Ray Charles, born Ray Charles Robinson, was undoubtedly one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and is so important to musicians or fans that know and love jazz. An American musician born in Georgia on September 23, 1930, Ray Charles grew up to be one of the most acclaimed piano players ever to exist. He combined soul music with jazz in often-brilliant ways, integrating blues, country, gospel and even R&B into his later singles. He is known among his fans and to music history for the songs “Georgia On My Mind”, “Hit the Road Jack”, “Unchain My Heart’, and more. He is called “The Genius” or “The High Priest of Soul”. Many people know that Ray not only sang and played music, but composed and wrote songs.
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As a child, Ray Charles suffered from glaucoma and began to go blind around age four or five. He eventually became completely blind from glaucoma by the age of seven. He was the son of Bailey Robinson and Aretha Robinson. His mother was a sharecropper and his father Bailey was a mechanic, handy man, and railroad repairman. The Robinson family moved from Albany, Georgia to Greenville, Florida, his mother’s hometown. He had little contact with his father in his childhood and was raised primarily by Aretha and Mary Jane, his father’s first wife. His mother was a Christian and they often would attend services at the New Shiloh Baptist Church.
At an early age, Ray had a way with mechanics and became interested in music at age 3. Ray was at the Mr. Wylie Pitman’s Red Wing Cafe, and Pitman played the piano and eventually taught Ray the piano as well. Ray would frequent the cafe frequently and even lived there for a short time. Pitman would help care for Ray’s younger brother George as well, but George unfortunately drowned in his mother’s laundry tub when he was four and Ray was five.
Ray later would attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1945 at St. Augustine, where he developed his musical skills, learned to play classical music, and to read sheet music using braille.
Ray says that his mother knew that he was going to lose his sight, so she started preparing him to do well in life despite his handicap. Little did they know that Ray Charles would change the way not only soul music sounded, but pop and country as well. Ray Charles named Nat King Cole as a major musical influence, but he also had respect for the artists Charles Brown, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, and Art Tatum. Ray liked jazz he would hear on the radio and would play at socials and assemblies, and formed the RC Robinson and the Shop Boys band.
His mother died in spring 1945, which destroyed Ray. After school, he moved in with friends of his mother in Jacksonville and would play at clubs and even joined the musician’s union. Charles left Jacksonville for Orlando at 16 for opportunity and was extremely poor, not eating for days and having difficulty finding work. He moved to Tampa in 1947, where he began wearing sunglasses and modeled himself on Nat King Cole. He left Florida for Seattle in 1948 and found a mentor in Quincy Jones, who showed him the music club industry. He released his first song “Confession Blues” in 1949 with the Maxin Trio, and it went second on the Billboard R&B charts. He worked at the Rocking Chair and arranged for other artists. He did well with follow up songs and landed at deal with Atlantic Records in 1953. “I Got A Woman” hit number one a year later, and people started calling him “The Genius” and Charles effectively created soul.
He crossed over to ABC Records in the sixties, where he integrated country and pop with the Modern Sounds albums. He won a Grammy in 1960 for “Georgia On My Mind” and would win another for “Hit the Road, Jack”. In his private life, Ray used heroin and was arrested in 1965. He eventually quit the drugs at a clinic and maintained his musical career, even appearing in the movie The Blue Brothers in 1980.
Ray went through hip replacement surgery in 2003, canceling his tours. He shortly found out that he was suffering from liver disease. Ray passed away on June 10, 2004 in Beverly Hills at his home. He recorded over 60 albums and performed at over 10,000 concerts. To this day Ray Charles is considered to be one of the top artists of all time. He continues to influence jazz musicians and music fans all over the world.