RAY CHARLES has the distinction of being a national treasure and a global phenomenon. For more than 40 years, he has been reaching out to all people, making rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country and western, and jazz uniquely his.
Born in Albany, Georgia in 1930 and reared in Greenville, Florida, Ray Charles learned the blues at the knee of a local shopkeeper who had a piano in his store. After being blinded by glaucoma at the age of six, he was enrolled by his mother in the State School for the Blind in St. Augustine. His mother warned him not to beg or to steal, but to believe in himself. Her words have remained with him throughout his life.
Orphaned at age 15, Ray Charles left St. Augustine and joined a dance band in Jacksonville. He toured throughout Florida and Georgia with band after band, eventually finding himself in Seattle. He made a reputation as a vocalist in the style of Nat “King” Cole, but he decided to develop his own style, and went back on the road with Lowell Fulsom’s blues band. Mixing gospel and blues brought him a following and bookings at the Apollo in Harlem. Back in Seattle, he led the Maxim Trio (the first black act in the Pacific Northwest to have a sponsored television show) and recorded for a small regional label.
In 1954, Atlantic Records bought his contract; it was at this time that Ray Charles formed his own group of seven musicians, precursor of the now-famous Ray Charles Orchestra. He also started producing a string of hits (“What’d I Say,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Ruby,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”).
He has received many awards, including the Hall of Fame Award from the NAACP’s Image Awards and a dozen Grammy Awards. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts at a 1993 ceremony at the White House by longtime fan Bill Clinton (the former president has said that the Charles version of “A Song for You” is his favorite song). In 1986, Ray Charles was honored by the French government and made Commander of Fine Arts and Letters by the Republic of France.