Early yearsBorn in Albany, Georgia, Charles began going blind at around age five and was totally blind by age seven. He said that the causes were undiagnosed, but many believe it was as a result of glaucoma. Whatever the cause, he attended school at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida as a charity case. There, he not only learned how to read Braille, but to write music and play various instruments.
By the time he was 15, both his parents were dead. Charles began working as a musician in Florida, eventually moving to Seattle, Washington in 1947. He soon started recording, achieving his first hit song with "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951).
Early influences on his work were Nat King Cole (both his vocals and piano playing) and Charles Brown. While his first recordings were only skillful imitations of his heroes', Charles's music soon became more innovative. He toured with Lowell Fulson and worked with Guitar Slim and Ruth Brown. After joining Atlantic Records, Charles's sound become more and more original and groundbreaking as he took the feel, and many tunes, from gospel music and put them to secular lyrics performed in front of a jazz lineup playing R&B with exceptionally tight arrangements, with generous helpings of Country/Western and Classical influences thrown in.
Middle yearsHis first hit in this mode was "Mess Around," which was based on the 1929 classic "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith. He had another hit with the raplike urban jive of "It Should Have Been Me", but went into high gear with the gospel drive of "I Got A Woman" (1955). This was followed by "This Little Girl of Mine", "Drown in My Own Tears", "Hallelujah I Love Her So," and "Lonely Avenue", half of them gospel songs converted with secular lyrics, the others blues ballads.
After an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival he achieved mainstream success with "(The Night Time is) The Right Time" and his signature song, "What'd I Say". The essence of this phase of his career can be heard on his live album Ray Charles In Person, recorded before a mostly African American audience in Atlanta in 1958. This album also features the first public performance of "What'd I Say". It broke out as a hit in Atlanta from the tape, months before it was recorded in the studio in a two-part version with better fidelity.
Charles had already begun to go beyond the limits of his blues-gospel synthesis while still at Atlantic, which now called him The Genius. He recorded with large orchestras and with jazz artists like Milt Jackson and even made his first country music cover with Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On".
Then, he did move on, to ABC Records. At ABC, Charles had a great deal of control over his music, and broadened his approach, not on experimental side projects, but with out and out pop music, resulting in such hits as "Unchain My Heart" and "Hit the Road, Jack". In 1962, Charles surprised his new, broad audience with his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which included the numbers "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me". This was followed by a series of hits, including "You Are My Sunshine", ""Crying Time", "Busted" and "Take These Chains From My Heart".
In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession of heroin and was jailed for one year. After gaining his freedom, Charles defiantly released Ashford and Simpson's "Lets Go Get Stoned" (1966).
Since the 1960s, Charles's releases have been hit-or-miss, with some massive hits and critically acclaimed work, and some music that has been dismissed as unoriginal and staid. He concentrated largely on live performances, although his version of "Georgia On My Mind", a Hoagy Carmichael song originally written for a girl named Georgia, was a hit and soon was proclaimed the state song of Georgia, with Charles performing it on the floor of the state legislature. He also had success with his unique version of "America the Beautiful". In 1980 Charles gave a musical cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers.
Later yearsDespite his support of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and his support for the civil rights movement Charles courted controversy when he toured South Africa in 1981 despite an international boycott of the country because of its apartheid policy.
A notorious ladies' man, Charles was married twice and fathered 12 children. In a 60 Minutes profile, he admitted to Ed Bradley that he "auditioned" his female back-up singers.
He became famous again in the 1990s as a spokesman for Diet Pepsi, resulting in some criticism by fans who saw this as selling out, but it is said that it boosted his career with younger audiences. He also did guest vocals for the INXS song "Please (You've Got That...)", on the Full Moon, Dirty Hearts album.
He was an original inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Jazz Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and the Playboy Hall of Fame.
Last performancesOne of Charles's last public performances was in 2003 at a televised annual electronic media journalist banquet held in Washington, D. C.. President George W. Bush was in the audience where he performed "Georgia On My Mind" and "America the Beautiful", though the singer was a bit slower and had some more vocal difficulty than in his younger days. Ray Charles's final public appearance came on April 30, 2004 at the dedication of his music studio as an historic landmark in the city of Los Angeles.
He died at age 73 of liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California surrounded by family and friends. A biopic, Unchain My Heart, is due for release in July 2004.