Ray Charles (1930-2004), American pianist and singer, one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music. In the 1950s Charles—often called simply The Genius—fused gospel music with rhythm and blues (R&B) to pioneer a distinctive style that came to be known as soul music. He also recorded in and helped shape a wide variety of other musical genres, including blues, jazz, country, and rock.
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia. He lost his sight by age seven as a result of what was believed to be glaucoma. Charles received his first musical training at the Saint Augustine (Florida) School for the Deaf and Blind. At age 15, with both his parents dead, Charles left school, formed his own trio, and began touring the South (shortening his name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson). A few years later he moved to Seattle, Washington, where he continued to learn and experiment with various musical styles. Two of Charles’s biggest influences during this time were the smooth R&B sounds of Nat “King” Cole and the piano blues of Charles Brown.
In the early 1950s Charles moved to Los Angeles, California, and began recording. His first national success came with the 1951 song “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” His style further developed after he signed with Atlantic Records and recorded the hit song “I Got a Woman” (1954). Over the next few years Charles continued to grow in popularity and recognition with singles such as “Drown in My Own Tears” (1955), “Leave My Woman Alone” (1956), “Lonely Avenue” (1956), and “The Right Time” (1958). His first recording that became widely popular with both white and black audiences was “What'd I Say” (1959), which prominently featured his backup singers, the Raeletts.
Charles’s popularity peaked in the early and mid-1960s. In 1960 he recorded the classic “Georgia on My Mind,” which became that state’s official song in 1979. In 1961 he had a hit with a version of Percy Mayfield’s song “Hit the Road, Jack.” Throughout this time Charles continued to perform and record various different kinds of music. An example was the single “I Can’t Stop Loving You” from the album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962). The recording sold more than 2.5 million copies and established Charles as the first black musician to become a star in country music.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Charles mostly recorded versions of traditionally popular songs (as opposed to original material). He developed his own record label and performed with other artists. A recognized celebrity, Charles appeared in television commercials and films as well as continuing to record and tour widely into the early 2000s.
The artist published his autobiography, Brother Charles, in 1978. In the book he described his nearly two-decade addiction to heroin, which he overcame after being arrested in the mid-1960s.
During his life Charles received 12 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), a Kennedy Center Honor (1986), and a National Medal of Arts (1993). Genius Loves Company, an album of duets released several months after his death, won eight Grammys in 2005. The awards included album of the year, pop album of the year, and record of the year for a duet with Norah Jones, “Here We Go Again.”