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Ray Charles

Ray Charles was a pioneering soul singer who helped shape the sound of rhythm and blues and brought a soulful sound to everything from country music to pop standards to God Bless America. His birth name was Ray Charles Robinson but he shortened it when he entered show business because of the fame of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Born in Albany, Georgia, Charles was blinded at age six as a result of glaucoma, and attended school at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind as a charity case. When his parents died, Charles was a teenager and began working as a musician in Florida, eventually moving to Seattle, Washington in 1947. He soon started recording, achieving his first hit song with Baby, Let Me hold Your Hand (1951).

Though his first recordings were only skilful imitations of his hero, Charles Brown, Charles's music soon became more innovative. He toured with Lowell Fulson and worked with Guitar Slim and Ruth Brown. After joining Atlantic Records, Charles's sound become more and more original and groundbreaking as he took the feel, and many tunes, from gospel music and put them to secular lyrics performed in front of a jazz lineup playing R&B with exceptionally tight arrangements.

His first hit in this mode was Mess Around, which was based on the 1929 classic Pinetop's Boogie Woogie by Pinetop Smith. He had another hit with the raplike urban jive of It Should Have Been Me, but went into high gear with the gospel drive of I Got A Woman (1955). 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 gospel songs converted with secular lyrics, the others blues ballads.

After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he achieved mainstream success with (The Night Time is) The Right Time and his 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 1958. 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 did move 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 out and out pop music, resulting in such hits as Unchain My Heart and Hit the Road, Jack. In 1962, Charles surprised his new, broad audience with his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. This was followed by a series of hits, including You Are My Sunshine, Crying Time, Busted and Take These Chains From My Heart.

In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin and was jailed for one year. After gaining his freedom, Charles defiantly released Ashford and Simpson's Lets Go Get Stoned (1966).

Since the 1960s, Charles's releases have been hit-or-miss, with some massive hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that has been 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, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of America the Beautiful.

A notorious ladies' man, Charles has been married twice and has fathered 9 children. In a 60 Minutes profile, he admitted to Ed Bradley that he would audition his female back-up signers.

He reclaimed his wide fame in the 1990s as a spokesman for Diet Pepsi, resulting in some criticism by fans who saw this as selling out, but also boosting his career with younger audiences.

He is an original inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Jazz Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and the Playboy Hall of Fame.

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.

The singer died of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California on Thursday, June 10th, 2004 surrounded by family and friends. Ray Charles was 73 years old.

A biopic, Unchain My Heart is due for release in 2004.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2004.

Ray Charles Facts

Birth NameRay Charles Robinson
BirthdaySeptember 23, 1930
BirthplaceAlbany, Georgia, USA
Date of deathJune 10, 2004 (age 73)
Height5' 9" (1m75)  How tall is Ray Charles compared to you?

Selected Filmography

Ray Charles: Live In France 1961
Attack of the Sea Hag/Happy Anniversary
Local Color
Willie Nelson
Invisible Dad
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