The Story Behind Musicman Ray Charles

What you may not know about Ray Charles

Ray Charles in Concert at Resorts Atlantic City
 Tom Briglia/Getty Images

Born in Albany, Georgia, during the depression, and blind by the age of seven, Ray Charles Robinson certainly had the deck stacked against him from the beginning. But as he himself said, he wasn't good because he was blind; he was good because he was good at what he did. 

How He Get's His Start

Influenced by both the pop vocal stylings of crooners like Nat King Cole and the smooth West Coast Blues of Charles Brown, Charles started off cutting rather unadventurous (yet still exciting) jump blues and rhythm and blues in New Orleans.

But it was musical wanderlust that would lead to the two great milestones of his career. In 1959, the singer consolidated his gospel and blues influences (which he'd already marshaled on cuts like "I Got A Woman") for a rave-up called "What'd I Say." The song is widely regarded now as the first hit soul record, sophisticated yet sensual, relentlessly secular yet burning with a religious fervor.

In 1962, he cemented his legacy by releasing the "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" LP, which somehow infused soul into country western standards like "Born To Lose" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." Arguably one of the most brilliant interpretive albums ever released, it did more to integrate modern American music than almost any other LP in history. And although he more or less settled into an oldies-circuit level of fame after that, he remains an institution for his insistence on carrying different forms of music to places that shouldn't have logically worked, but with him, it did.

How Ray Charles Became Blind

Although young Ray began to lose his sight at the age of five, not long after witnessing his brother's drowning, his eventual blindness by the age of seven was medical, not traumatic. Most medical experts agree glaucoma was the culprit, although growing up in Charles' time and place, not to mention economic background, no one will ever be able to say for sure.

Still, his blindness never stopped him from learning to ride a bike, play cards, use stairs, or even fly an airplane. Charles merely used his other senses. He judged distances by sound and learned to sharpen his memory. He refused to use a seeing-eye dog or a cane, although he did require some help from his personal assistant on tour. Charles did, however, seem to believe that his disability exempted him from income taxes, a belief that caused him a great deal of trouble with the IRS.

Marriages and Children

Charles was married twice and had 12 children with ten different women. His first marriage lasted only a year and is not even mentioned in the biographical movie "Ray." (Actor Jamie Foxx won the 2005 Academy Award for "Best Actor" his portrayal of Charles). 

His second marriage, to backup singer Della Beatrice Howard Robinson, lasted 22 years. He was well-known for his philandering, introducing himself to women he liked by pretending to be more helpless than he was.

No. 1 Hits

In 1981, Charles was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was one of the first inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural ceremony in 1986. His chart success was legendary with 13 No. 1 hits.

"Georgia On My Mind"Pop
"Hit The Road, Jack,"Pop, R&B
"I Can't Stop Loving You"Pop, R&B
"I've Got A Woman"R&B
"A Fool for You"R&B
"Drown In My Own Tears"R&B
"Mary Ann"R&B
"What'd I Say (Part I)"R&B
"One Mint Julep"R&B
"You Are My Sunshine"R&B
"Unchain My Heart"R&B
"Let's Go Get Stoned"R&B
"Seven Spanish Angels"Country

Top 10 Hits

Charles had great crossover success. His chart success was most notable in pop, R&B, and country with more than 30 top 10 hits. These were among the songs that didn't hit the top spot (for that genre) but were in the top 10. Note, some songs did achieve No. 1 in other genres, for example, "Georgia On My Mind," hit the top spot on the pop chart.

"What'd I Say (Part I)"Pop
"One Mint Julep"Pop
"Unchain My Heart"Pop
"You Don't Know Me"Pop
"You Are My Sunshine"Pop
"Take These Chains From My Heart"Pop
"Crying Time"Pop
"This Little Girl Of Mine"R&B
"Hallelujah I Love Her So"R&B
"Lonely Avenue"R&B
"What Would I Do Without You"R&B
"Ain't That Love"R&B
"Night Time Is the Right Time"R&B
"Georgia On My Mind "R&B
"Sticks And Stones"R&B
"I've Got News For You"R&B
"Them That Got"R&B
"We Didn't See a Thing"Country