The world of music consists of various genres, yet Ray Charles proves himself as the one who is able to convert them all into a soulful tunes despite his physical weakness. As Thomas Thompson had written of him: "He has drawn from each of these musical streams and made a river which he alone can navigate." That opinion appeared to be true, as Ray possessed such a great talent within his soul to skillfully explore beyond musical boundaries, developing a new form of black pop music known as "soul." Therefore, it is undeniably appropriate to regard Ray Charles in the way of Frank Sinatra's praise, honoring him as "the only genius in the business." He was indeed an exceptional musician whose composition has touched both sides of white and black American communities, bringing a unity and harmony in the tunes he created. Probably it was his immense love for music that enabled him to arrange such great and terrific tunes, as he once said: "Music was one of my parts...like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water." It is unquestionable that in this fast-changing world, he remains constant as a music legend, giving a large merit in shaping the sound of rhythm and blues as well as being a pioneering pianist and soul singer. He has become a prominent role model in music industry who has drawn a lot of followers ever since, such as James Brown, "Everly Brothers", Billy Joel, James Ingram, "The Animals", and many more.
Born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, as the first son, he was named Ray Charles Robinson by his parents, Baily and Aretha Robinson. During that time, Robinson family was among the people who lived in poverty as America was experiencing the Great Depression. Moving to Greenville, Florida, when Ray was still an infant, did not bring any improvement, even it got worse for the father soon abandoned the family. Despite the terrible condition, Ray enjoyed his early childhood, living with his loving mother and younger brother, George Robinson, while deeply attracted to music since he was merely 3 years old, as he admitted: "Whenever I heard a note, I was already trying to involve myself with it." However, his happiness was interrupted by the tragic death of his dear brother in 1935. Beginning from that incident, he gradually lost his sight before became totally blind at age 7. George's death and the complete blindness of his eyes apparently could not stop Ray's love for music; instead it grew deeper, taking roots into his heart. Encouraged by his supportive mother, he entered St. Augustine's School for the Deaf and the Blind in 1937, learning to read Braille as well as studying music composition and playing various instruments. This was when he came to a desire to write music of his own, wanting to feel the excitement of hearing his compositions played back for him.
The death of his beloved mother when he was nearly fifteen years old made him shocked, but eventually he kept going on, making his own way. He started to work as a musician in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was also taken care by her mother's friend named Lena May Thompson. Tired of working for someone else's band, Ray decided to move to Seattle in 1947. While joining an audition, he was invited to perform as a trio at Elk's Club together with Gosady McGee and Milt Jarret. Adapted the smooth pop/R&B style of Nat "King" Cole and Charlie Brown, The "McSon Trio," so they called it, turned out to be the first black group to have a sponsored TV show in the Pasific Northwest in 1948. Together with the trio, Ray made a major R&B hit through the song entitled "Confession Blues" in 1949. During this time, he shortened his name as Ray Charles in order to differentiate his identity from famous boxer "Sugar" Ray Robinson. After playing at Elk's Club for about five weekends, the trio was hired to perform at another club called Rocking Chair where Ray met Jack Lauderdale of Swingtime Records for the first time. Getting impressed with his talent, Lauderdale offered Ray to sign a contract, so he left Seattle for L.A. to do his recording of "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951). This single was well received and became a hit, especially among black community, entering the U.S. R&B Chart for the first time.
After the release of the song, Ray held a tour with blues artist Lowell Fulson before Atlantic Records purchased his contract from Swingtime Records in 1952. In the same year, he made his Atlantic debut single "Roll With Me Baby," followed by "It Should Have Been Me" (1954) which turned out to be a 7th rank hit single on R&B chart. Meanwhile, he also worked with Guitar Slim in New Orleans, arranging and playing piano in Slim's smash hit, "The Things That I Used to Do." This made him reached commercial success and his name became fairly well known. Making a great change in his professional career in music, Ray finally stepped out from his imitation of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, thus created his genuine style that proved extremely successful through "I've Got A Woman" (1955). In this particular composition, Ray picked up elements of gospel music, adapting them to R&B tunes with secular lyrics, strengthening the song through an intensified emotion of vocal, supported by the piano and horn section. The result was sensational for the single reached the highest position at Billboard's Black Singles Chart. Planting down this typical unique style of him to characterize his music, Ray became more inventive and kept producing other hit singles that struck high positions on the chart during the year of 1955-1956, such as "A Fool for You" (#1), "Drown in My Own Tears" (#1), "Hallelujah I Love Her So" (#5), and "Mary Ann"(#1). All these singles were collected into a self-titled album, which was released in 1957.
Ray's attention to musical field did not focus only on R&B since he also came down to the other genres of music; even his first record at Atlantic was an instrumental jazz album entitled "The Great Ray Charles" (1957). During this year, he also made a crossover to pop music through his first single of the genre, "Swanee River Rock," which resulted quite well, staying at the 34th rank of Billboard Pop Singles Chart. In 1958, Ray once more released a jazz album called "Soul Brothers," leading him to appear at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in July. However, it was in 1959 that he attained his tremendous success upon the launching of his pop mega-hit single, "What'd I Say." The single amazingly sold for millions copies, earned top rank at Billboard Black Singles Chart while achieving 6th rank at Pop Singles Chart. "What'd I Say" became the first crossover hit of him and was recognized as his signature tune, making his name unbelievably popular both in black and white communities. Shortly thereafter, under the arrangement of his old friend, Quincy Jones, Ray came up with his next album "The Genius of Ray Charles" in which "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Deed I Do" became the highlights of the album. In early November, Ray left Atlantic Records to join ABC Records after doing his last record which ironically was his first country music single, a cover of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" in June 1959.
Getting into ABC Records proved to be Ray's perfect decision to maintain his career afterwards. His debut album under ABC, "The Genius Hits the Road" became his first album to enter the chart of Billboard's Top Ten Pop Albums. Furthermore, its songs entitled "Georgia on My Mind" and "Hit the Road Jack" became top hits, both soared to the highest spot of Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1960 and 1961. Originally Hoagy Carmichael's song, Ray's version of "Georgia on My Mind" later was declared officially as the state of Georgia's anthem in 1979. In May 1961, he returned to jazz tune, producing his best jazz album ever, "Genius+Soul=Jazz" with its number one single, "One Mint Julep." Throughout the year of 1962, Ray produced more top pop hit compositions, among others "Unchain My Heart", "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me" besides releasing his first ranked prominent album in two parts entitled "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," once again involving himself in country music materials. He also established Ray Charles Enterprises, which includes Tangerine Records, Tangerine Music, and Racer Music Company, as well as took part in the film "Swinging Along." He got more busy in 1963, opening his recording studio "RPM International" in Los Angeles, while continuing to create such magnificent singles, which again positioned at U.S. Billboard Black Singles Top Ten Chart, as "Busted" (#3) and "Take These Chains from My Heart" (#7).
Having accomplished everything in music industry did not keep Ray apart from drugs consumption that he had applied for about seventeen years. This flaw led him to be arrested in late October of 1964 before later being convicted to five year suspended sentence for heroin and marijuana possession in 1966. Nevertheless, he kept going on, making two more hits during the year entitled "Crying Time" and "Let's Go Get Stoned" along with celebrating his success upon getting rid of his addiction at the California sanitarium. In addition, he once more came down to film industry, starring in British movie "Blues for Lovers" a.k.a "Ballad in Blue." In the further years, Ray composed a soulful theme song for the movie "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) which became another hit of him, followed by his performance at soul music concert "Soul Bowl '69" in Houston together with Aretha Franklin and "The Staple Singers." Ray marked the year of 1970 through the launching of his next album, "My Kind of Jazz", which was under his own label, Tangerine Records. Working together once again with Quincy Jones, the album was fairly successful, climbing up to number 14 at Billboard Jazz Album Chart. In late December of the following year, his musical materials under Atlantic and ABC Records were assembled into the album of "A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles." By the year of 1972, he released another album, "A Message from the People," which contained his own pure-funk interpretation of "America the Beautiful."
After being under ABC Records for fourteen years, Ray ended his recording contract, transferring all his materials to Crossover Record. However, he returned to ABC in 1977, producing a minor album, "True to Life." He turned to movie for a while, performing in "The Blues Brothers" (1980) before carrying out a tour to South Africa in 1981 which raised controversy for the country was under international boycott due to its apartheid policy. When he was asked to make an apology and promise not to visit the region until the policy was terminated, he commented that the people who asked him could "kindly kiss (his) far end." In the following year, he joined Columbia Records then once again reached huge acclaim and popularity through his country single "Born to Love Me" which turned out to be his ultimate country hit, taking place of 20th rank at Billboard Country Singles Chart. During 1985, Ray became a major vocalist in his contribution to USA for Africa's charity single "We Are the World" together with other notable singers. He also made wonderful success by performing duets with famous country singers, such as Willie Nelson in "Seven Spanish Angels", George Jones in "We Didn't See A Thing", and Hank Williams Jr in "Two Cats Like Us." These amazing duets were collected into one album entitled "Friendship" (1985), which reached highest rank at Billboard Country Album Chart, while "Seven Spanish Angels" hit the top position at Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks. He repeated the same success through his recording of a pop single, "I'll Be Good to You" (1989), this time collaborated with Chaka Khan.
In 1990, Ray left Columbia Records, heading to Warner Bros Records where he later worked together with Eric Clapton, Mavis Staples and June Porter to record "My World" in 1993. After a decade, he attended the annual electronic media journalist's banquet in Washington, performing "Georgia on My Mind" and "America the Beautiful", then made his last appearance on April 2004 in L.A. upon celebrating his music studio to be one of American historic landmarks. Ray finally surrendered to his liver disease and passed away on June 10, 2004, at age 73 in Beverly Hills, California. Having been released on August 31 that same year, his final album "Genius Loves Company" was a magnificent record, which contained great collaborations with various wonderful artists, such as B.B King, Norah Jones, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Van Morrison, and Elton John. Consisting of twelve songs, this album made its fantastic way to the top chart of Billboard 200. Throughout his long wondrous career, Ray Charles had established himself as a phenomenal artist in American music industry, producing 32 chart hits that were hugely popular. Twelve Grammy Awards have become the solid proof of his superb talent, along with prestigious achievements he has accomplished; being included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 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.