Personalities | Ray Charles | Fifties | Rock

Born Ray Charles Robinson on 23 September 1930 in Albany, Georgia, Charles suffered from glaucoma from the age of five and was blind by the time he was seven. His mother was unable to look after him and he moved away to the Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb in St Augustine, Florida.

He learned to play piano (he had already been taught some basics by local musician Wylie Pitman), organ, clarinet and saxophone and to read music in Braille. When he was 14 his mother died, and the following year he went to live with friends of hers in Jacksonville.

From Florida To Seattle

Charles started finding gigs around Jacksonville, then moved to Orlando and Tampa, playing piano or sax and working out arrangements for whoever would hire him; he even learned to yodel with country outfit The Florida Playboys. At the time he was obsessed with Nat ‘King’ Cole’s smooth vocals and jazzy piano, and modelled himself pretty wholeheartedly on his style.

He then chose to move to Seattle, as it was diametrically across the US from Florida. He arrived in March 1948, and the trio he assembled soon had a residency at the Rocking Chair nightclub, where Jack Lauderdale signed him to his Downbeat label. His debut single, ‘Confession Blues’ (1949) became an R&B hit. Around this time he started using the surname Charles, to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Downbeat became Swingtime and Ray joined up with the imprint’s premier draw: sophisticated bluesman, Lowell Fulson. He sang and played piano in his band between 1950 and 1952, but was increasingly restless in this subordinate position. As luck would have it, Lauderdale sold Ray’s contract to Atlantic Records.

From Cole To Soul

Atlantic had been set up by Ahmet Ertegun in 1947 and had a good reputation for R&B, scoring hits with Ruth Brown, Joe Turner and the original Drifters. Ray’s first recording session came in 1952. He was still very much beholden to Cole and only minor hits ensued with ‘Mess Around’ and ‘It Should’ve Been Me’. Around this time he played with the highly emotive blues guitarist Guitar Slim, on the now classic ‘The Things I Used To Do’, and some of Slim’s raw emotion seemed to rub off on Charles.

He recorded ‘I Got A Woman’, on 18 November 1954. The tune was based on a gospel song, but, in singing his mildly raunchy lyrics in an unfettered, ‘churchy’ fashion, he laid the groundwork for soul music. Tracks such as ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ and 1959’s ‘What’d I Say’ – with his female backing singers The Raelettes very much a feature – built on this foundation.

‘The Genius’

Ray Charles was not to be confined by genre, however. He recorded jazz using Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s musicians – with his friend Quincy Jones arranging – on one side of The Genius Of Ray Charles (1959), and string-laden pop on...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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