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Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004), known by his stage name Ray Charles, was an American musician. Charles was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm & blues, gospel, and blues styles into his early recordings for Atlantic Records. He also helped racially-integrate country and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his Modern Sounds albums. During his tenure with ABC, Charles became one of the first African-American musicians to receive and practice artistic control bestowed upon by a mainstream record company.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Charles number ten on their list of "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time", and voted him number two on their November 2008 list of "The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time".


Charles was the son of Aretha Williams, a share cropper, and Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and handyman. Williams was very religious and the family attended the New Shiloh Baptist Church. When Ray was an infant the family moved from his native Albany, Georgiamarker to the poor black community of Jellyroll on the western side of Greenvillemarker, Floridamarker.

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 younger brother, to take the burden off Williams. Tragically, George drowned in Williams' wash tub at age four.

Charles started to lose his sight at the age of five. He went completely blind by the age of seven. Though there are sources that suggest his blindness was due to glaucoma, most sources suggest that Ray began to lose his sight from an infection caused by soapy water to his eyes which was left untreated. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustinemarker, Florida from 1937 to 1945, where he developed his musical gift. His father died when he was ten, followed by his mother five years later.

Early career

In school, Charles was taught only classical music, but he really wanted to play the jazz and blues that he heard on the 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.

In Tallahassee

Henry and Alice Johnson, who owned a store not unlike Mr. Pit's store in Greenville, moved to the Frenchtown section of Tallahasseemarker 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 Universitymarker 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 roadhouses around Tallahassee, as well as the Governor's Ball.

In Jacksonville

After his mother died in 1945, Charles did not return to school. He lived in Jacksonvillemarker 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 Orlandomarker, and later Tampamarker, where he played with a southern band called The Florida Playboys. This is where he began his habit of always wearing sunglasses that were made by designer Billy Stickles.

Charles had always played for other people, but he wanted a band that was his own. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, but Chicagomarker and New York Citymarker were too big. He moved to Seattlemarker in 1947 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 #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" (#5) in 1951 and "Kissa Me Baby" (#8) in 1952. The following year, Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records.

Breakthrough period with Atlantic Records

Almost immediately after signing with Atlantic, Charles scored his first hit singles. "It Should Have Been Me" and "Don't You Know" both made the charts in 1954, but it was "I Got A Woman" (composed with band mate Renald Richard) that 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" (#1), This Little Girl of Mine", "Lonely Avenue", "Mary Ann", "Drown in My Own Tears" (#1) and the #5 hit "The Night Time ", which were compiled on his Atlantic releases Hallelujah, I Love Her So, Yes Indeed!, and The Genius Sings the Blues. Charles was often cited for "using his voice like a saxophone", most notably by the prominent critic Victor Bollo.

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.

Crossover success

In 1959, Charles crossed over to Top 30 radio with the release of his impromptu blues number, "What'd I Say", which was initially conceived while Charles was in concert. The song reached number 1 on the R&B list and would become Charles's first top-ten single on the pop charts, peaking at number 6. Charles would also record The Genius of Ray Charles, before leaving Atlantic for a more lucrative deal with ABC Records in 1960.

Hit songs such as "Georgia On My Mind" (US #1 Pop, #3 R&B), "Hit the Road Jack" (US #1 Pop and R&B), "One Mint Julep (#8 Pop, #1 R&B) and "Unchain My Heart" (#9 Pop, #1 R&B) helped his transition to pop success, and his landmark 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 #1 R&B for ten weeks in 1962. It also gave him his only number one record in the UK. He also had major pop hits in 1963 with "Busted" (US #4) and "Take These Chains From My Heart" (US #8), and also scored a Top 20 hit four years later, in 1967, with "Here We Go Again" (US #15) (which would later be duetted with Norah Jones in 2004).

Later years

In 1965, 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 Angelesmarker. He spent a year on parole in 1966, when his single "Crying Time" reached #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 in 1986, he sang America The Beautiful at Wrestlemania 2. In a Pepsi Cola commercial of the early 1990s, 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.

Despite his support of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and his support for the American Civil Rights Movement, Charles courted controversy when he toured South Africa in 1981, during an international boycott of the country because of its apartheid policy.

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 #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 has also appeared at two Presidential inaugurations in his lifetime. In 1985, he performed for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, and in 1993 performed for Bill Clinton's first inauguration.

In the late '80s and early '90s, Charles made appearances on The Super Dave Osbourne 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 quite a few 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 the deceased, stating that Henson "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 Charles later performed with the rest of the Muppet cast in a tribute to Henson's legacy.

During the sixth season of Designing Women, Ray Charles vocally performed "Georgia On My Mind", rather than the song being rendered by other musicians without lyrics 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.

Final appearances

In 2000, Charles made a special guest appearance on Blue's Clues Big Musical Movie as a fictional character named G-Clef. The Persuasions also made a guest appearance as his companions. Charles recorded "There It Is" during and after filming with Steve Burns and Traci Paige Johnson. After recording, Charles commented "This has been the most fun I have had since I met President Reagan in '84."

In 2001 Charles played a memorable show in front of a sold out Teatro Teresa Carreño in Caracas, Venezuela.

In 2002 Charles headlined during the Blues Passions Cognac festival in southern Francemarker.

Charles, along with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall, paid a visit to Salt Lake City Tuesday night on Oct. 15. 2002 and played a benefit concert for the Regence Blue Cross/Blue Shield 10th Annual Caring Foundation for Children Gala.

In 2002, he took part with other musicians in a peace concert in Romemarker, which was the first event to take place inside the city’s ancient Colosseummarker since A.D. 404. The event was organized in partnership with the Glocal Forum and the Quincy Jones Listen Up Foundation. Charles appeared with Travis Tritt on CMT Crossroads in December of that year.

In 2003, Ray Charles headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, DC, at which President and Mrs. Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were in attendance. 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 from the Moondance album, "Crazy Love". This performance is captured on Morrison's 2007 album, The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3.

On Friday, April 11, 2003, Ray Charles sang 'America The Beautiful' at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, prior to the rained out Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

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.marker, 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.

He died on June 10, 2004 at 11:35 a.m. of liver cancer at his home in Beverly Hillsmarker, Californiamarker, surrounded by family and friends. His body was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewoodmarker, Californiamarker.

After the funeral, a BBC spokesman commented: "it did not go unnoticed that Susaye [Susaye Greene, former member of the Raelettes as well as of the Supremes and Wonderlove, and currently a solo artist] was the only Raelette to sing at Ray's funeral."

His final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months 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. The album won eight Grammy Awards, including five for Ray Charles for Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones, and Best Gospel Performance for "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight; he also received nods for his duets with Elton John and B.B. King.

The album included a version of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow", sung as a duet by Charles and Johnny Mathis, which recording was later played at his memorial service.

Two more posthumous albums, Genius & Friends (2005) and Ray Sings, Basie Swings (2006), were released. Genius & Friends consisted of duets recorded from 1997 to 2005 with his choice of artists. Ray Sings, Basie Swings consists of archived vocals of Ray Charles from live mid-1970s performances added to new instrumental tracks specially recorded by the contemporary Count Basie Orchestra and other musicians. Charles's vocals recorded from the concert mixing board were added to new accompaniments to create a "fantasy concert" recording. Gregg Field, who had performed as a drummer with both Charles and Basie, produced the album.

Personal life

Charles was married twice and fathered 12 children by nine different women. His first marriage to Eileen Williams was brief: July 31, 1951 to 1952. He had three children from his second marriage, to Della Beatrice Howard Robinson from April 5, 1955 to 1977. His long term girlfriend and partner at the time of his death was Norma Pinella.

His children:
  • Born ~ 1950: Evelyn Robinson (to Louise Mitchell)
  • Born ~ 1955: Ray Charles Robinson, Jr. (to Della Robinson)
  • Born ~ 1958: David Robinson (to Della Robinson)
  • Born ~ 1959: Charles Wayne Hendricks (to Margie Hendricks)
  • Born ~ 1960: Reverend Robert Robinson (to Della Robinson)
  • Born ~ 1961: Raenee Robinson (to Mae Mosely Lyles)
  • Born ~ 1963: Sheila Raye Charles Robinson (to Sandra Jean Betts)
  • Born ~ 196?: Reatha Butler (unknown)
  • Born ~ 196?: Alexandria Bertrand (to Chantelle Bertrand)
  • Born ~ 1977: Vincent Kotchounian (to Arlette Kotchounian)
  • Born ~ 1978: Robyn Moffett (to Gloria Moffett)
  • Born ~ 1987: Ryan Corey Robinson den Bok (to Mary Anne den Bok)

Charles gave each of his children one million dollars tax free in December 2002 at a family lunch. Ten of his 12 children were given a check for $1,000,000 at the luncheon, while two couldn't make it.


See Ray Charles discography


Biographical film

Charles was significantly involved in the 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 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role.

Before shooting could begin, director Taylor Hackford brought Foxx to meet Charles, who insisted that they sit down at two pianos and play together. After two hours, he stood up, hugged Foxx, and gave his blessing, proclaiming, "He's the one... he can do it."

Charles was expected to attend a showing of the completed film, but died before it opened. The movie is the all-time number one biopic per screen average, opening on 2006 screens and making 20 million dollars.

As noted in the film's final credits, Ray is based on true events, but includes some characters, names, locations, events which have been changed and others which have been "fictionalized for dramatization purposes." One example of the film's use of dramatic license are the scenes which refer to Charles as being temporarily banned from performing in Georgiamarker.

The film's credits note that he is survived by 12 children, 21 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren as of the movie release in Oct. 2004.

Hall of Fame and other honors

Statue in Ray Charles Plaza in Albany, Georgia

Besides winning 17 Grammy Awards in his career (including five posthumously), Charles was also honored in many other ways. In 1979, he was one of the first honorees of the Georgia State Music Hall of Fame being recognized for being a musician born in the state. Ray's version of "Georgia On My Mind" was made into the official state song for Georgia. In 1981, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker and was one of the first inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Famemarker at its inaugural ceremony in 1986. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986. In 1987, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1991, he was inducted to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 1998 he was awarded the Polar Music Prize together with Ravi Shankar in Stockholm, Sweden.In 2004 he was inducted to the Jazz Hall of Fame, and inducted to the National Black Sports & Entertainment Hall of Fame. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #10 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Grammy Awards of 2005 were dedicated to Charles.

On December 7, 2007, Ray Charles Plaza was opened in Albany, Georgiamarker, with a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano.

On December 26, 2007, Ray Charles was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. He was also presented with the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, during the 1991 UCLA Spring Sing.

Ray Charles Post Office Building

On Tuesday, July 12, 2005, President George Bush signed into law a bill (PL 109-25), sponsored by Congresswoman Diane E. Watson (CA-33rd), designating the U.S. postal facility located at 4960 W. Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles, California, as the Ray Charles Post Office Building. On August 24, 2005, the United States Congress honored Charles by dedicating and renaming the former West Adams Station post office in Los Angeles the "Ray Charles Station".


  1. Unterberger, Richie. Biography: Ray Charles. Allmusic. Retrieved on 2009-11-26.
  2. Guide Profile: Ray Charles. Retrieved on 2008-12-12.
  3. Soul Survivor Ray Charles. Rolling Stone. Retrieved on 2008-11-09.
  4. Tyrangiel, Josh. Review: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Time. Retrieved on 2009-07-21.
  5. VH1 (2003), p. 210.
  6. Lydon, Michael, Ray Charles: Man and Music, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-97043-1, Routledge Publishing, January 22, 2004.
  7. Bohème Magazine Obituary: Ray Charles (1930 – 2004).
  8. "The Genius Of Ray Charles", an article about an 1986 segment on Charles from 60 Minutes.
  9. Lydon, Michael: Ray Charles, pp. 29-38.
  10. Lydon, Michael, p. 19.
  11. Lydon, Michael, p. 20.
  12. Ray Charles on Ray.
  13. Allmusic.
  14. SNL Transcripts: Ray Charles: 11/12/77.
  15. List of best-selling international singles in Japan of 1989, Extract from the Year-End chart posted by oricon.
  16. Internet Movie Database Bio on Ray Charles.
  17. The Genius Of Ray Charles, 60 Minutes Looks Back At The Life And Loves Of A True Original - CBS News.


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