Ray Charles History and Album Guide
Ray Charles is among the most important figures in post-war American popular music. It was Ray Charles, who during his early days at Atlantic records, single-handedly invented soul music by melding gospel music with rhythm and blues. Charles would later become one of the first African American musicians to record an entire album dedicated to white country music. Charles also recorded pure jazz in his early days with Atlantic, dedicating his second full length album to the music.
Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, in 1930. He began to lose his sight when he was five-years-old and by the time he was seven, he had lost his sight completely to glaucoma. From 1937 to 1945, Charles attended the FloridaSchool for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, where he was able to develop his musical interest and piano playing. In school, he was taught classical music, but he later copied the jazz and blues music he heard on the radio in his home. He would eventually become the most skilled musician at his school and formed a band, “RC Robinson and The Boys.”
Charles’ mother died in 1946, when he was 15-years-old. He would not return to school after the death of his mother and instead dedicated himself to the pursuit of a career in music. During the late Forties, he played piano in the Florida towns of Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, but longed to have a band of his own. He wanted to be as far away from Florida as he could, so he moved out to Seattle, Washington, and pursued his musical dreams from there.
Charles landed a recording deal with Downbeat Records and scored his first hit, “Confession Blues.” Charles then secured a regular gig as the piano player in Lowell Fulson’s band and toured the Southern club circuit with Fulson. He then signed to Swing Time Records, where he changed his name to “Ray Charles” to avoid being confused with the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson. He scored two more hits for Swing Time before the label folded and he was brought to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegun.
At Atlantic Records, Charles would become a star. He started recording for Atlantic in 1953, doing his versions of jump blues and boogie woogie. Charles would have his first hit for Atlantic with the Ertegun-penned classic, “Mess Around,” in 1953. The following year, Charles recorded one of his own songs, “I’ve Got a Woman,” and see it become a No.1 hit on the R&B charts in 1955. The recording of this song would see Charles become a nationally-known star. The song proved to be one of the most influential hits ever as its blend of gospel and R&B would soon be labeled, “soul music.”
Charles recorded more songs in this style in coming years such as, “Drown in My Own Tears,” This Little Girl of Mine,” and “The Night Time is the Right Time.”
In the midst of developing his career as an R&B/soul singer, Charles stopped to record two albums of jazz with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In doing so, Charles established himself as a legitimate star in two genres, R&B and jazz.
Charles would soon become a pop star with the recording of a single, “What’d I Say,” that not only top the R&B charts, but also broke the pop charts in 1959. The record succeeded on the pop charts despite its overly-suggestive lyrics. In 1962, Charles recorded the first volume of an album that displayed his appreciation of all things musical, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” (1962).This landmark album was the first attempt by anyone to make country music palatable to mainstream pop audiences. Volume two of the album would follow later the same year.
Ray Charles would continue to record throughout the Seventies, Eighties and into the Nineties.
Charles died in 2004, in Beverly Hills, California, after a phenomenal career in which he revolutionalized music, became the first major musical artist to own his own original recording masters, conquered heroin addiction and became a philanthropist who donated millions of dollars to charity.
Charles’ classic recordings can be found on the following albums and compilations: “Ray Charles” (1957), “The Great Ray Charles” (1957), “Ray Charles at Newport” (1958), “The Genius of Ray Charles” (1959), “Ray Charles in Person” (1960), “Do the Twist with Ray Charles” (1961), “The Genius Sings the Blues” (1961).
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