid.  He concentrated largely on live performances, although his version of "Georgia On My Mind," a Hoagy Carmichael song originally written for a girl named Georgia, was a hit and soon was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature.  He also had success with his unique version of "America the Beautiful."  In 1980 Charles made a cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers.

In the late 1980s, a number of events increased Ray's recognition among young audiences.  In 1985, "Night Time is the Right Time" was featured in the episode "Happy Anniversary" of The Cosby Show.  The cast members used the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that helped the show secure its wide viewership.  In 1986, he collaborated with Billy Joel on "Baby Grand" for Joel's album The Bridge.  In 1987, Charles guest-starred in the episode "Hit the Road, Chad," of Who's the Boss.  Charles performed the song, "Always a Friend."  He also appeared several times in guest appearances on the show The Nanny, playing Yetta's (Ann Guilbert) boyfriend.

Charles' new connection with audiences helped secure a spokesmanship for Diet Pepsi.  In this highly successful advertising campaign, Charles popularized the catchphrase "You've got the right one, baby!"  At the height of his newfound fame in the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals for quite a few projects.  These included the INXS song "Please (You've Got That...)," on the Full Moon, Dirty Hearts album, as well as the theme song for Designing Women in its sixth season.  He also appeared (with Chaka Khan) on long time friend Quincy Jones' hit "I'll Be Good To You" in 1990.  In 2004 Charles released a duets album, Genius Loves Company, which was nominated for a bundle of Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the year and Record of the year.  He won Album of the year and record of the year.  A duet with Norah Jones, "Here We Go Again," was nominated for Best Song.

One of Charles' last public performances was in 2003 at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, D.C.  He performed "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful."  The singer was a bit slower and had some vocal difficulty. Ray Charles' final public appearance came on April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as an historic landmark in the city of Los Angeles.

He died at age 73 on June 10, 2004 (11:35 a.m.) of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, surrounded by family and friends.  He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

His final album, Genius Loves Company, released after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B.B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Johnny Mathis.  Unlike a similar Frank Sinatra album, the duets were recorded face-to-face, with both performers in the studio at the same time.

Charles was significantly involved in the critically-acclaimed biopic Ray, an October 2004 film which portrays his life and career between 1930 and 1966 and stars Jamie Foxx as Charles.  Foxx won the 2005 Best Actor Academy Award for the role.

Before shooting could begin, however, director Taylor Hackford brought Foxx to meet Charles, who heard that the younger man was an accomplished pianist and insisted that they sit down at two pianos and jam.  For two hours, Charles challenged Foxx, who revealed the depth of his talent, and finally, Charles stood up, hugged Foxx, and proclaimed, "He's the one...he can do it," thus giving his blessing.

Charles was able to attend a showing of the completed film, but he died before it opened in theaters.  The film's credits note that he is survived by 12 children, 21 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.

Many of today's artists continue to honor the legacy of Charles.  The 2005 Grammy Awards were dedicated to him, and Alicia Keys performed a duet with Charles (via concert footage) of America the Beautiful at Super Bowl XXXIX.

Charles was posthumously awarded his Grammy for Genius Loves Company.

In August 2005, the United States Postal Service honored Charles by renaming the former West Adams Station post office in Los Angeles as the "Ray Charles Station." (In so doing, the USPS resolved a geographic misnomer, as the West Adams Station was not located in West Adams itself, but in the nearby Mid-City district.)

Charles's estate is worth an estimated $100 million.

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