Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia to poor sharecroppers parents, Bailey and Aretha Robinson. The family moved to Greenville, Florida when he was still an infant. His father wasn't around much as he worked and had 2 other families, leaving his mother to raise the family with the aid of his father's wife Mary Jane, who helped raise Ray. When Ray was 5 his younger brother, George, who was around 4, drowned in an outside tub. Ray witnessed him fall and tried to pull him out, but he was too heavy for Ray. Ray began going blind soon after and was totally blind by the age of seven. He said that the causes were undiagnosed. (* Note - there are sources which attribute Ray's blindness to glaucoma.) He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida, as a charity case; he learned how to read Braille, as well as to write music and play various musical instruments. While he was there, his mother Aretha died. His father died twenty years later.
Ray was born with a love for music. One of his early childhood influences was a man named Wylie Pitman. Wylie Pitman was the owner of Red Wing Cafe. It was located across the road in Ray's home. Having no children, Mr. Pit, as Ray called him, treated him like his own son and taught him how to play the piano. Ray was allowed to come in the cafe and play the piano at his own free will. Ray also had a "reserved" spot next to the jukebox. With Mr. Pit's help, Ray developed a strong passion for music.
After he left school, Charles began working as a musician in Florida in several bands that played in various styles including jazz and country music, eventually moving to Seattle in 1947 at the age of sixteen. He soon started recording, first for the label, Swingtime Records, achieving his first hit song with "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951). When he entered show business, his name was shortened to Ray Charles to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Early influences on his work were Nat King Cole (both his vocals and piano playing) and Charles Brown. While his first recordings were only skillful imitations of his heroes, Charles' music soon became more innovative. After joining Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles' sound became more original. For example, Charles controversially adapted secular lyrics to many gospel songs and then played them with jazz backgrounds.
Charles had also another hit with the version of "It Should Have Been Me," but went into high gear with the gospel drive of "I Got a Woman" (1955). This was followed by "This Little Girl of Mine," "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hallelujah I Love Her So.," and "Lonely Avenue." Half of them were gospel songs converted with secular lyrics, and the others blues ballads.
After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he achieved mainstream success with "The Night Time (Is The Right Time)" and his 1959 signature song, "What'd I Say". The essence of this phase of his career can be heard on his live album Ray Charles In Person, recorded before a mostly African American audience in Atlanta in 1959. This album also features the first public performance of "What'd I Say." It broke out as a hit in Atlanta from the tape, months before it was recorded in the studio in a two-part version with better fidelity.
Ray had already begun to go beyond the limits of the blues-gospel synthesis while still at Atlantic, which now called him The Genius. He recorded with very large orchestras and with jazz artists like Milt Jackson and even made his first country music cover song with Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On."
He then moved on to ABC Records, where he was given a great deal of control over his music, and broadened his approach, not on experimental side projects, but with pop music, resulting in such hits as "Unchain My Heart", "You Are My Sunshine", and the #1 hits on the Billboard pop charts, "Georgia On My Mind" and "Hit the Road, Jack." In 1962, Charles surprised his new, broad audience with his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which included the numbers "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me".
In 1961, Charles cancelled a concert scheduled to take place in the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia to protest against segregated seating. An obituary on the Washington post Website maintains that this resulted in Charles being banned from the state of Georgia.
In 1965, Charles was then arrested for possession of heroin, a drug to which he had been addicted for 17 years. It was his third arrest for the offense, but he avoided prison time after kicking the habit in a clinic in Los Angeles. He spent a year on parole in 1966.
After the 1960s, Charles' releases were hit-or-miss, with some massive hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that was dismissed as unoriginal and staid. He concentrated largely on live performances, although his version of "Georgia On My Mind," a Hoagy Carmichael song originally written for a girl named Georgia, was a hit and soon was proclaimed the state song of Georgia on April 24, 1979, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of "America the Beautiful."
Film audiences enthusiastic for a soul music and R&B resurgence, fueled in part by the music performances of comic frontmen John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the April 22, 1978, episode of Saturday Night Live, snapped up albums, heavily requested Top 40 releases and swelled the box office take of summer 1980's The Blues Brothers. In one of the film's notable cameos, Ray Charles plays a blind music store owner and offers a lively "Shake Your Tailfeather."
Then in the late 1980s, a number of events increased Charles' recognition among young audiences. In 1985, "Night Time is the Right Time" was featured in the episode "Happy Anniversary" of The Cosby Show. The cast members used the song to perform a wildly popular lip-synch that helped the show secure its wide viewership. In 1986, he performed his rendition of "America the Beautiful" at WrestleMania 2. Charles' new connection with audiences helped secure a spokesmanship for Diet Pepsi. In this highly successful advertising campaign, Charles popularized the catchphrase "You've got the right one, baby!" At the height of his newfound fame in the early nineties, Charles did guest vocals for quite a few projects. He also appeared (with Chaka Khan) on long time friend Quincy Jones' hit "I'll Be Good To You" in 1990, from Jones' album Back on the Block.
Charles performed his classic "Georgia On My Mind" during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 2002 Charles headlined during the Cognac festival in southern France. At one point in the performance a young fan rose to his feet and began to sing an a cappella version of Charles' early song, Mess Around . Charles adored this show of respect and bravery and decided to show this fan his admiration by playing the song.
One of Charles' last public performances was in 2003 at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, D.C. He performed "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful." Ray Charles' final public appearance came on April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as a historic landmark in the city of Los Angeles.
He died at age 73 on June 11, 2004 (11:35 a.m.) of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California, surrounded by family and friends. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
His final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries: B.B. King, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole,