Born Ray Charles Robinson, September 23, 1930, in Albany, GA; died of liver disease, June 10, 2004, in Beverly Hills, CA. Singer. Blind from the age of seven, Ray Charles became an influential innovator of Rhythm & Blues music and an inventor of Soul, making more than 60 albums over a nearly 60-year period. With a soulful singing style that slipped effortlessly from jubilation to torment, and an energetic stage presence that included flashy suits and big dark glasses, Charles was one of the most successful recording artists of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
For most of his long career, Charles was considered a national treasure, and with the exception of a year-long hiatus from recording in the mid-'60s, while he kicked a drug addiction, he was seldom out of the spotlight. Releasing new albums almost every year and touring frequently, he also appeared in the cult film classic The Blues Brothers in 1980, and sang "America the Beautiful" at the Republican National Convention in 1984, where he was embraced by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. He also made a series of television commercials for a brand of cola in the early 1990s. Despite suffering from severe illness in his last year, he was planning a new tour.
The younger of two brothers, Charles was born to working-class parents. His mother, Aretha, had a job in a sawmill; his father, Bailey, worked as a mechanic. Charles played music from the age of three. When he was five, he began losing his sight to glaucoma. As an immediate consequence, he was unable to save his older brother when he drowned in a tub. By age seven, he was completely blind, and his parents moved him to Greenville, Florida, to study music at the Florida School for the Blind. After his mother died when he was 15, he left school to pursue a career as a musician. At 17, he moved to Seattle, Washington, and formed his first band. Imitating the style of Nat "King" Cole, and billing himself as R.C. Robinson (to distinguish himself from the boxer "Sugar" Ray Robinson), he played regularly on the West Coast and recorded a number of singles, often as a sideman. He finally simplified his name to Ray Charles and recorded his first hit single, "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," in 1950. Over the next two years he moved to New Orleans, then Dallas, Atlanta, and finally Los Angeles. In 1952, he signed with Atlantic Records and formed a new band, which had a large horn section. A few years later, he added female backup singers who came to be known as the Raelettes. Charles' combination of piano and horns and his use of call-and-response interplay between himself and the Raelettes would remain fixtures of his music for decades.
As a result of 1959's landmark "What'd I Say?"—an album bursting with jubilation, rhythm, and suggestive interplay between Charles and the Raelettes—he became a hugely influential performer whose immense popularity was reflected in the charts through the 1970s with such hits as "Hit the Road Jack," "Georgia on my Mind," "Busted," "The Night Time is the Right Time," "I'm Movin' On," "Unchain My Heart," "Let's Go Get Stoned," and many more.
Though he was primarily known for popular vocals, in 1961 Charles recorded a much admired instrumental jazz album with strings entitled, "Genius+Soul=Jazz." Ever reaching "beyond the music," as jazz great Miles Davis liked to say of himself, in 1962, Charles successfully crossed over into country music with "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," which applied big band arrangements to country standards. Charles' enormously popular rendition of "I Can't Stop Loving You" caused the album to sell millions of copies. He remained a familiar and accepted voice in country for the next four decades. Shortly before his death, he recorded a duet with country singer Willie Nelson.
Starting in the early 1960s, Charles began recording music on his own labels, Tangerine and, later, Crossover. In 1964, he was arrested on a drugs charge and spent a year recovering from an addiction to heroin. In 1986, he was among the first recording artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a decade that ironically marked his return to the country music charts. Also in 1986, he received a Kennedy Center Honor. In 1987, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and in 1989, he won his 12th performance Grammy, for a duet with Chaka Khan. In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal for the Arts. In 2003, he published his autobiography, co-written with David Ritz, entitled, Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story.
The year of his death saw both the release of his final album, Genius Loves Company, featuring duets with such friends as Nelson, B.B. King, Diana Krall, and Van Morrison, and a Hollywood biopic about his life, Ray, starring Jamie Foxx. His album won five Grammy Awards, including album of the year, best pop vocal album, record of the year and best pop collaboration with vocals, both for "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones, and best gospel performance, for "Heaven Help Us All" with Gladys Knight. Charles died of liver disease on June 10, 2004, in Beverly Hills, California; he was 73. He was twice divorced and is survived by 12 children, 20 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Independent (London), June 12, 2004, p. 52.
Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2004, p. A1, p. A17.
New York Times, June 11, 2004, p. A1.
—D. László Conhaim