Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Charles, Ray (Ray Charles Robinson)

While pianist and singer Ray Charles's unique ability to meld gospel and blues brought him commercial success and acclaim, he also possessed a dazzling gift and feeling for jazz. A disciple of Nat King Cole, his piano playing was full of expression, swing, and creativity, and his talents rivaled those of the most celebrated jazz pianists.

                      Ray Charles
               Artwork by Jerry Blank

Charles made a memorable appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and recorded jazz standards throughout his career, as well as several jazz-oriented albums, including his aptly-titled 1960 album with the Count Basie Orchestra, Genius+Soul= Jazz.

Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23rd, 1930 in Albany, Georgia to Bailey and Aretha Robinson. Ray wasn’t born blind but the there are several theories as to how it happened. The main and most convincing evidence suggests that his untreated glaucoma, a disease he acquired when he was under the age of five eventually led to total blindness by the age of seven.

Charles experienced a rough childhood. He was born into a poverty-stricken family. At the age of five he was present during his younger brother’s drowning in their back yard. Ray talks about experiencing his brother’s death when he said, “I guess the first major tragedy in my life was seeing my younger brother drown when I was about five years old. He was about a year younger, and a very smart kid. I remember that well; he was very bright.”

Young Ray showed promises of musical talent as a young child. When he was three years old he sang with the Shiloh Baptist Church choir and he enrolled at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind when he was seven. While at the St. Augustine School, Charles learned how to read music through the Braille system. He also played clarinet and studied classical music on the piano.

It’s interesting to note that Charles didn’t get into the piano class when he first arrived at the school as he said, “When I got to school I couldn't get into the piano class because it was full. That's when I took up the clarinet. I was a great fan of Artie Shaw, so I started playing a reed instrument. Later I was able to get into the piano class.”

“The only problem I had with my teachers," Charles reminisced, "was that when I was supposedly practicing my lesson, a lot of times I'd be playing jazz. Of course, the teacher would catch me, and that didn't go over too well. She'd say, "What the hell are you doing boy; what's the matter with you; you lost your mind? Get to your lessons." Classical music to me was a means to an end. In other words, I wanted to learn how to arrange and I wanted to know how to write music, and in order to do that I had to study classical music. But I wanted to play jazz, and I wanted to play blues -- that was my heart.”

When Ray was fifteen his mother passed away and he set out for Jacksonville, Florida as orphan. He played around the city for about a year, staying with some family friends of his mother. During this time Charles’ chief influence was jazz pianist turned entertainer Nat King Cole. Ray spoke highly of Cole and fashioned his whole persona of Cole’s initially.

“I was totally in love with Nat King Cole's music," Charles said in his autobiography. "I ate, slept, and drank everything Nat King Cole. I wanted to be like him because he played the piano and sang and put all those tasty little things behind his singing. That's what I wanted to do, so he became my idol. I practiced day and night to sound like Nat Cole.”

After his stint living in Florida, Charles packed up his bags and moved to Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle, Charles met a young trumpeter by the name of Quincy Jones, who studied with Charles and took theory lessons with him. Charles reflects on his time spent with Jones, “Quincy and I became very good friends because I could write music and he wanted to learn how to write. He would come over to my house in the morning, wake me up, and sit at the piano while I would show him how to do little things.”

While in Seattle, Charles recorded for the Swingtime label and had two top ten hits on the R&B charts with “Confession Blues” and “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand.” Charles next signed with Ahmet Ertegün’s Atlantic Records. Ray shortened his name to Ray Charles during this time to avoid confusion with boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson. Charles recorded the song “I Got a Woman” in Atlanta in 1954 and this song was his first major introduction to the American public. He followed up this with many high charting singles and eventually made the Atlantic label more money than they could count.

Charles made an appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, sharing a bill that included Chuck Berry. This bill represented promoter George Wein’s attempt to expand the commercial appeal of the festival. Featured during Charles’ set was his cover of Milt Jackson’s “The Spirit Feel." Also in 1959, Charles recorded the Johnny Mercer song “Come Rain or Come Shine," with an orchestra that featured jazz trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.

In 1960, Charles scored one of the biggest hits of his career with “Georgia On My Mind,” which was featured on his album The Genius Hits the Road. He also had a number one hit with “Hit the Road Jack” in 1961, a song some say was written in tribute to beatnik writer Jack Kerouac.

Charles recorded a jazz album in 1960, Genius+Soul= Jazz, which featured arrangements by his friend Quincy Jones and music by the Count Basie Orchestra. Charles continued his experimentation with different forms of music with several releases of Country & Western music during this time as well.

In the mid-1960s, Charles struggled with heroine addiction. He had become addicted to the drug in his late teens and in 1965 he was arrested at Boston’s Logan Airport for possession of narcotics. He eventually got clean and when his trial started in 1966 his fine was suspended and he was put on probation for four years.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, Charles released some albums that were well received and others that weren’t. He worked his celebrity status and eventually became an American cultural icon during this time period. In the 1990s, Charles rejoined his old friend Quincy Jones for his 1990 album Back on the Block and was seen on televisions across the world singing his catch phrase, “You Got the Right One, Baby,” in Diet Pepsi commercials. A movie, Ray, was made about Charles’ life starring Jamie Foxx as Charles. Ray met with and gave his blessings to Foxx's performance, as well as a few piano lessons, but sadly Charles passed away before the movie was released.

Ray Charles Robinson died on June 10th, 2004 from liver cancer. His musical legacy is one of the strongest of the 20th century and his impact on all forms of music is stronger than most musicians. While started his career in jazz but later found success with R&B, his impact and associations with jazz are unavoidable and undeniable.

Select Discography

The Great Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1957)

Ray Charles at Newport (Atlantic, 1959)

The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1959)

What’d I Say (Atlantic, 1959)

The Genius Hits the Road (ABC, 1960)

The Genius Sings the Blues (Atlantic, 1961)

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (ABC, 1962)

Live in Concert (ABC, 1965)

A Man and His Soul (ABC, 1967)

Contributor: Jared Pauley