Ray Charles was a poor, blind, recently orphaned teenager living in Tampa, Florida, in 1948 as soon as he made decision to move to Seattle, choose the city because it to be as much away as he can get from whereby he was. The stayed just two years, however during the time he reduced his an initial record and also began to construct the genre-bending musical format that would certainly make him an international star. Charles often spoke of Seattle together a pivotal allude in his long and hugely successful career as a singer/songwriter. "I met a most very an excellent friends here," the told one interviewer. "I favored the atmosphere. The civilization were friendly, the people took come me ideal away. Seattle is the town whereby I made my an initial record. And also if you ever before want to say wherein I got my start, you have to say that" (MacDonald).

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The Bottom that the Ladder ray Charles Robinson to be born September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, the very first child of Aretha and also Bailey Robinson. His father operated off and on for the railroads; his mother took in laundry. The household started the end poor and also stayed that means throughout the hard years of the Depression. "Even contrasted to various other blacks," Charles recalled, "we to be on the bottom the the ladder looking increase at everyone else. Nothing below us other than the ground" (Charles, 4).

The family members moved across the border come Greenville, Florida, as soon as Charles was a few months old. A second child quickly followed, a son named George. Bailey Robinson became little much more than an occasional visitor ~ that. "The old male wasn’t component of mine life," Charles composed in his 1978 autobiography. "... To tell the truth, ns wouldn’t gambling a most money he and my mother ever were married. He to be a tall dude -- ns remember that. Yet he was hardly ever before around" (Charles, 4).

Despite the poverty, Charles recalled his at an early stage childhood as a happy time. The felt love by 2 women: his mother, whom he referred to as "Mama," and also his father’s first wife, a woman he called "Mother." He loved the to sing he heard on Sundays at the Shiloh Baptist Church. Over all, he love picking out boogie-woogie tunes on the upright piano own by a neighbor named Wylie Pitman. "I to be born through music within me," the said. "And from the minute I learned there were piano keys to it is in mashed, I began mashing ‘em, do the efforts to make sounds the end of feelings" (Charles, 8).

When the was about five, Charles witnessed the drowning fatality of his younger brother. The 2 boys had remained in the backyard playing near a large metal bathtub their mom used because that washing clothing when four-year-old George slipped end the edge and also into the soapy water. Charles tried to traction him out, but his brother -- conveniently weighted under by his wet clothes -- was too heavy. Charles ran indoors, screaming for his mother, yet it was too late. It to be the first major tragedy in a life that would have plenty of other sorrows.

Blindness Not long after the drowning, Charles started to shed his vision, reportedly as the an outcome of untreated glaucoma. He was completely blind by the time he was seven. He credited his mommy with preparing him come live there is no sight. She made him proceed to attract water from the well, bring in the firewood, and do various other chores, also though he frequently tripped and fell. You might be blind, she called him, yet you’re not stupid; you need to do things for yourself, no one else will execute them for you. "She permit me roam, permit me do my very own mistakes, let me uncover the people for myself," he wrote (Charles, 6). Indigenous this he emerged a fierce independence and also the ability to maneuver therefore adroitly that part people, later in his life, questioned that he was yes, really blind.

His mother managed to acquire him accepted as a charity student at the Florida State school for the Deaf and the blind (known at the moment as the Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb), in St. Augustine, about 130 mile southeast the Greenville. He continued to be there because that eight years, through time turn off for summers in ~ home. The learned exactly how to review Braille, come type, come weave baskets, and also to fix radios and cars. He also studied music formally because that the an initial time, mastering the piano and also other instruments, including clarinet and saxophone. The learned come read and also compose music in Braille. He played everything, native Chopin come jazz pianist art Tatum. On the radio he listened come swing, country-western, and also gospel.

Charles later on summed increase the impact of blindness on his career with 3 words -- "Nothing, nothing, nothing" -- and also pointed out that he had started playing music through the age of three, once he could still see, and he ongoing after period seven, when he lost his sight: "I was going to carry out what ns was going to carry out anyway. So remote didn’t have anything to carry out with it. The didn"t give me anything. And also it didn"t take nothing" (Pareles and also Weinraub).

On His Own Charles’ mother died shortly before his 15th birthday. The was, he created later, the most damaging experience that his life. He felt favor "truly a lost child." he left school and moved to surrounding Jacksonville, wherein he remained for a while with one of his mummy friends. He started trying to do a living together a musician, working as a sideman in small combos. "Work was very sparse," he wrote. "I could work a couple of nights and also then no much more for two weeks or 3 weeks -- whenever something came along. Hit and miss, really, that"s what that was" (Charles, 26).

Eventually, he moved on come Tampa. Yet he discovered it challenging to make it through as a musician in Florida. He additionally resented functioning for various other people. He wanted to form his own group, and make a fresh begin in a brand-new place. As well intimidated to try new York or Chicago, that asked a friend -- guitarist Garcia "Gosady" McGee -- what city in the continental United says was the furthest from Florida. McGee "took a map and also went diagonal throughout it, and there was Seattle sittin’ increase in the Northwest, and I said let me walk there and see what I have the right to do" (MacDonald).

R. C. Robinson arrived in Seattle in march 1948, ~ a five-day bus pilgrimage from Tampa. He found a town that was, as he put it "really open and smokin"." A vibrant jazz scene had sprung up in Pioneer Square and in the central Area, nurtured by a wartime influx of african Americans attracted by tasks in Puget Sound shipyards. Over there were more than 30 nightclubs in the area around Jackson Street, open all hrs of the day and night. The vain for work in the clubs to be fierce, Charles said jazz historian Paul de Barros. "Many cats had just left the armed-forces bands -- and don’t think those outfits couldn’t play," the said. "There were numerous musicians roaming the roads who’d blow your ass turn off the was standing if you provided ‘em fifty percent the chance" (de Barros, 151).

Sojourn in Seattle  in spite of his youth, Charles quickly established himself in the Seattle music community. In ~ days, he had earned a gig at the black Elks society at 662 Jackson Street, play piano and also singing in a trio through his friend McGee, top top guitar, and also local bassist Milt Jarrett (sometimes spelled Garred). They dubbed themselves the McSon Trio (after the "Mc" in McGee and also the "son" in Robinson). The trio "was the an initial thing I had actually that I can honestly say to be mine," Charles claimed later.

However, the McSon Trio belonged much more to Nat "King" Cole 보다 to beam Charles. "When Ray come here, you can close her eyes and you’d make an oath Nat King Cole was singing," stated jazz vocalist Ernestine Anderson, a teenager once she met Charles throughout his Seattle sojourn (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Charles had yet to put his own stamp top top his music. The deliberately mimicked Nat Cole, Charles Brown, and other renowned artists. He later said the heritage of farming up bad made the hesitate to build his own sound. "I could get a most work sounding like Nat Cole," that told interviewer terry Gross. "I could work in night clubs. I might make a living through his sound" (Gross interview).

Charles moved into a little apartment on 20th Avenue and equipped it v the essentials, consisting of an electric piano and a combination radio/record player. The shopped top top his own, cooking his very own meals, did his very own laundry. His independence significantly impressed the young Quincy Jones, another teenage music prodigy, who showed up in ~ the Elks society one night to check out rumors he had actually heard about "a blind dude" who was "tearing the location up v his singing and playing." it was, Jones wrote in his autobiography, "love at very first instinct because that both the us" -- the beginning of a lifelong friendship and also collaboration (Jones, 86).

Jones, climate 15, to be amazed that the 17-year-old Charles had actually his own apartment, a well-stocked bar, three suits, and also a bevy that girlfriends. He likewise marveled in ~ the way Charles ignored his blindness. "I’d watch him cross the street without cane or dog, dodging web traffic ... Never lacking a step," he wrote. "It was favor somebody forgot come tell ray he was blind. In fact, Ray never ever acted blind unless there was a quite girl around, then he’d obtain all helpless and sightless, bumping right into walls and doors" (Jones, 86). Jones went on to come to be one the the country’s most successful composers and also producers. His human body of work consists of collaborations with Charles on three important albums: The Genius (1959), Genius + heart = Jazz (1961), and also Back ~ above the Block (1989).

In the racially divided Seattle that the 1940s, the McSon Trio played gigs for white audiences at together venues as the Seattle Tennis Club, university of Washington fraternities, and uptown ballrooms. They played for black color audiences at after-hours clubs such together the Washington social Club, the black color & Tan, the 908 Club, and also the blues-oriented Rocking Chair, ~ above 14th simply off Yesler. Your popularity acquired them a consistent 15-minute spot on KRSC radio. Late in 1948, the group performed top top KRSC-TV (predecessor to KING-TV), in one of the faster live broadcasts in Seattle. At 18, Charles was getting his very first taste of celebrity.

Rockin’ Chair Blues It to be at the Rocking Chair the Charles met Jack Lauderdale, a record producer native Los Angeles. Together Charles called the story, "Jack to be there one night and heard united state playing. He said, ‘I"d favor to sign you guys up come a contract. What would you think around that?’ Oh, man, ns was so excited! ‘Wow! We"re gonna gain a document contract!’ There was nothing around any development or money increase front. Every the man said to me to be he to be gonna document me, and we"d have actually a hit" (Charles, 18).

The trio videotaped "Confession Blues" (written by Charles) and "I Love You, i Love You" (written by his friend, Joe Lee Lawrence) in a small, primitive Seattle studio. It was released together a 78 in beforehand 1949 -- credited to the Maxin Trio. It marketed respectably sufficient that Lauderdale take it the group to Los Angeles to make several various other recordings because that the Swingtime label, consisting of "Rockin’ Chair Blues," which pays tribute to Charles’ Seattle days. "If you"re feelin" short down, don"t have a heart to care, just grab her hat and also start because that the Rockin" Chair," the sang. The document was a fight on "race records" (later dubbed Rhythm and Blues) charts in so late 1949.

Charles went back to Los Angeles in 1950 to document "Baby let Me organize Your Hand," working v musicians who had played through Nat Cole. Through this time, he to be billed together "Ray Charles, the remote singing sensation." He had dropped his last name, partly in deference to the boxer, Sugar beam Robinson, and also partly in an initiative to specify himself as his very own person -- not a Nat Cole clone. "I woke up one morning and also started thinking: nobody knows my name," the said. "Everybody’s phone call me ‘Hey kid -- girlfriend sound similar to Nat Cole.’ that was always ‘Hey kid.’ I began telling myself, ‘Your mama always told friend to it is in yourself and also you acquired to be yourself if you desire to do it in this business"" (Gross interview).

One other heritage of Charles’ Seattle years to be an addiction to heroin. He debated his seeks openly in his autobiography. It began, that said, through a desire to both emulate larger musicians and also prove his independence. Back he never served an extensive jail sentence, he to be arrested because that possession of narcotics in 1955, 1961, and 1965. After his third arrest, he confirm himself right into a California sanatorium to absent his 17-year habit and also stopped performing because that a year, the just break throughout his lengthy career.

On the Road Charles left Seattle in 1950 and also began touring v blues guitarist Lowell Fulson. “We wake up up one day and R.C. To be here,” said Ernestine Anderson, who periodically sang through Charles in Seattle clubs. "We didn’t know where he came from or how he acquired here. It is the way he left. We woke increase one day and no Ray" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

He ongoing to filter his style throughout the next few years, melding blues and also gospel, bebop and swing. That toured up and down the West Coast and throughout the South. His schedule kept him on the road for much of the year -- a regimen the he continued for more than fifty percent a century. The still controlled to uncover studio time, although it was regularly in radio stations along the way.

After signing through Atlantic records in 1952, he convinced the label to permit him document with his touring band. His very first national hit, “I’ve gained a Woman,” was recorded in 1954 in a radio terminal studio in Atlanta through his seven-piece band. That signaled the introduction of what ended up being the classic Ray Charles – bluesy, tender, raw, intense, a mix that the secular (jazz) and also the spiritual (gospel). The record was complied with by a wire of other gospel-tinged hits, consisting of “Drown in mine Tears” and also “Hallelujah i Love her So.”

In the mid-1950s, Charles broadened his tape to include a group of female back-up signers (the Raelettes), who noted gospel-like responses to his deep, raspy baritone. They came to be a permanent part of his music -- and they additionally hinted at his periodically volatile relationships through women.

On the road in the 1950s and also 1960s, Charles frequently encountered the exact same kind the segregation the he had grown up with in the South. Together an african American, he stayed in rooming houses instead that the Hilton or the Sheraton; he had to make sure that the band stopped at a gas station that had actually rest rooms for "Colored;" at restaurants, the sometimes had to go approximately to the ago door because that a sandwich instead of a hot meal in the dining room. He would say years later that racism impacted him just as that did any other black human being at the time. "What ns never understood to this day, come this very day, was just how white human being could have black world cook for them, do their meals, yet wouldn"t permit them sit in ~ the table through them," he said. "How can you dislike someone so much and also have them chef for you? Shoot, if i don"t favor someone you ain"t food preparation nothing because that me, ever" (Pareles and Weinraub).

The Genius that Soul Charles became a certified star v the 1959 release of “What’d i Say.” The record damaged the normal two and also a half-minute mold for a radio song, with its prolonged “call and also response” chorus and also improvisational style. That was complied with the next year by a variation of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on my Mind,” a sweet ballad through strings and a vocal chorus. The track demonstrated Charles’ versatility and also his love because that the South. In 1979, it became the main anthem the the state of Georgia.

He branched out right into other musical genres in the 1960s and 1970s, consisting of country-and-western (“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and also “I Can’t protect against Loving You,” both released in 1962); middle-of-the-road pop (“You are My Sunshine,” 1962); and also British pop (releasing a variation of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” in 1968). At the same time, he ongoing to pay homage come his root in jazz. He refuse categorization. He confounded few of his pan by accepting an invitation to carry out “America the Beautiful” for President Richard Nixon in 1972, but the song became one of his criter (he sang the again in ~ the Republican nationwide Convention in 1984). Drawing from jazz, gospel, blues, and also country, he produced a flow that just he might navigate.

Music doubter Patrick mcdonald s credits Charles with an initial using words "Soul" to define his layout of music. To Frank Sinatra, Charles to be "The Genius." Quincy Jones placed the two together and called Charles "The Genius of Soul." He can be difficult. He to be sometimes tough on his band members and background singers. His private life was, together The brand-new York Times delicately put it, "complicated" (Pareles and Weinraub). He was divorced twice and fathered 12 children. Still, he stayed a consummate performer nearly to the an extremely end that his life. He made an ext than 60 albums, winner 12 Grammys (including one for “A song for You” in 1993), and earned a cable of honors, consisting of induction right into the rock ‘n’ role Hall of fame in 1986 and also the Presidential Medal for the arts in 1993. Along the way, he affected generations of singers, indigenous Sinatra to Elvis come Billy Joel.

Charles passed away at his residence in Beverly Hills, California, top top June 10, 2004, of liver disease. He was 73. He had recently recovered indigenous hip instead of surgery and also had planned to resume touring in June when he became ill. Earlier, he had actually completed occupational on his critical album, a arsenal of duets with Norah Jones, B. B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and also others. The album to be released on respectable 31, 2004, under the title Genius Loves Company. It brushed up the Grammys in 2005, win eight awards, including Album the the Year. He observed his life generally as an example of what anyone deserve to accomplish. "I would like people to understand that you can recover from a most adversity that you could have in your life if girlfriend keep pressing on," that told one interviewer. "In various other words, friend don’t offer up just since you get knocked down a couple of times" (Kahn interview). 

His death unleashed a torrent of tributes, consisting of this one native Ernestine Anderson: "The gods to be smiling on us when he concerned Seattle" (MacDonald).

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Ray Charles, worldwide Jazz Festival of Montréal, July 15, 2003

Photo through Victor Diaz Lamich (CC by 3.0)

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Ray Charles, 1969

Photo through Maurice Seymour

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Ray Charles concert poster, Seattle, 1966, commercial reprint ca. 2008

Courtesy Peter Blecha Collection

Sources:

Patrick MacDonald, “The Genius of soul Dies at 73,” The Seattle Times, June 11, 2004; Mike Lewis and Regina Hackett, “Genre-crossing Performer obtained Start in Seattle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 11, 2004; ray Charles, Brother Ray: beam Charles’ own Story (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell publishing Co., 1978); Jon Pareles and also Bernard Weinraub, “Ray Charles, Bluesy essence of Soul, Is Dead at 73,” The brand-new York Times, June 11, 2004; "Ray Charles Rides the Grammys," Ibid.

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, February 24, 2005, p. E-2; terry Gross interview with Ray Charles, October 19, 1998, rebroadcast ~ above “Fresh Air,” national Public Radio, June 11, 2004, nationwide Public Radio Website (http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1954799); Quincy Jones, Q: The Autobiography the Quincy Jones (New York: arbitrarily House, 2001); James Clyde Sellman, “Ray Charles,” Encarta Africana CD-ROM (2000); cutting board Thompson, Ashley Kahn interview v Ray Charles, undated, aired on “Morning Edition,” nationwide Public Radio Website accessed June 11, 2004, (http://www.npr.org/features/ feature.php?wfId=1954321). Note: This essay was corrected on march 6, 2009, clarifying the name of the TV station where ray Charles carry out in 1948 and also the name under i beg your pardon he exit his first record, and was updated and the album title Genius + heart = Jazz corrected on February 18, 2016.