Biography of Singer Ray Charles Part 1

About the famous blues and soul singer Ray Charles, biography and history of the performer.

GALLERY OF PROMINENT PERFORMING AND CREATIVE ARTISTS

RAY CHARLES (b. 1930)

Born to a dirt-poor black Georgia couple during the Depression, he went completely blind at 7, was orphaned at 15, and fought a 20-year battle with heroin addiction which began when he was 16. Yet, despite enough trouble for several lifetimes, the word self-pity does not appear in Ray Charles's vocabulary.

As a performing artist alone, his influence on American popular music is inestimable. He has sold over 200 million records in such diverse genres as rhythm and blues, country western, pop, and jazz. Add to this his other successful careers as composer, songwriter, band-leader, producer, and record company executive, and it is no wonder that Frank Sinatra calls him "the only genius in our business."

He was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Ga., on Sept. 23, 1930. (He dropped his last name when he entered show business to avoid confusion with his famous namesake, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.) Two months after Ray was born, his parents moved to the tiny sawmill town of Greenville, Fla. His father, Bailey, was a railroad man and part-time mechanic; his mother, Areatha, cooked and cleaned for white families and occasionally worked in the sawmill. Their combined income--used to support themselves, Ray, and a younger son--was about $40 a week.

As the Great Depression of the 1930s worsened, so did the Robinson family's luck. In 1935, five-year-old Ray underwent the horrifying experience of watching his little brother drown. He began suffering from glaucoma the same year, and by 1937 he was totally blind.

Ray Charles credits his ferocious independence, his unwillingness to accept blindness as a crippling affliction, to his mother. "You're blind, not stupid," Areatha Robinson told her son. "You've lost your eyes, not your mind." Determined that her boy would never end up begging on a street corner, she assigned him the same chores any normal youngster would do; he chopped wood, swept the house, and scrubbed floors. Later in 1937, Ray was enrolled in Florida's St. Augustine School for Deaf and Blind Children in Orlando, Fla.

Since he demonstrated a talent for music, the school allowed him to study composition and theory. He added Beethoven and Sibelius to the musical influences he had already absorbed--among them gospel singer Alex Bradford, jazzman Art Tatum, and blues shouter Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

In 1945 Areatha Robinson died, still in her early 30s. Returning to Greenville in a virtual state of shock, Ray was unable to eat for three weeks. He was force-fed by neighbors, and had scarcely adjusted to this trauma when his father died at age 40.

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