Personalities | Ray Charles | Fifties | Jazz & Blues
Ray Charles Robinson was born on 23 September 1930 in Albany, Georgia. Blind by the age of seven, he was educated at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, where he studied piano and learned to read music in braille.
A Musical Education
Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, he was expelled and left for Jacksonville, Florida to try to make a living from music. Ray continued his music education at the local union hall in Jacksonville. Within a few months, he was starting to play little jobs around the city. When he was at home, Ray would listen to country music, spirituals and blues on the radio; on his jobs, he heard singers such as Nat ‘King’ Cole and Charles Brown on the jukebox. Ray listened closely to these two singers and began to use them as his vocal models.
Over the next two years, Ray worked with a variety of different bands. In some cases he wrote arrangements, at other times he played alto sax or wrote songs. He travelled throughout Florida and got his first featured gig in Tampa, playing piano and singing with a combo modelled after that of Nat ‘King’ Cole.
In March 1948 Ray moved to Seattle, Washington on the advice of G.D. McKee, a guitarist with whom Ray had been working in Tampa. The pair quickly found plenty of work in their new surroundings, and within a few months had been signed by Downbeat Records. ‘Confession Blues’, one of Ray’s tunes, became a hit in the spring of 1949. At this point Ray – who had been known as R.C. Robinson – became Ray Charles. The owner of Downbeat Records (now Swingtime), Jack Lauderdale, teamed Ray with his number-one act, Lowell Fulson and Ray became a part of Fulson’s show, playing piano and singing in the band between 1950–52. The hit ‘Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand’ brought Ray more attention, but Lauderdale had entered a dry spell and Charles’s contract was sold to Atlantic Records.
A Shaky Start
Ray Charles’s first recording session in his own name, in September 1952, was uneventful and follow-ups yielded only one minor hit (‘It Should’ve Been Me’). Meanwhile, Charles was working as a solo artist, picking up musicians along the way. In the summer of 1954 he organized a band to back Ruth Brown on tour, after which the band continued on its own. In November, Ray was ready to call Atlantic Records.
‘I Got A Woman’, recorded on 18 November 1954, changed everything. The tune was based on a gospel song and, for the first time, all Charles’s passion and fervour was captured on record. It was an R&B number one and Ray’s biggest hit of the 1950s. His next session produced another number one, ‘A Fool For You’. Ray Charles had arrived.
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Towards the end of the decade, Ray Charles spread his wings. He recorded jazz instrumentals, blues, gospel-inspired material and an album with...
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