A virtuosic piano player and a singer possessed with perfect pitch
Featured Ray Charles Videos
A virtuosic piano player and a singer possessed with perfect pitch, Ray Charles is a musician with both incredible talent and an exceptional stage presence. Throughout his half-century-long career, he personified what it means to be a performer.
As many know, Charles (full name Ray Charles Robinson) was born in Georgia, on September 23, 1930. His family was poor, and when Charles was still young, they decided to move to the black community of Greenville, Florida. He first became interested in music after he heard a neighbor play boogie-woogie on his piano. After losing his sight, presumably to glaucoma, Charles began attending the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in 1937. There, he began classical training on the piano, saxophone, and clarinet. But Charles always found an opportunity to play jazz during his free time. He became well-known in the community for playing boogie-woogie hits at local gatherings.
In 1946, Charles’ mother died. He dropped out of school, and started playing small gigs around Florida to support himself. Around this time, he developed his signature look of always wearing sunglasses. One year later, he decided it was time to start his own band. Thinking Chicago and New York were too big to make it there, he opted instead for Seattle, Washington. He quickly found a community of jazz musicians in Seattle, and struck up a friendship with the likes of Robert Blackwell and Quincy Jones.
His first hit came in 1949, with “Confession Blues,” which topped the national R&B charts. By 1950, he decided he was sufficiently big enough to move to Los Angeles. He first signed with Swing Time Records, who made him change his name to Ray Charles so that he wouldn’t be confused with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. He had a couple of hits with them, but the label folded in 1953. That same year, Charles signed with Atlantic.
Charles had his first number-one hit with Atlantic, 1955’s “I Got a Woman.” Like all of Charles’ music, “I Got a Woman” was known for incorporating elements of blues into a boogie-woogie piano rhythm. Originally influenced by Nat King Cole and childhood gospel choirs, Charles sang with a cool demeanor, punctuated by times of unrestraint. All of these qualities would become the foundation of rock and roll.
The ‘50s and early ‘60s were an incredible time for Charles. His tenure with Atlantic (and later ABC-Paramount Records) let to hit after hit, making him one of the most popular singers of the time. Songs like “Hit the Road Jack” (1961), “What’d I Say” (1959), and “Georgia on My Mind” (1960) are still chart-toppers. He received his first Grammy nomination for “Georgia on My Mind,” and then another one a year later for “Hit the Road Jack.”
Charles changed the scene again when he released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2 in 1962. Already known for bringing blues to the masses, now Charles brought country into the mainstream as well. The single “I Can’t Stop Loving You” topped the pop charts for five weeks straight and the R&B charts for ten.
But by the mid-’60s, Charles’ career was in decline, in part due to his heroin addiction, but also due to the rising popularity of rock -- a genre Charles had helped create. He’d continue to record throughout the ‘70s, even collaborating with Stevie Wonder and Randy Newman. Charles’ career had a resurgence in the late ‘70s. He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977, and in 1979, “Georgia on My Mind” was proclaimed the state song of Georgia.
He signed with Columbia records in 1983, and was in the public eye for much of the rest of the decade. He mostly focused on country, and netted a number-one hit with 1984’s “Seven Spanish Angels,” a duet with Willie Nelson. He also frequently appeared on TV and in movies, most notably in The Blues Brothers. He performed at two presidential inaugurations, Ronald Reagan’s in 1985 and Bill Clinton’s in 1993. Charles performed right up to his death in 2004. His last major appearance was singing a duet with Van Morrison for his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.
Charles died on June 10, 2004 at age 73. Though always a bit separated from other jazz musicians, many of whom lived in New York and Chicago, Ray Charles found a way to revolutionize the genre. His enthusiastic, deeply soulful style both in his singing and his piano playing led to the rise of rock and blues in popular music. His style was always deeply rooted in the boogie-woogie and swing jazz he grew up listening to. Like other jazz greats, he took this early influence and put his own remarkable twist on it.