Celebrating Ray “The Genius” Charles Birthday


Ray Charles was born on this day in 1930

Celebrating Ray “The Genius” Charles Birthday

Among friends and fellow musicians he preferred being called “Brother Ray.” He was often referred to as “The Genius.” The influential Ray Charles would have been 93 today. We look back at his career.

Ray Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23rd, 1930 in Albany, Georgia, U.S.A In his early years, Charles showed an interest in mechanical objects and would often watch his neighbors working on their cars and farm machinery. His musical curiosity was sparked at Wylie Pitman’s Red Wing Cafe, at the age of 3, when Pitman played boogie-woogie on an old upright piano, he subsequently taught Charles how to play the piano. Charles started to lose his sight at the age of four or five, and was completely blind by the age of seven, apparently as a result of glaucoma.Charles further developed his musical talent at the school where he was taught to play the classical piano music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. His teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, taught him how to use braille music which was a difficult process. While Charles was happy to play classical music, he was more interested in the jazz, blues and country music he heard on the radio.After leaving school, Charles moved to Jacksonville with a couple who had been friends with his late mother. He played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla for over a year. After a few years making a living on the road and recording Charles was signed to Swing Time Records, he recorded two R&B hits under the name Ray Charles: “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand”  in 1951, which reached number 5, and “Kissa Me Baby” in 1952, which reached number 8. Swing Time folded the following year, and Ahmet Ertegün signed him to Atlantic Records. In June 1952, Atlantic Records bought Charles’s contract for $2,500. He began recording jump blues and boogie-woogie as well as slower blues ballads, in which he continued to show the vocal influences of Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown.Late in 1954, Charles recorded his own composition “I Got a Woman”. It became one of his most notable hits, reaching No. 2 on the R&B chart. “I Got a Woman” included a mixture of gospel, jazz and blues elements that would later prove to be seminal in the development of rock and roll and soul music. Charles reached the pinnacle of his success at Atlantic with the release of “What’d I Say”, a complex song that combined gospel, jazz, blues and Latin music, which Charles would later claim he had composed spontaneously as he was performing in clubs and dances with his small band. Despite some radio stations banning the song because of its sexually suggestive lyrics, the song became Charles’s first crossover top-ten pop record. With “Georgia on My Mind”, his first hit single for ABC-Paramount in 1960, Charles received national acclaim and 4 Grammy Awards, including two for “Georgia on My Mind” (Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track, Male, and Best Performance by a Pop Single Artist). In 1965, Charles’s career was halted after he was arrested for the third time for possession of heroin. He agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time and eventually kicked his habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. After spending a year on parole, Charles reappeared in the charts in 1966 with a series of hits composed with the fledgling team of Ashford & Simpson, including the dance number “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, which became his first number-one R&B hit in several years. Charles’s renewed chart success, however, proved to be short-lived, and by the 1970s his music was rarely played on radio stations. The rise of psychedelic rock and harder forms of rock and R&B music had reduced Charles’ radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of contemporary rock and soul hits since his earnings from owning his masters had taken away the motivation to write new material. However, his star wouldn’t fade, and even during that period, he influenced numerous artists and musicians, as new generations were discovering him and (unlike other musicians of his generation) never surrender to anything else than the music he loved to play despite the trends. Charles’s 1993 album “My World” became his first album in some time to reach the Billboard 200, whilst his cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” gave him a hit on the adult contemporary chart and his twelfth and final Grammy. The 1990’s and 2000’s gave back the worldwide praise he had somehow lost during the 70’s, and he was in demand more than ever.  In 2003, Charles had successful hip replacement surgery and was planning to go back on tour, until he began suffering from other ailments. He died at his home in Beverly Hills, California of complications resulting from acute liver disease, on June 10, 2004, aged 73. His funeral took place on June 18, 2004, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles with numerous musical figures in attendance. B. B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder, and Wynton Marsalis each played a tribute at the funeral. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery.His final album, “Genius Loves Company”, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B. B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Johnny Mathis. The album won 8 Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (for “Here We Go Again”, with Norah Jones), and Best Gospel Performance (for “Heaven Help Us All”, with Gladys Knight); he also received nods for his duets with Elton John and B. B. King.


His style and success in the genres of rhythm and blues and jazz had an influence on a number of highly successful artists, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Billy Joel, and Steve Winwood. Ray Charles was also an inspiration to Pink Floyd member Roger Waters, who once stated: “I was about 15. In the middle of the night with friends, we were listening to jazz. It was “Georgia on My Mind”, Ray Charles’s version. Then I thought ‘One day if I make some people feel only one-twentieth of what I am feeling now, it will be quite enough for me.'”Ray, a biopic portraying his life and career between the mid-1930s and 1979, was released in October 2004, starring Jamie Foxx as Charles. Foxx won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role.

Watch Ray Charles performing “What’d I Say” live in 1963

Listen to a selection of Ray Charles songs compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify

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