Ray Charles has the distinction of being both a national treasure and an international phenomenon.
The first child of Aretha and Baily Robinson was born in Albany, GA, on September 23, 1930. He hit the road early, at about three months, when the Robinsons moved across the border to Greenville, FL. It was the height of the Depression years. And the Robinsons had started out poor.
It took three years, starting when Ray Charles was four, for the country boy who loved to look at the blazing sun at its height, the boy who loved to try to catch lightning, the boy who loved to strike matches to see their fierce, brief glare, to travel the path from light to darkness.
But Ray Charles has almost seven years of sight memory - colors, the things of the backwoods country, and the face of the most important person in his life: his mother, Aretha Robinson.
St. Augustine's was the Florida state school for the deaf and blind. Ray Charles was accepted as a charity student. He learned to read Braille and to type. He became a skilled basket weaver. He was allowed to develop his great gift of music. He remained at St. Augustine's until his mother's death when he set out "on the road again" for the first time as a struggling professional musician.
He began to build himself a solo act, imitating Nat "King" Cole. When he knew it was time to head on, he asked a friend to find him the farthest point from Florida on a map of the continental U.S. and then he left for Seattle, Washington. In Seattle he became a minor celebrity in local clubs. There he met an even younger musician, Quincy Jones, whom he took under his wing, marking the beginning of an inter-twining of two musical lifetimes.
It was from Seattle that he went to Los Angeles to cut his first professional recording. And it was in Seattle, with Gossady McGee, that he formed the McSon Trio -- Robin (son) and (Mc) Gee -- in 1948, the first black group to have a sponsored TV show in the Pacific Northwest. Along the way he'd shortened his name in deference to the success of "Sugar" Ray Robinson.
As Ray Charles, he toured for about a year with Lowell Fulsom's band. He formed a group and played with singer Ruth Brown. He played the Apollo, the landmark showcase for black talent. He aspired to Carnegie Hall, then as now epitomizing the pinnacle of artistic success. These were also the years that brought Charles the first band of his own, his first big hit record, "I Got A Woman."
By the early 1960's Ray Charles had accomplished his dream. He'd come of age musically. He had become a great musician, posting musical milestones along his route. He'd made it to Carnegie Hall. The hit records ("Georgia," "Born to Lose") successively kept climbing to the top of the charts. He'd made his first triumphant European concert tour in 1960 (a feat which, except for 1965, he's repeated at least once a year ever since).
He'd treated himself to the formation of his first big band in 1961. In 1962, together with his long time friend and personal manager, Joe Adams, he oversaw construction of his own office building and recording studios in Los Angeles, RPM International.
He has taken virtually every form of popular music and broken through its boundaries with such awe inspiring achievements as the LP's Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz and Modern Sounds in Country & Western and has influenced musicians in every genre.
Ray Charles died on June 10, 2004.