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An Important Figure in Rock and Roll: Ray Charles

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Ray Charles was a famous, “…American singer, songwriter, bandleader, and pianist. His style was influenced by gospel music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and country music”. Ray Charles released many memorable hits throughout his career, such as, “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “What’d I Say.” Charles has been given credit for forming a new genre of music known as, “soul music.” Soul music is a combination of gospel and blue style mixed with an enthusiastic passion. Because of this creation, he famously got the title of a musical “Genius” and “Father of Soul.” Charles has won seventeen Grammy awards, been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and achieved many more awards in his lifetime.

Ray Charles Robinson, “was born into a poor family on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia”. His father Bailey Robinson was a mechanic and his mother Aretha Robinson was a sharecropper and raised Charles and his brother George Robinson during the Great Depression. When Charles was still an infant, his family moved to Greenville, Florida, where he was raised. Charles became blind due to an untreated case of Glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve in the eye. “Although the young Ray Charles—born Ray Charles Robinson—began to lose his sight at the age of 5, not long after witnessing his brother’s drowning, his eventual blindness was medical, not traumatic. At the age of 7, he became completely blind when his right eye was removed due to intense pain”. Because he was blind, the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine accepted him. In this school, he learned, “Braille, typing, basket weaving, and mathematics”.

Charles also became close friends with a neighbor in Greenville that played the piano. Before he became blind, he spent a lot of time with this neighbor and learned piano skills in the blues genre. When he became blind, he no longer was able to practice with his neighbor. Once he joined his school in Florida, “He was permitted to develop his musical skills by learning piano, clarinet, and alto saxophone; he also developed the ability to compose and arrange music by memory”. In his school, he was strictly taught classical music only, which piqued Charles’ interest in jazz and blues even more. When he turned fifteen years old, his mother passed away, which pushed him to start his career as a professional traveling musician. Shortly after, his father passed away as well, orphaning both him and his brother. This, however, did not distract Charles from pursuing a career in music, as he had always dreamed of. He toured Florida and Washington with multiple bands that specialized in jazz, country, and blues music, and sometimes performed solos imitating famous blues singers. As he began to gain success in the West Coast, “Charles, along with bassist Milt Jarret and guitarist Gossady McGee, formed the McSon Trio, the first all-black group to have a sponsored television show in the Seattle area”. This group released a song titled, “Confession Blues,” which became a fantastic hit in the R&B category. The group continued to release many hits, and many record companies quickly became interested in signing Ray Charles.

After moving to Los Angeles, California in 1950, Charles signed his first solo contract with Atlantic Records in 1951. At this time in his life, Ray Charles Robinson changed his name to Ray Charles in order to avoid being confused with a famous boxer of the time, Ray Robinson. Charles could perform multiple genres of music: jazz, country, and blues, so finding his individual style took some time. “From 1953 to 1954, with producers Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, Charles developed his distinctive, original sound and produced his first major hit, “I Got a Woman”. He received heavy criticism for frequently using gospel idioms in his songs; however, he continued to use gospel references in his future songs. He released many more controversial hits in his career, such as ““Drown in My Own Tears and “What’d I Say”, a song banned by African American radio stations for its overt sexuality”. Since Charles was releasing so many hits, the record company gave him creative freedom, which allowed him to explore various soulful singing styles. He eventually hired an all-female backup singing group to perform his famous call and response songs, like “What’d I Say.” In 1959, Charles released his debut album titled, “Ray Charles,” and released an instrumental album the same year titled, “The Great Ray Charles”

Ray Charles went on to release many more billboard top hits in his career, and always remained true to his unique style. As both an African American and blind man, he inspired many to achieve their dreams throughout the world. Through Charles’ hard work and determination, he established “soul” music as a popular and influential genre still used in many songs today. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame states, “And just what is soul, according to Ray Charles? As he told Time magazine in 1968, “It’s a force that can light a room. The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you’ve been and what it means. Soul is a way of life—but it’s always the hard way.’ Charles remained active as a performer and recording artist right up to his death from liver disease on June 10, 2004 at age 73 ”. 

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An Important Figure in Rock and Roll: Ray Charles. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from
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