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Ray Charles virtually invented soul music by bringing together the fervor of gospel, the secular lyrics and narratives of blues and country, the big-band arrangements of jazz, and the rhythms and improvisational possibilities from all of them. His music was both sophisticated and spontaneous, and over the course of his 50-year career, Charles penned dozens of classic R&B and rock numbers.
Born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, he was raised in Greenville, Florida, and started playing the piano before he was five. At six he contracted glaucoma, which went untreated and eventually left him blind. He studied composition (writing music in braille) and learned to play the alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and organ while attending the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind from 1937 to 1945. His father died when he was 10, his mother five years later, and he left school to work in dance bands around Florida, dropping his last name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. In 1947, with $600 worth of savings, he moved to Seattle and worked as a Nat "King" Cole-style crooner.
Charles made his first single, "Confession Blues," in L.A. and recorded for several independent West Coast labels until he scored a Top 10 R&B hit in 1951 with "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" and began a national tour with blues singer Lowell Fulson. Late in 1953 he went to New Orleans and became a pianist and arranger for Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones). Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do," arranged by Charles and featuring him on piano, sold a million copies, and when Charles returned to recording — leading and arranging for his own band — the earthier style carried over to his own work. Atlantic signed him in 1954, and he made a few conventional recordings in New York; he also assembled a band for label mate Ruth Brown.
"I've Got a Woman," with a seven-piece band fronted by Charles' pounding gospel piano and a new raspy, exuberant vocal sound, became his first national hit (Number Two R&B, 1955). Through the decade he appeared regularly on the charts as he synthesized more and more styles and was nicknamed the "Genius." He recorded with Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet, sang standards with strings, and expanded his band to a full-scale revue, complete with horns and gospel-style backup singers, the Raelettes.
"What'd I Say" (Number Six pop, Number One R&B, 1959), a wild blues/gospel/Latin mix, became Charles' first million-seller. In late 1959 he signed to ABC-Paramount Records and moved into the pop market with "Georgia on My Mind" (Number One, 1960) and "Hit the Road, Jack" (Number One, 1961). Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Number One, 1962), which included Charles' versions of songs by Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman, and other country songwriters, sold more than a million copies, as did its single, the Grammy-winning "I Can't Stop Loving You" (Number One, 1962).
In 1965 Charles was arrested for possession of heroin and revealed that he had been using it since he was 16. He cleaned up in a California sanatorium and spent a year away from performing. Although Charloes had appeared in the 1962 movie Swingin' Along, it was in 1966's Ballad in Blue (also known as Blues for Lovers) that he made his bigger cinematic impact. In it, Charles (playing himself) befriends a blind boy in London; he also performed two of his best-known songs, "What'd I Say" and "I Got a Woman." While his singing remained influential through the Sixties (especially for Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker) and he kept making hits — including Ashford and Simpson's "Let's Go Get Stoned" (Number 31, 1966) — his taste was moving away from rock, although he did appear on Aretha Franklin's Live at Fillmore West in 1971.
His albums from the mid-Sixties onward have downplayed gospel and blues in favor of jazz standards, pop songs, and show tunes, although his singing remains distinctive. Charles made custom-label deals with ABC (Tangerine Records) and later Atlantic (Crossover), for whom he recorded an album a year. In 1978 he published his autobiography (cowritten with David Ritz), Brother Ray; it became a national bestseller. The following year, his version of "Georgia on My Mind" was named the official song of the State of Georgia. It was later used as the theme song for the hit television series Designing Women. Charles also appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers (1980); he subsequently made guest appearances on the television series St. Elsewhere and Who's the Boss.
In 1982 he recorded another country album, Wish You Were Here Tonight; two years later, he released Friendship (Number 75, 1985), which included duets with 10 country artists, including Hank Williams Jr., the Oak Ridge Boys, Mickey Gilley, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. In 1993 My World reached Number 145. As a performer, he showed no signs of slowing down. Ironically, Charles became best known to younger listeners through a series of diet Pepsi ads ("You Got the Right One, Baby, Uh-huh!"), which began airing in 1990. He also was featured prominently on USA for Africa's 1985 hit, "We Are the World," in which his vocal interplay with Bruce Springsteen was a prime example of his trademark call-and-response style.
In 1986 Charles was not only a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors but one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over the course of his career, he collected 17 performance Grammy Awards, five of them posthumously for his last studio album, 2004's Genius Loves Company (Number One). He also received the 1988 Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1993 President Clinton presented him with a National Medal of the Arts. Charles has received similar awards from countries around the world.
Throughout his career, Charles was active in a range of political and humanitarian causes. He provided financial support for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement; he was also a staunch supporter of Israel. In 1984 he performed his version of "America the Beautiful" at the Republican National Convention. Three years later, he formed the (Ray Charles) Robinson Foundation for Hearing Disorders, with a $1 million personal endowment.
Charles made several high-profile appearances during his final years. In 2002 he performed at a peace concert along with other artists at the Colosseum in Rome; it was the first event held there since A.D. 404. That December he appeared with country singer Travis Tritt on the CMT show Crossroads. The following year he performed for President Bush and others at a White House dinner. He also sang "America the Beautiful" at Boston's Fenway Park before a rained-out Red Sox game that year. He was intimately involved in the making of Ray, the critically acclaimed 2004 biopic that won Jamie Foxx a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the singer. On June 10, 2004, Charles died of liver cancer at his home in Beverly Hills and was mourned the world over.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.