Born in Georgia in 1930, Ray Charles was a legendary musician who pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s. Often called the “Father of Soul,” Charles combined blues, gospel and jazz to create groundbreaking hits such as “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.” He died in 2004, leaving a lasting impression on contemporary music.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a sharecropper, moved the family to Greenville, Florida when he was an infant. One of the most traumatic events of his childhood was witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother.
Soon after his brother’s death, Charles gradually began to lose his sight. He was blind by the age of 7, and his mother sent him to a state-sponsored school, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida—where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille. He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet and trumpet. The breadth of his musical interests ranged widely, from gospel to country, to blues.
A year later, Charles’s now classic song, “I Got a Woman,” reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. The song reflected an advance in his musical style. He was no longer a Nat King Cole imitator. His fusion of gospel and R&B helped to create a new musical genre known as soul. By the late 1950s, Charles began entertaining the world of jazz, cutting records with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Fellow musicians began to call Charles “The Genius,” an appropriate title for the ramblin’ musician, who never worked in just one style, but blended and beautified all that he touched (he also earned the nickname “Father of Soul”). Charles’s biggest success was perhaps his ability to cross over into pop music too, reaching No. 6 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart with his hit “What’d I Say.”
The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for “Georgia on My Mind,” followed by another Grammy for the single “Hit the Road, Jack.” For his day, he maintained a rare level of creative control over his own music. Charles broke down the boundaries of music genres in 1962 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. On this album, he gave his own soulful interpretations of many country classics. While thriving creatively, Charles struggled in his personal life. He continued to battle with heroin addiction. In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession.
Charles avoided jail after his arrest for possession by finally kicking the habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. His releases in the 1960s and ’70s were hit-or-miss, but he remained one of music’s most respected stars. Charles won a Grammy Award for his rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” Three years later, he released his autobiography Brother Ray.
In 1980, Charles appeared in the comedy The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The music icon received a special honor a few years later as one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Charles was recognized for his contributions to the genre alongside such fellow luminaries as James Brown, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly.
Death and Legacy
In 2003, Charles had to cancel his tour for the first time in 53 years. He underwent hip replacement surgery. While that operation was successful, Charles soon learned he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts.