Ray Charles was the stage name of Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004). He was a pioneering American pianist and soul musician who shaped the sound of rhythm and blues. He brought a soulful sound to country music, pop standards, and a rendition of “America the Beautiful” that Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes called the “definitive version of the song, an American anthem — a classic, just as the man who sang it.”
Raymond Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia to Bailey and Aretha Robinson. Bailey had two more families, leaving Aretha to raise the family.
When he was six, Charles began to go blind, becoming totally blind by the age of seven. Charles never knew exactly why he lost his sight, though there are sources which suggest Ray’s blindness was due to glaucoma. He attended school at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida. He also learned how to write music and play various musical instruments. While he was there, his mother died. His father 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 music. Charles moved to Seattle in 1947 or 1948. He soon started recording, first for the label Swing time Records, achieving his first hit with “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” in 1951, then signed with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records a year later. When he entered show business, his name was shortened to Ray Charles to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which he had been addicted for 17 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 in 1966.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Charles’ releases were hit-or-miss with some big hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that was dismissed as unoriginal and staid. His version of “Georgia On My Mind,” was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature. This act was significant in that it symbolized to many the move away from segregation and racism. He also had success with his unique version of “America the Beautiful.”
In the late 1980s, a number of events increased Charles’ 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 cast members used the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that helped the show secure its wide audience. Charles’ new connection with audiences helped secure an advertising spot for Diet Pepsi. In a Pepsi Cola commercial of the early 1990s, Charles popularized the catchphrase “You Got the Right One, Baby!”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Charles made appearances on The Super Dave Osborne 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’ album Back on the Block.
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.
Gladys Knight performed Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 2002 Charles headlined during the Blues Passions Cognac festival in southern France. At one point in the performance a young fan rose to his feet and began to sing an acappella version of Charles’ early song, “Mess Around”; Charles responded by performing the song.
In June, 2003, Ray Charles presented one of his greatest admirers and influences, 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”.
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., at what may have been his final performance in public. Ray Charles’ 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.
Cover of Genius Loves Company, an album released posthumously.
He died on June 10, 2004 of “liver disease”, at his home in Beverly Hills, California, surrounded by family and friends. His death was not due to liver cancer as was erroneously reported on certain websites He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
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, Idina Menzel, 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; that recording was later played at his memorial service.
Another posthumous album, Ray Sings, Basie Swings, was released in October of 2006. This album consists of archived vocals of Ray Charles from a live 1973 performance, recorded from the concert mixing board, combined with new accompaniment by the Count Basie Orchestra (among others) and produced by Gregg Field, who had performed as a drummer with both Charles and Basie.
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