The Bottom of the Ladder
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, the first child of Aretha and Bailey Robinson. His father worked off and on for the railroads; his mother took in laundry. The family started out poor and stayed that way throughout the hard years of the Depression. “Even compared to other blacks,” Charles recalled, “we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground” (Charles, 4).
The family moved across the border to Greenville, Florida, when Charles was a few months old. A second child soon followed, a son named George. Bailey Robinson became little more than an occasional visitor after that. “The old man wasn’t part of my life,” Charles wrote in his 1978 autobiography. “…to tell the truth, I wouldn’t bet a lot of money he and my mother ever were married. He was a tall dude -- I remember that. But he was hardly ever around” (Charles, 4).
Despite the poverty, Charles recalled his early childhood as a happy time. He felt loved by two women: his mother, whom he called "Mama,” and his father’s first wife, a woman he called “Mother.” He loved the singing he heard on Sundays at the Shiloh Baptist Church. Above all, he loved picking out boogie-woogie tunes on the upright piano owned by a neighbor named Wylie Pitman. “I was born with music inside me,” he said. “And from the moment I learned there were piano keys to be mashed, I started mashing ‘em, trying to make sounds out of feelings” (Charles, 8).
When he was about five, Charles witnessed the drowning death of his younger brother. The two boys had been in the backyard playing near a large metal tub their mother used for washing clothes when four-year-old George slipped over the edge and into the soapy water. Charles tried to pull him out, but his brother -- quickly weighted down by his wet clothing -- was too heavy. Charles ran indoors, screaming for his mother, but it was too late. It was the first major tragedy in a life that would have many other sorrows.
Not long after the drowning, Charles began to lose his vision, apparently as the result of untreated glaucoma. He was completely blind by the time he was seven. He credited his mother with preparing him to live without sight. She made him continue to draw water from the well, bring in the firewood, and do other chores, even though he often tripped and fell. You may be blind, she told him, but you’re not stupid; you have to do things for yourself, no one else will do them for you. “She let me roam, let me make my own mistakes, let me discover the world for myself,” he wrote (Charles, 6). From this he developed a fierce independence and the ability to maneuver so adroitly that some people, later in his life, doubted that he was really blind.
His mother managed to get him accepted as a charity student at the Florida State School for the Deaf and the Blind (known at the time as the Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb), in St. Augustine, about 130 miles southeast of Greenville. He stayed there for eight years, with time off for summers at home. He learned how to read Braille, to type, to weave baskets, and to repair radios and cars. He also studied music formally for the first time, mastering the piano and other instruments, including clarinet and saxophone. He learned to read and compose music in Braille. He played everything, from Chopin to jazz pianist Art Tatum. On the radio he listened to swing, country-western, and gospel.
Charles later summed up the effect of blindness on his career with three words -- "Nothing, nothing, nothing" -- and pointed out that he had begun playing music by the age of three, when he could still see, and he continued after age seven, when he lost his sight: "I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. So blindness didn’t have anything to do with it. It didn't give me anything. And it didn't take nothing" (Pareles and Weinraub).
On His Own
Charles’ mother died shortly before his 15th birthday. It was, he wrote later, the most devastating experience of his life. He felt like “truly a lost child.” He left school and moved to nearby Jacksonville, where he stayed for a while with one of his mother’s friends. He began trying to make a living as a musician, working as a sideman in small combos. “Work was very sparse,” he wrote. “I might work a couple of nights and then no more for two weeks or three weeks -- whenever something came along. Hit and miss, really, that's what it was” (Charles, 26).
Eventually, he moved on to Tampa. But he found it difficult to survive as a musician in Florida. He also resented working for other people. He wanted to form his own group, and make a fresh start in a new place. Too intimidated to try New York or Chicago, he asked a friend -- guitarist Garcia “Gosady” McGee -- what city in the continental United States was farthest from Florida. McGee “took a map and went diagonal across it, and there was Seattle sittin’ up in the Northwest, and I said let me go there and see what I can do" (MacDonald).
R. C. Robinson arrived in Seattle in March 1948, after a five-day bus trip from Tampa. He found a town that was, as he put it “really open and smokin’.” A vibrant jazz scene had sprung up in Pioneer Square and in the Central Area, nurtured by a wartime influx of African Americans drawn by jobs in Puget Sound shipyards. There were more than 30 nightclubs in the area around Jackson Street, open all hours of the day and night. The competition for jobs in the clubs was fierce, Charles told jazz historian Paul de Barros. “Many cats had just left the armed-forces bands -- and don’t think those outfits couldn’t play,” he said. “There were lots of musicians roaming the streets who’d blow your ass off the stand if you gave ‘em half the chance” (de Barros, 151).
Sojourn in Seattle
Despite his youth, Charles quickly established himself in the Seattle music community. Within days, he had earned a gig at the black Elks Club at 662 Jackson Street, playing piano and singing in a trio with his friend McGee, on guitar, and local bassist Milt Jarrett (sometimes spelled Garred). They called themselves the McSon Trio (after the “Mc” in McGee and the “son” in Robinson). The trio “was the first thing I had that I could honestly say was mine,” Charles said later.
However, the McSon Trio belonged more to Nat “King” Cole than to Ray Charles. “When Ray came here, you could close your eyes and you’d swear Nat King Cole was singing,” said jazz vocalist Ernestine Anderson, a teenager when she met Charles during his Seattle sojourn (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Charles had yet to put his own stamp on his music. He deliberately mimicked Nat Cole, Charles Brown, and other popular artists. He later said the legacy of growing up poor made him hesitate to develop his own sound. “I could get a lot of work sounding like Nat Cole,” he told interviewer Terry Gross. “I could work in night clubs. I could make a living with his sound” (Gross interview).
Charles moved into a small apartment on 20th Avenue and equipped it with the essentials, including an electric piano and a combination radio/record player. He shopped on his own, cooked his own meals, did his own laundry. His independence greatly impressed the young Quincy Jones, another teenage musical prodigy, who showed up at the Elks Club one night to check out rumors he had heard about “a blind dude” who was “tearing the place up with his singing and playing.” It was, Jones wrote in his autobiography, “love at first instinct for both of us” -- the beginning of a lifelong friendship and collaboration (Jones, 86).
Jones, then 15, was amazed that the 17-year-old Charles had his own apartment, a well-stocked bar, three suits, and a bevy of girlfriends. He also marveled at the way Charles ignored his blindness. “I’d watch him cross the street without cane or dog, dodging traffic…never missing a step,” he wrote. “It was like somebody forgot to tell Ray he was blind. In fact, Ray never acted blind unless there was a pretty girl around, then he’d get all helpless and sightless, bumping into walls and doors” (Jones, 86). Jones went on to become one of the country’s most successful composers and producers. His body of work includes collaborations with Charles on three important albums: The Genius (1959), Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961), and Back on the Block (1989).
In the racially divided Seattle of the 1940s, the McSon Trio played gigs for white audiences at such venues as the Seattle Tennis Club, University of Washington fraternities, and uptown ballrooms. They played for black audiences at after-hours clubs such as the Washington Social Club, the Black & Tan, the 908 Club, and the blues-oriented Rocking Chair, on 14th just off Yesler. Their popularity gained them a regular 15-minute spot on KRSC radio. Late in 1948, the group performed on KRSC-TV (predecessor to KING-TV), in one of the earliest live broadcasts in Seattle. At 18, Charles was getting his first taste of celebrity.
Rockin’ Chair Blues
It was at the Rocking Chair that Charles met Jack Lauderdale, a record producer from Los Angeles. As Charles told the story, “Jack was there one night and heard us playing. He said, ‘I'd like to sign you guys up to a contract. What would you think about that?’ Oh, man, I was so excited! ‘Wow! We're gonna get a record contract!’ There was nothing about any advance or money up front. All the man said to me was he was gonna record me, and we'd have a hit” (Charles, 18).
The trio recorded “Confession Blues” (written by Charles) and “I Love You, I Love You” (written by his friend, Joe Lee Lawrence) in a small, primitive Seattle studio. It was released as a 78 in early 1949 -- credited to the “Maxin Trio.” It sold respectably enough that Lauderdale took the group to Los Angeles to make several other recordings for the Swingtime label, including “Rockin’ Chair Blues,” which pays tribute to Charles’ Seattle days. "If you're feelin' low down, don't have a soul to care, just grab your hat and start for the Rockin' Chair," he sang. The record was a hit on “race records” (later called Rhythm and Blues) charts in late 1949.
Charles returned to Los Angeles in 1950 to record “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand,” working with musicians who had played with Nat Cole. By this time, he was billed as “Ray Charles, the blind singing sensation.” He had dropped his last name, partly in deference to the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, and partly in an effort to define himself as his own person -- not a Nat Cole clone. “I woke up one morning and started thinking: nobody knows my name,” he said. “Everybody’s calling me ‘Hey kid -- you sound just like Nat Cole.’ It was always ‘Hey kid.’ I started telling myself, ‘Your mama always told you to be yourself and you got to be yourself if you want to make it in this business’ ” (Gross interview).
One other legacy of Charles’ Seattle years was an addiction to heroin. He discussed his addiction openly in his autobiography. It began, he said, with a desire to both emulate older musicians and prove his independence. Although he never served an extended jail sentence, he was arrested for possession of narcotics in 1955, 1961, and 1965. After his third arrest, he checked himself into a California sanatorium to kick his 17-year habit and stopped performing for a year, the only break during his long career.
On the Road
Charles left Seattle in 1950 and began touring with blues guitarist Lowell Fulson. “We woke up one day and R.C. was here,” said Ernestine Anderson, who occasionally sang with Charles in Seattle clubs. “We didn’t know where he came from or how he got here. That’s the way he left. We woke up one day and no Ray” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
He continued to refine his style during the next few years, melding blues and gospel, bebop and swing. He toured up and down the West Coast and throughout the South. His schedule kept him on the road for much of the year -- a regimen that he continued for more than half a century. He still managed to find studio time, although it was often in radio stations along the way.
After signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, he persuaded the label to let him record with his touring band. His first national hit, “I’ve Got a Woman,” was recorded in 1954 in a radio station studio in Atlanta with his seven-piece band. It signaled the emergence of what became the classic Ray Charles – bluesy, tender, raw, intense, a mix of the secular (jazz) and the sacred (gospel). The record was followed by a string of other gospel-tinged hits, including “Drown in My Tears” and “Hellelujah I Love Her So.”
In the mid-1950s, Charles expanded his band to include a group of female backup signers (the “Raelettes”), who provided gospel-like responses to his deep, raspy baritone. They became a permanent part of his music -- and they also hinted at his sometimes volatile relationships with women.
On the road in the 1950s and 1960s, Charles often encountered the same kind of segregation that he had grown up with in the South. As an African American, he stayed in rooming houses instead of the Hilton or the Sheraton; he had to make sure that the band stopped at a gas station that had rest rooms for “Colored;” at restaurants, he sometimes had to go around to the back door for a sandwich instead of a hot meal in the dining room. He would say years later that racism affected him just as it did any other black person at the time. “What I never understood to this day, to this very day, was how white people could have black people cook for them, make their meals, but wouldn't let them sit at the table with them," he said. "How can you dislike someone so much and have them cook for you? Shoot, if I don't like someone you ain't cooking nothing for me, ever" (Pareles and Weinraub).
The Genius of Soul
Charles became a certified star with the 1959 release of “What’d I Say.” The record broke the usual two and a half-minute mold for a radio song, with its extended “call and response” chorus and improvisational style. It was followed the next year by a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” a sweet ballad with strings and a vocal chorus. The song demonstrated Charles’ versatility and his love for the South. In 1979, it became the official anthem of the state of Georgia.
He branched out into other musical genres in the 1960s and 1970s, including country-and-western (“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” both released in 1962); middle-of-the-road pop (“You Are My Sunshine,” 1962); and British pop (releasing a version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” in 1968). At the same time, he continued to pay homage to his roots in jazz. He refused categorization. He confounded some of his fans by accepting an invitation to perform “America the Beautiful” for President Richard Nixon in 1972, but the song became one of his standards (he sang it again at the Republican National Convention in 1984). Drawing from jazz, gospel, blues, and country, he created a river that only he could navigate.
Music critic Patrick Macdonald credits Charles with first using the word “Soul” to describe his style of music. To Frank Sinatra, Charles was “The Genius.” Quincy Jones put the two together and called Charles “The Genius of Soul.”
He could be difficult. He was sometimes hard on his band members and background singers. His private life was, as The New York Times delicately put it, "complicated" (Pareles and Weinraub). He was divorced twice and fathered 12 children.
Still, he remained a consummate performer almost to the very end of his life. He made more than 60 albums, won 12 Grammys (including one for “A Song for You” in 1993), and earned a string of honors, including induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1993. Along the way, he influenced generations of singers, from Sinatra to Elvis to Billy Joel.
Charles died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, on June 10, 2004, of liver disease. He was 73. He had recently recovered from hip replacement surgery and had planned to resume touring in June when he became ill. Earlier, he had completed work on his last album, a collection of duets with Norah Jones, B. B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and others. The album was released on August 31, 2004, under the
title Genius Loves Company. It swept
the Grammys in 2005, winning eight awards, including Album of the Year.
He saw his life primarily as an example of what anyone can accomplish. “I would like people to know that you can recover from a lot of adversity that you might have in your life if you keep pressing on,” he told one interviewer. “In other words, you don’t give up just because you get knocked down a few times” (Kahn interview).
His death unleashed a torrent of tributes, including this one from Ernestine Anderson: “The gods were smiling on us when he came to Seattle” (MacDonald).