Dubbed "the Genius" by Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles (real name Ray Charles Robinson) is one of the greatest names in jazz and especially rhythm’n’blues. He is also one of the founders of "soul" music. At the time of racial segregation, he was the favourite singer of black and white audiences alike, and won 12 Grammy Awards.
At the age of five, Ray Charles witnessed the accidental drowning of this three-year-old brother George in a laundry tub. The following year, he suffered from glaucoma and lost his sight shortly after. He attended the St Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind in Florida, where he studied orchestration and learnt to play several instruments: piano, organ, trumpet, clarinet and saxophone. An accomplished player of many instruments, he was also at home with a variety of musical genres, though with a marked preference for classical music (especially Chopin) and Art Tatum's jazz. In 1945, he moved to Jacksonville (Florida), then Tampa, before setting out on a career as a pianist. He formed his own trio and did the rounds of the clubs in the region, picking up all of the musical genres, including gospel, blues, jazz and country.
In 1948, at just 17 years of age, he decided to settle in Seattle. He was already performing in the town's biggest clubs, such as the "Rocking Chair", singing with his own backing group. He made his first recording under his own name in 1949. It was a productive time for Ray Charles: he met Quincy Jones, signed a contract with the Swing Time Records label and, in 1951, produced "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand", which climbed to the upper echelons of the R&B hit parade. It was at this time that Ray Charles started to forge his own distinctive musical personality in the world of jazz. From his beginnings in 1949 through to 1963, he produced 15 albums and wrote numerous pieces. His compositions spanned all musical genres and styles - jazz, country, R&B and even gospel - in an effort to distance himself from the connotations of black music. This musical fusion gave birth to soul music, making Ray Charles one of the first musicians in this genre in the 1950s. Prominent brass sonorities in Ray Charles' music make audiences want to dance. Ray Charles' combination of sexually suggestive lyrics and gospel, sung by his African-American female backing vocals, The Raelettes, created a musical crossover that some considered controversial. Despite this hostility, Ray Charles' music made him a star in America and gradually in Europe. He decided to change his name from Ray Robinson to Ray Charles to avoid any confusion with the famous boxer, Ray Robinson.
During the 1950s, Ray Charles had a decade of success: he wrote numerous pieces, which were all very well positioned in the R&B Top 50, such as "I Got a Woman" and "The Right Time". In 1959, he produced his famous album, "The Genius of Ray Charles", and in 1963 set up his own production company, "Ray Charles Enterprises". He was also invited to play in a venue in Georgia in 1959, but refused to enter because of the segregation law in force at the time: he was accordingly banned from performing in Georgia. After the end of segregation, the government of Georgia publicly apologised to him and chose the song "Georgia", magnificently performed by Ray Charles, as the state song.
Despite his very successful career, Ray Charles struggled with a heroin addiction at this time. He refused to seek treatment for his addiction until he was forced to go into rehab following serious illnesses. Even though he resumed his career in 1966, it gradually fell into decline in the 1970s. He gave the occasional concert in the 1980s, but met with only moderate success. A number of television appearances in the 1990s and 2000s rekindled the public's interest in Ray Charles. He continued to do sold-out tours all over the world until his death in 2004. A host of artists paid tribute to Ray Charles, including Willie Nelson, Quincy Jones, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, Norah Jones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones.
Six landmark dates in the life of Ray Charles:
1935 - Ray Charles witnesses his brother's death by drowning and is deeply marked
1952 - Signs with Atlantic Records
1963 - Sets up his own company, "Ray Charles Enterprises"
1979 - The song "Georgia on My Mind" becomes Georgia's state song
1986 - One of the first to enter the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame
1986 - Receives the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres medal awarded by France
Six key Ray Charles albums:
1958 - Ray Charles at Newport
1959 - What'd I Say
1960 - The Genius Hits the Road
1961 - Genius + Soul = Jazz
1976 - Porgy and Bess
2004 - Genius Loves Company
Biography compiled from Radio France Musical Documentation (August 2014)