As his vibrant music evolved he blended R&B, Rock & Roll, big band jazz and country – the latter on the groundbreaking Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music album (1962), which gave him a US pop Number 1 with I Can’t Stop Loving You.
Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, into harsh poverty on 23 September 1930.
His mother was a washerwoman, his father a handyman. Life was hard and it would get crueller.
Ray was blinded at the age of seven from glaucoma. His younger brother drowned in a washtub in their family home. His father died in 1940, his mother five years later.
By his mid-teens, Charles had learned to read and score music in Braille and play the piano, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet. Meeting with little success in the South he moved to Seattle where his career blossomed.
Charles was picked up by Atlantic Records, and by late 1952 he was in the recording studio working with Jesse Stone. From that session some of the finest R&B sounds of the late fifties were issued, including his first Atlantic single, Mess Around, in May.
The records Charles made from 1955 – 1965 – during which time he battled, and eventually conquered, a severe heroin addiction – influenced, and were covered by, a whole host of 60s British acts, from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart.
His first major recording achievement came with his self-penned What’d I Say (August 1959), which topped the R&B chart for two weeks and reached #6 in the pop chart.
He switched record labels in 1959 to ABC Paramount (because Atlantic could not meet his financial demands). His debut for ABC was Sticks and Stones – a Top 40 hit – while Atlantic continued to release his canned material.
The hits continued, with Georgia On My Mind, Hit The Road Jack, Unchain My Heart and I Can’t Stop Loving You.
Through to the seventies Ray Charles remained in demand as a performer – headlining jazz festivals and appearing with soul legends like Aretha Franklin. He later set up his own label, Tangerine, and became a very tough businessman.
Although future records, which relied too much on pop songs and sugary string arrangements, rarely recaptured the glory of his peak years, in concert his voice remained strong and wonderfully expressive.
Ray Charles died on 10 June 2004, aged 73. “A great soul has gone on,” said close friend Aretha Franklin, after news of Charles’ death was announced. “He was a fabulous man, full of humour and wit. A giant of an artist. The music world will miss his voice”.