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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,573

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This is the grave of Ray Charles.

Born in Albany, Georgia in 1930, Ray Charles Robinson grew up very poor. His mother was an orphan a family had taken in and then the father of that family had sex with the girl and Ray Charles was the result. That forced his mother out of course and into a life of poverty as a single Black mother in the Jim Crow South. As a kid Charles was known for his love of tinkering and playing with machines. He also started playing the piano. But he was going blind. Probably today this could have been reversed. He likely had glaucoma. But he was completely blind by age 7.

Charles’ mother was a quite determined woman and wanted to do the best by her blind son. She got a school for the blind and deaf in St. Augustine, Florida to accept him and get him the best education possible for a blind boy of his race at that time. He had a great music teacher there and she really got him to develop his piano playing. It was mostly classical and that obviously was not what he would become known for, but it helped him become enough of a master of the instrument for his future career.

Charles dropped out of school at age 14, when his mother died. By this time, he was good enough to earn a bit of money working in local Jacksonville bands. For the next several years, he moved around to try and find gigs. It was a hard go. There wasn’t much money in it, especially with World War II ending and people staying at home more rather than moving around the nation. In 1948, after four years of struggling to make it in Florida, he followed a buddy of his who was moving to Seattle. While there, he met another young musician trying to make it named Quincy Jones. They became buddies.

Charles started a band–the McSon Trio–and it did not take long at all to make an impression, He had his first hit in 1949 with “Confession Blues,” which hit #2 on the R&B charts. Big musicians such as Cole Porter were already hiring him as an arranger too. He was recording under the name Ray Charles by 1950 and he had a few minor hits that year. The real move to the top came in 1952 when he signed with Atlantic. He had a hit with “Mess Around” in 1953 and then he recorded “I’ve Got a Woman” in 1954, which might be his first true, 100% classic. Hits started coming, at least on the R&B charts, pretty frequently now. In 1958, he headlined the Newport Jazz Festival and the album coming from that show is absolutely fantastic. It’s the Charles album I return to again and again. He also did some straight ahead jazz albums in the late 50s, with 1957’s The Great Ray Charles being completely instrumental, Charles leading on his piano.

So by 1959, Charles was a big deal. He was successful. He was a huge talent. But there’s still a difference between being a big deal to music people and being a big deal to the general public who don’t pay that much attention really. His contract expired with Atlantic in 1959 and he wanted to break out of what was basically a Black music label. So he signed with ABC-Paramount and for the next decade was among the biggest stars in American music. For one thing, he recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962, a gigantic success that was his covers of country songs. It still mostly holds up great. Some people don’t like the syrupy strings on some of the songs, but that wasn’t much more than what the Nashville Sound was doing to the white artists who originally recorded these songs. It’s also worth noting that there’s long been a huge amount of crossover between R&B and country artists and it’s the fans who often don’t get this because the artists sure do. The real hit off this was Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which is a fantastic song whether it is Gibson or Charles singing it. I’m sure Gibson loved those royalty checks too!

Charles had perhaps the biggest hit of his career in 1960 with “Georgia on My Mind,” which won the Grammy. In fact, Charles won four Grammys that year. He won in 1961 too for “Hit the Road Jack.” He later won another Grammy in 1967 for his cover of Buck Owens’ “Crying Time,” speaking again of Charles’ relationship to country music.

The 1970s and 80s were tough for radio play and record sales, as Charles was not at the forefront of rock and roll of that time. Why play Ray Charles when you can play Rush! But he did have a lot of critical success still in these years, won another Grammy in 1975 for his version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” and even hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977.

Charles’ personal life was basically a disaster. He was a junkie for 17 years, with several arrests in there. Like a lot of musicians in this era, he got into heroin basically because that’s what jazz and jazz-adjacent guys did and he wanted to be those guys. It was just part of the scene. Then there were the women. Charles’ gender politics were like, uh, not great. He claimed to be a sex addict and maybe he was. In any case, he had 12 children by 10 different women. Charles finally got off heroin in 1964, when he agreed to treatment in exchange for a suspended sentence after another arrest. He stayed off it this time too, later recording some songs about going cold turkey.

By the 1980s, Charles realized his commercial viability was connected to country music so he recorded a bunch of country albums in that decade. He was part of the “We Are the World” crew. He had a late R&B #1 hit in 1990 with “I’ll Be Good To You,” for which he worked with his old friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan. In his later years, he was basically just a legend who got trotted out here and there for universal and well deserved adulation.

Charles worked until pretty close to the end. He died in 2004, at the age of 73. It was liver failure that got him eventually.

There’s so much more to say about this legend, but this post is long enough so let’s do it in comments.

Ray Charles is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other great R&B singers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Aretha Franklin is in Detroit and Luther Vandross is in Paramus, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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