Ray Charles Robinson was born September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, the first child of Aretha and Bailey Robinson. By the time he was three months old, he was introduced to the road when his family had to move across southern Georgia into Florida in search of work during the Depression Years.
Ray remembers Wylie Pitman as the person who first indulged and encouraged him in music. Wylie would allow three-year-old Ray to sit and listen to him practice on the piano, and he gave the child some basic training on the keyboard. Even at this tender age, Ray Charles was infatuated with music.
When Ray was four, he was already showing symptoms of glaucoma, though it was not diagnosed. When he was five, he and his younger brother were roughhousing in the back yard when his younger brother tripped, fell into a washtub full of water and subsequently drowned. A couple of years later, Ray was totally blinded by glaucoma. But during the years during which the disease progressed, his mother, Aretha, began helping him learn how to cope with sightlessness. To this day, Ray considers his mother as being the single most important person in his life.
Ray was accepted as a charity patient at St. Augustine's in Florida (the State-run school for the deaf and blind) at seven. While there, he studied composition, mathematics, Braille, and he learned to type. He studied at St. Augustine's until his mother died. Ray was not quite fifteen at the time, and nothing that had happened before or after ever came close to invoking the devastation of this loss. It took the intervention of an old friend of the family (Mrs. Beck whom everyone called Ma Beck) to break him out of his depression and get him focused on the life before him.
Ray lived with some friends of his mother's, the Thompsons, in Jacksonville, Florida. Though he was not related to them, they treated him as if he was. He stayed with them for a year, during which he earned a little money, playing gigs around the town. Ray's main musical influence at that time was Nat King Cole, a performer Ray emulated in sound and style. In 1947 Ray was seventeen, and he recognized that pursuing his musical potential was going to be difficult in Florida. Looking for the furthest place from Florida he could find and still be in the lower forty eight States, friend and fellow musician Gosady McGee helped him select Seattle, Washington. With every penny he had in life savings (about $500), he caught a bus.
Once in Seattle, he teamed up with McGee and Milt Jarret. They played at an Elk's Club. and a bit later, at the Rocking Chair. It was here that Ray Charles Robinson shortened his name to Ray Charles to avoid confusion with a boxer very much in the public eye at the time, Sugar Ray Robinson.These were the first gigs Ray had that were "regular" and something he could depend on as a source of income.
It was also in Seattle that Ray met Quincy Jones and formed a friendship that has lasted a lifetime. It was also at the Rocking Chair that Ray met Jack Lauderdale of Swingtime Records. After hearing Charles sing and play, Jack offered Ray his first recording deal.
Lauderdale took Ray to Los Angeles in 1950 where he recorded "Baby, Let me Hold Your Hand." This led to a stint on the road with Lowell Fulsom, also with Swingtime. The venues were the type of clubs that Ray was accustomed to playing. Black performers did not get gigs at fancy clubs and concert halls. They were lucky if they could sit down to eat, rather than having their food handed to them from the back door, if they were served at all.
1952 saw Ray switch labels from Swingtime to Atlantic Records. Atlantic let him do pretty much whatever recordings he wanted to do, and he retained the same freedom that Swingtime had given him. It was at Atlantic that Ray stopped styling himself after Nat King Cole and developed his own sound. Basically, it was the blues infused with the emotional gospel he was raised on. This style became the musical foundation for soul music. If James Brown is "The Godfather of Soul" Ray Charles is "The Father of Soul."
Ray stayed with Atlantic until 1959, before switching to ABC. This move marked a larger public recognition of his talent. "Crying Time," "Busted," "You Are My Sunshine," and "Hit the Road, Jack" were all big hits; he became an internationally-known recording and touring artist, riding the crest of success.
Ray Charles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the first year of existence for the RRHOF. He is also in the Jazz Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He has won 12 Grammy Awards, but the award he says moves him the most is the B'nai Brith Man of the Year award in 1976. His commitment to the problems of the Jewish community is well known. Ray believed that African-Americans and Jews share a very tight common denominator of racial persecution.
On June 10, 2004, at the age of 73, Ray Charles passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, surrounded by family and friends. Survived by eleven children, his last public appearance was on April 30 in Los Angeles, when his Central L.A. recording studio was declared a cultural landmark.