There is not much about Ray Charles Robinson's beginning that could have predicted the profound influence he would have on the American music landscape. He was born into abject poverty to a single mother in 1930, an era marked by the Great Depression and brutal racism. He witnessed the drowning of his only brother, George. He lost his sight at the age of six. He was orphaned at 15.
But the lessons of these hardships and challenges were instrumental in honing one of the greatest music pioneers of our times. Over the course of six decades, the little blind boy from Florida rightfully earned the title of "The Genius of Soul." An accomplished pianist and songwriter, Charles was considered the creator of soul music, a unique R&B forerunner to rock n' roll. He was featured on more than 250 albums, many of them top sellers in a variety of music genres, and won 13 Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement and the prestigious President's Merit Award from the Grammy organization in 2004.
Charles was also one of the first inductees into numerous music halls of fame, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as those for Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. He was a recipient of the Presidential Medal for the Arts, France's Legion of Honor and the Kennedy Center Honors. He also received the NAACP Image Hall of Fame Award.
Seattle or Bust
Three years after his mother's death, seeking greater opportunity and a city far from Florida, 18-year-old Ray Charles Robinson made his way to Seattle, Washington, a city that became the crossroads of his life. It was in Seattle, a party town that kept musicians working, that he found steady work by mimicking the vocal styles of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown. Seattle is also where he met and mentored a young Quincy Jones, who became a lifelong friend.
Charles' recording career began in earnest in 1949, and he soon started a musical experiment where he mixed genres. The experiments manifested themselves in 1955 with the successful release of "I Got a Woman," which is popularly credited as the first true "soul" record. In creating the song, Charles reworded the gospel tune, "Jesus Is All the World to Me," adding deep church inflections to the secular rhythms of the nightclubs.
Though he received criticism for blending the sacred and the secular, Charles reasoned that his music was a natural extension of himself. "You can't run away from yourself," he said. "I was raised in the church and was around blues and would hear all these musicians on the jukeboxes, and then I would go to revival meetings on Sunday morning. So I would get both sides of music. A lot of people at the time thought it was sacrilegious, but all I was doing was singing the way I felt."
One of the singer's most moving and enduring musical recordings is his oft-played rendition of "America, the Beautiful." In a remarkable career that knew no boundaries, Charles also ventured onto the big screen in "The Blues Brothers" and starred in commercials for Pepsi and California Raisins, among numerous others.
That's a Wrap...
For Ray Charles, a man whose focus on music was legendary, having to acquiesce-even a little-to failing health was tough. The Genius had not missed a tour in 53 consecutive years.
Although Charles was down, he was by no means out. In the last years of his life, remarkable milestones kept coming, such as producing a long-planned gospel CD and finalizing an album of duets, Genius Loves Company, featuring Norah Jones, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and James Taylor.
In 2002, Charles surprised the industry with yet another #1 chart topper as he celebrated the 40th anniversary of his first country hit, "I Can't Stop Loving You." That same year, he also starred in the first musical performance in 2,000 years at the Colosseum in Rome.
A Grand Finale
In 2001, Morehouse College honored Charles with the Candle Award for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Entertainment, and later that same year granted him an honorary doctor of humane letters. It is also the year that Charles and his longtime business manager, Joe Adams, gave a gift of $1 million to Morehouse, where Charles had approved plans for the building of The Ray Charles Performing Arts Center.
From blindness to greatness, from musical mimic to musical genius, Ray Charles' life was one of extremes and extraordinary talent that came to an end after 73 years on June 10, 2004. A galaxy of stars remembered the man who charted a new course of discovery in American music at the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles. As they grieved the loss of a friend, mentor and master musician, they assured us that the influence he exerted lives on in music of his generation and of generations to come.
Morehouse College is proud to play such a critical role in this extraordinary legacy. Long live the Genius.