Ray Charles was born into poverty, lost his sight by the age of 7 from glaucoma, suffered so many hardships, and still went on to become one of the most legendary musical geniuses of our time. He revolutionized American music by simultaneously combining the best of jazz, blues, gospel, and country flavors into his songs. Frank Sinatra called Charles “the only true genius in show business.” Billy Joel said that “Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.”
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930 to Aretha Williams Robinson and Bailey Robinson. They lived in the severely impoverished Albany, Georgia. As an infant, his family moved to Greenville, Florida. Soon after the move, his father deserted the family. Aretha was a sharecropper and worked hard while trying to raise her 2 small boys. Tragedy struck the family when Ray’s little brother, George, drowned in a washtub accident. Ray was 4 years old at that time. In a 2010 biography titled You Don’t Know Me, Ray’s son, Ray Charles Robinson Jr, says that his father never recovered from the trauma of his brother dying, and he carried a sense of responsibility for his death.
As a child, Ray would sometimes drift over to a place near his home called the Red Wing Café, where he watched Wiley Pit play an old upright piano. By the age of 5, Ray started to lose his sight. He had developed glaucoma and was blind by the age of 7. His mother was intent on his independence, and pushed him even harder due to his disability. He attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945, where he studied music.
At age 10, his father died. At age 15, his mother passed away. Ray was an orphan. He was taken in by friends of his mother, and continued his musical education. By age 16, he had joined a band, the Florida Playboys, and began playing in clubs. By 1947, Ray had decided music was his calling and he opted to take his chances in a big city, so he moved to Seattle, Washington (as far away from Florida as he could get) and became friends with a young Quincy Jones while under the tutelage of Robert Blackwell. Ray started recording and began scoring hit songs. His first hit was Confession Blues in 1949.
Ray had a very complicated private life. He was known to be a womanizer. Ray was married 2 times and had 12 children with 9 different women. When he sang I Got a Woman, he wasn’t kidding. His first marriage was to Eileen Williams, and it was very brief (1951-1952). His second marriage was to Della Beatrice Howard Robinson (1955-1977), and they had 3 children. His other 9 children were with paramours Louise Mitchell, Marge Hendricks, Sandra Jean Betts, Chantelle Bertrand, Arlette Kotchounian, Gloria Moffett, and Mary Anne den Bok; the mother of 1 child remains unknown. His girlfriend and partner at the time of his death was Norma Pinella.
In 1961, Ray was enjoying much success as a crossover artist. However, a drug addiction was adding to Ray’s difficulties, and his first drug arrest occurred that year. He had a longstanding addiction to heroin that lasted for nearly 2 decades, beginning shortly after his mother’s death. In 1965, he was arrested again after being busted for the third time. He went into a rehabilitation facility to avoid jail time and was remarkably successful in giving up heroin; he never succumbed to the addiction again.
Ray Charles went on to perform with many other artists, including Willie Nelson, Quincy Jones, Hank Williams Jr, George Jones, and many more. He appeared at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He had so many great hit songs, including What’d I Say, Hit the Road Jack, and Georgia on My Mind, where his version became the state song of Georgia.
Ray was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was given a Grammy award in 1987 for lifetime achievement.
Ray died on June 10, 2004 due to liver failure/hepatitis C in Beverly Hills, California. He was 73 years old. During his life, he overcame many tragedies, poverty, and drug addiction, and he became a legendary international superstar acquiring wealth and respect.
- Georgia on My Mind. Song Facts Web site. http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=2086.
- Loving Ray Charles: the women in his life. Entertainment Magazine Web site. http://emol.org/film/archives/ray/raycharleswomen.html.
- Marriages of Ray Charles. About.com. http://www.marriage.about.com/od/entertainmen1/p/charlesray.htm.
- Ray Charles. Biography Web site. http://www.biography.com/people/ray-charles-9245001.
- Ray Charles. IMDB.com. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0153124/bio.
- Ray Charles. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Charles.
- Son reveals Ray Charles never recovered from brother’s death. Aces Showbiz Web site. June 17, 2010. http://www.aceshowbiz.com/news/view/w0003860.html.