Guide

Ray Charles 1930–2004

In the 1950s, Atlantic Records dubbed Ray Charles “The Genius.” The tag stuck, but it irked him.

Born to shotgun-shack poverty in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930, and brought up by a single mother, Ray Charles Robinson saw his younger brother drown in a laundry tub, went blind at age 7 and was 15 when his beloved mother died, leaving him alone in the world with only his piano talent.

With unbending independence, Charles moved to Seattle, where he made his first record in 1948. It wasn’t until 1954 that he reckoned “I became myself” with “I Got a Woman.” Slamming together gospel fervor and R&B; sensuality, he created soul music.

Despite gritty hits like “Georgia on My Mind” and the incendiary “What’d I Say,” Charles was a chitlin-circuit star until 1962’s soul-hillbilly meltdown Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music climbed to number 1.

Tough enough to cold-turkey a 17-year heroin addiction in 1965 and to refuse to play segregated South Africa, Charles did 200 gigs annually until slowed by a hip replacement last year. For 40 years he inspired artists from Elvis Presley to Norah Jones. Throughout, he stuck to his credo: “I was only interested in two things: being true to myself and being true to the music.”
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