Ray Charles to be a poor, blind, newly orphaned teenager life in Tampa, Florida, in 1948 as soon as he determined to relocate to Seattle, choose the city since it was as far away as he might get from whereby he was. He stayed just two years, but during the time he cut his an initial record and began to construct the genre-bending musical format that would make that an international star. Charles regularly spoke of Seattle as a pivotal suggest in his long and hugely successful career together a singer/songwriter. "I met a the majority of very good friends here," that told one interviewer. "I chosen the atmosphere. The world were friendly, the human being took come me ideal away. Seattle is the town where I do my first record. And also if you ever want to say whereby I gained my start, you need to say that" (MacDonald).

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The Bottom the the Ladder ray Charles Robinson was born September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, the an initial child the Aretha and Bailey Robinson. His father functioned off and also on because that the railroads; his mother took in laundry. The family started out poor and also stayed that way throughout the tough years that the Depression. "Even compared to various other blacks," Charles recalled, "we were on the bottom the the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing listed below us except the ground" (Charles, 4).

The family moved across the border come Greenville, Florida, once Charles to be a couple of months old. A second child shortly followed, a son called George. Bailey Robinson came to be little more than an occasional visitor ~ that. "The old man wasn’t component of my life," Charles composed in his 1978 autobiography. "... Come tell the truth, ns wouldn’t gambling a the majority of money he and my mother ever before were married. He to be a high dude -- i remember that. But he was hardly ever before around" (Charles, 4).

Despite the poverty, Charles recalled his at an early stage childhood as a happy time. The felt loved by two women: his mother, who he called "Mama," and his father’s first wife, a mrs he called "Mother." He love the singing he heard on Sundays in ~ the Shiloh Baptist Church. Above all, he love picking out boogie-woogie tunes on the upright piano own by a neighbor called Wylie Pitman. "I was born through music within me," the said. "And indigenous the minute I learned there to be piano secrets to it is in mashed, I started mashing ‘em, do the efforts to do sounds the end of feelings" (Charles, 8).

When the was about five, Charles experienced the drowning fatality of his younger brother. The 2 boys had remained in the backyard playing near a big metal tub their mother used for washing garments when four-year-old George slipped over the edge and also into the soapy water. Charles tried to pull him out, however his brother -- easily weighted under by his wet clothing -- was too heavy. Charles ran indoors, screaming for his mother, yet it was too late. It was the an initial major tragedy in a life that would certainly have countless other sorrows.

Blindness Not long after the drowning, Charles started to shed his vision, apparently as the result of untreated glaucoma. That was fully blind by the moment he was seven. He attributed his mom with preparing him to live without sight. She make him continue to attract water from the well, bring in the firewood, and do various other chores, even though he regularly tripped and fell. You might be blind, she called him, but you’re no stupid; you need to do things for yourself, nobody else will do them for you. "She permit me roam, let me make my very own mistakes, permit me discover the world for myself," he wrote (Charles, 6). Indigenous this he arisen a fierce independence and the capability to maneuver therefore adroitly that some people, later in his life, doubted that he was yes, really blind.

His mother controlled to acquire him welcomed as a charity student at the Florida State school for the Deaf and also the blind (known at the time as the Institute because that the Blind, Deaf and also Dumb), in St. Augustine, around 130 mile southeast that Greenville. He continued to be there because that eight years, through time turn off for summers in ~ home. The learned exactly how to read Braille, to type, to weave baskets, and to fix radios and cars. He additionally studied music formally because that the very first time, mastering the piano and other instruments, consisting of clarinet and also saxophone. The learned to read and also compose music in Braille. He played everything, indigenous Chopin come jazz pianist arts Tatum. Top top the radio he listened to swing, country-western, and gospel.

Charles later summed up the result of remote on his career with 3 words -- "Nothing, nothing, nothing" -- and pointed out that the had begun playing music by the period of three, once he could still see, and also he ongoing after age seven, once he shed his sight: "I to be going to do what i was walk to carry out anyway. So remote didn’t have actually anything to perform with it. That didn"t give me anything. And also it didn"t take nothing" (Pareles and Weinraub).

On His Own Charles’ mother died shortly prior to his 15th birthday. It was, he wrote later, the most disastrous experience that his life. He felt favor "truly a shed child." that left school and also moved to surrounding Jacksonville, whereby he remained for a when with one of his mummy friends. He began trying to make a living together a musician, working as a sideman in small combos. "Work was really sparse," he wrote. "I might work a pair of nights and then no more for two weeks or 3 weeks -- anytime something come along. Hit and miss, really, that"s what that was" (Charles, 26).

Eventually, he relocated on to Tampa. However he found it difficult to make it through as a musician in Florida. He likewise resented functioning for various other people. He want to kind his very own group, and make a fresh begin in a brand-new place. As well intimidated come try brand-new York or Chicago, that asked a friend -- guitarist Garcia "Gosady" McGee -- what city in the continental United states was the furthest from Florida. McGee "took a map and went diagonal throughout it, and there to be Seattle sittin’ up in the Northwest, and I stated let me walk there and see what I can do" (MacDonald).

R. C. Robinson arrived in Seattle in march 1948, after ~ a five-day bus pilgrimage from Tampa. He uncovered a town that was, as he placed it "really open and also smokin"." A vibrant jazz scene had actually sprung increase in Pioneer Square and in the main Area, nurtured through a wartime flow of african Americans drawn by jobs in Puget Sound shipyards. Over there were much more than 30 nightclubs in the area roughly Jackson Street, open all hours of the day and night. The compete for work in the clubs was fierce, Charles called jazz chronicler Paul de Barros. "Many cats had actually just left the armed-forces bands -- and also don’t think those outfits couldn’t play," he said. "There were numerous musicians roaming the roadways who’d blow her ass turn off the was standing if you gave ‘em half the chance" (de Barros, 151).

Sojourn in Seattle  despite his youth, Charles quickly developed himself in the Seattle music community. In ~ days, he had actually earned a gig at the black Elks society at 662 Jackson Street, play piano and singing in a trio v his girlfriend McGee, on guitar, and local bassist Milt Jarrett (sometimes order Garred). They called themselves the McSon Trio (after the "Mc" in McGee and the "son" in Robinson). The trio "was the an initial thing I had actually that I might honestly say was mine," Charles stated later.

However, the McSon Trio belonged more to Nat "King" Cole than to ray Charles. "When Ray come here, you can close her eyes and also you’d oath Nat King Cole was singing," claimed jazz vocalist Ernestine Anderson, a teenager as soon as she met Charles during his Seattle sojourn (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Charles had actually yet to put his very own stamp top top his music. He deliberately mimicked Nat Cole, Charles Brown, and also other well-known artists. He later said the tradition of farming up poor made the hesitate to construct his very own sound. "I could get a the majority of work sounding prefer Nat Cole," the told interviewer terrycloth Gross. "I could work in night clubs. I could make a living through his sound" (Gross interview).

Charles moved into a little apartment ~ above 20th Avenue and also equipped it v the essentials, including an electrical piano and a mix radio/record player. The shopped top top his own, cooking his very own meals, did his very own laundry. His independence substantially impressed the young Quincy Jones, an additional teenage musical prodigy, who showed up in ~ the Elks club one night to inspect out rumors he had actually heard around "a blind dude" who was "tearing the location up through his singing and also playing." that was, Jones wrote in his autobiography, "love at first instinct for both the us" -- the start of a lifelong friendship and collaboration (Jones, 86).

Jones, climate 15, was amazed the the 17-year-old Charles had actually his own apartment, a well-stocked bar, three suits, and a bevy that girlfriends. He likewise marveled in ~ the way Charles ignored his blindness. "I’d watch him overcome the street without cane or dog, dodging website traffic ... Never missing a step," the wrote. "It was prefer somebody forgot come tell ray he to be blind. In fact, Ray never ever acted blind uneven there to be a pretty girl around, then he’d obtain all helpless and sightless, bumping right into walls and doors" (Jones, 86). Jones walk on to become one the the country’s many successful composers and also producers. His human body of work has collaborations through Charles top top three necessary albums: The Genius (1959), Genius + soul = Jazz (1961), and also Back ~ above the Block (1989).

In the racially separated Seattle the the 1940s, the McSon Trio play gigs because that white audiences at together venues as the Seattle Tennis Club, university of Washington fraternities, and also uptown ballrooms. They play for black audiences at after-hours clubs such together the Washington society Club, the black color & Tan, the 908 Club, and the blues-oriented Rocking Chair, ~ above 14th simply off Yesler. Their popularity acquired them a regular 15-minute clues on KRSC radio. So late in 1948, the group performed on KRSC-TV (predecessor to KING-TV), in among the more quickly live broadcasts in Seattle. At 18, Charles was obtaining his first taste that celebrity.

Rockin’ Chair Blues It was at the Rocking Chair the Charles met Jack Lauderdale, a document producer indigenous Los Angeles. Together Charles told the story, "Jack was there one night and heard us playing. The said, ‘I"d like to sign you men up come a contract. What would certainly you think around that?’ Oh, man, i was therefore excited! ‘Wow! We"re gonna acquire a record contract!’ There was nothing around any advancement or money increase front. All the guy said to me was he to be gonna record me, and also we"d have a hit" (Charles, 18).

The trio tape-recorded "Confession Blues" (written by Charles) and "I Love You, i Love You" (written through his friend, Joe Lee Lawrence) in a small, primitive Seattle studio. It was released together a 78 in early on 1949 -- attributed to the Maxin Trio. It sold respectably sufficient that Lauderdale took the group to Los Angeles to do several various other recordings because that the Swingtime label, consisting of "Rockin’ Chair Blues," which payment tribute to Charles’ Seattle days. "If you"re feelin" low down, don"t have actually a soul to care, simply grab her hat and start for the Rockin" Chair," he sang. The document was a struggle on "race records" (later referred to as Rhythm and Blues) charts in late 1949.

Charles went back to Los Angeles in 1950 to record "Baby let Me host Your Hand," working v musicians who had played through Nat Cole. By this time, he was billed as "Ray Charles, the blind singing sensation." He had dropped his critical name, partly in deference come the boxer, Sugar ray Robinson, and also partly in an effort to define himself together his very own person -- not a Nat Cole clone. "I wake up up one morning and started thinking: nobody knows my name," he said. "Everybody’s calling me ‘Hey kid -- girlfriend sound just like Nat Cole.’ the was constantly ‘Hey kid.’ I began telling myself, ‘Your mama always told friend to be yourself and also you acquired to be yourself if you desire to do it in this business"" (Gross interview).

One other heritage of Charles’ Seattle years was an seeks to heroin. He discussed his addiction openly in his autobiography. The began, he said, v a desire to both emulate older musicians and prove his independence. Back he never ever served prolonged jail sentence, he to be arrested for possession of narcotics in 1955, 1961, and also 1965. ~ his 3rd arrest, he confirm himself right into a California sanatorium to absent his 17-year habit and stopped performing because that a year, the just break throughout his lengthy career.

On the Road Charles left Seattle in 1950 and began touring v blues guitarist Lowell Fulson. “We wake up up one day and also R.C. To be here,” said Ernestine Anderson, who sometimes sang with Charles in Seattle clubs. "We didn’t understand where he came from or exactly how he acquired here. That’s the method he left. We woke increase one day and no Ray" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

He continued to refine his style throughout the next couple of years, mediate blues and also gospel, bebop and also swing. The toured up and down the West Coast and throughout the South. His schedule retained him ~ above the road for lot of the year -- a regimen that he continued for much more than fifty percent a century. He still managed to uncover studio time, although it was frequently in radio stations follow me the way.

After signing through Atlantic records in 1952, he convinced the brand to let him record with his touring band. His an initial national hit, “I’ve gained a Woman,” was tape-recorded in 1954 in a radio terminal studio in Atlanta through his seven-piece band. That signaled the appearance of what ended up being the standard Ray Charles – bluesy, tender, raw, intense, a mix of the secular (jazz) and also the spiritual (gospel). The document was adhered to by a cable of various other gospel-tinged hits, consisting of “Drown in my Tears” and “Hallelujah i Love she So.”

In the mid-1950s, Charles expanded his tape to incorporate a team of female back-up signers (the Raelettes), who listed gospel-like responses come his deep, raspy baritone. They ended up being a permanent component of his music -- and they likewise hinted at his sometimes volatile relationships with women.

On the road in the 1950s and 1960s, Charles frequently encountered the same kind that segregation that he had actually grown up v in the South. As an afri American, he continued to be in rooming dwellings instead of the Hilton or the Sheraton; he had actually to make certain that the band stopped at a gas station that had rest rooms for "Colored;" in ~ restaurants, the sometimes had to go around to the earlier door for a sandwich rather of a hot meal in the dining room. He would certainly say years later that racism affected him just as the did any type of other black human at the time. "What ns never taken to this day, come this really day, was exactly how white human being could have actually black civilization cook because that them, make their meals, but wouldn"t permit them sit at the table with them," that said. "How can you dislike someone so much and also have them chef for you? Shoot, if i don"t like someone friend ain"t food preparation nothing for me, ever" (Pareles and also Weinraub).

The Genius the Soul Charles ended up being a certified star v the 1959 release of “What’d i Say.” The record damaged the usual two and also a half-minute mold because that a radio song, with its extended “call and response” chorus and improvisational style. That was complied with the following year by a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on mine Mind,” a sweet ballad through strings and also a vocal chorus. The tune demonstrated Charles’ versatility and his love because that the South. In 1979, it became the main anthem that the state that Georgia.

He branched out right into other musical category in the 1960s and 1970s, consisting of country-and-western (“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I Can’t protect against Loving You,” both exit in 1962); middle-of-the-road pop (“You space My Sunshine,” 1962); and British pop (releasing a version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” in 1968). At the same time, he ongoing to salary homage to his roots in jazz. He refuse categorization. The confounded some of his pan by accepting an invite to perform “America the Beautiful” because that President Richard Nixon in 1972, however the song came to be one that his standards (he sang the again in ~ the Republican national Convention in 1984). Drawing from jazz, gospel, blues, and country, he produced a river that just he could navigate.

Music critic Patrick mcdonald s credits Charles with an initial using words "Soul" to describe his format of music. Come Frank Sinatra, Charles to be "The Genius." Quincy Jones placed the 2 together and also called Charles "The Genius that Soul." He could be difficult. He to be sometimes tough on his band members and also background singers. His personal life was, as The brand-new York Times delicately placed it, "complicated" (Pareles and Weinraub). He was divorced twice and also fathered 12 children. Still, he remained a consummate performer almost to the very end the his life. The made much more than 60 albums, winner 12 Grammys (including one for “A track for You” in 1993), and also earned a cable of honors, including induction right into the absent ‘n’ role Hall of call in 1986 and also the Presidential Medal because that the art in 1993. Follow me the way, he affected generations the singers, indigenous Sinatra to Elvis come Billy Joel.

Charles passed away at his residence in Beverly Hills, California, top top June 10, 2004, the liver disease. He to be 73. He had recently recovered native hip replacement surgery and also had planned come resume touring in June once he came to be ill. Earlier, he had completed occupational on his critical album, a repertoire of duets v Norah Jones, B. B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and others. The album was released on respectable 31, 2004, under the title Genius Loves Company. It swept the Grammys in 2005, win eight awards, including Album of the Year. He experienced his life generally as an example of what anyone can accomplish. "I would certainly like people to know that you deserve to recover native a lot of adversity the you could have in your life if friend keep pressing on," the told one interviewer. "In other words, friend don’t provide up just because you get knocked under a couple of times" (Kahn interview). 

His fatality unleashed a torrent that tributes, including this one native Ernestine Anderson: "The gods were smiling top top us as soon as he concerned Seattle" (MacDonald).


Ray Charles, worldwide Jazz Festival of Montréal, July 15, 2003

Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich (CC by 3.0)


Ray Charles, 1969

Photo by Maurice Seymour


Ray Charles concert poster, Seattle, 1966, advertisement reprint ca. 2008

Courtesy Peter Blecha Collection


Patrick MacDonald, “The Genius of heart Dies in ~ 73,” The Seattle Times, June 11, 2004; Mike Lewis and Regina Hackett, “Genre-crossing Performer obtained Start in Seattle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 11, 2004; beam Charles, Brother Ray: beam Charles’ own Story (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell publishing Co., 1978); Jon Pareles and also Bernard Weinraub, “Ray Charles, Bluesy significance of Soul, Is Dead at 73,” The new York Times, June 11, 2004; "Ray Charles Rides the Grammys," Ibid.

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, February 24, 2005, p. E-2; terry Gross interview with Ray Charles, October 19, 1998, rebroadcast top top “Fresh Air,” nationwide Public Radio, June 11, 2004, national Public Radio Website (http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1954799); Quincy Jones, Q: The Autobiography the Quincy Jones (New York: random House, 2001); James Clyde Sellman, “Ray Charles,” Encarta Africana CD-ROM (2000); cutting board Thompson, Ashley Kahn interview through Ray Charles, undated, aired ~ above “Morning Edition,” national Public Radio Website accessed June 11, 2004, (http://www.npr.org/features/ feature.php?wfId=1954321). Note: This essay was corrected on march 6, 2009, clarifying the surname of the TV station where beam Charles performed in 1948 and the name under i beg your pardon he released his very first record, and was updated and the album title Genius + soul = Jazz corrected on February 18, 2016.