Ritz, D (2003) Brother Ray: Ray Charles Own Story
Ray Charles is well known for his ability to play, compose and perform music across a plethora of genres. His work has inspired generations and will continue to do so for years to come. It is thought by many that he was responsible for the creation of soul music. Growing up during the great depression of the 1930s , Charles' career spanned over the vast changes in American society.
His music bore witness to the trials and tribulations of socially segregated America and aided the
African-American plight for equality throughout the civel rights movement. The creativity and skill of his work united music from many cultural backgrounds and helped to break down the barriers of white and black segregation.
Christened Ray Charles Robinson, he was described by Frank Sinatra as “The only Genius in our business” (1966). The nickname, “The Genius”, stuck and became what Charles was known as within the music industry. Born on September 23rd 1930 in Albany, Georgia, Charles' early life and upbringing had a great influence on his career. When he was a little boy he would sing gospel music and play piano at church. One of his earliest memories was listening to a neighbour playing 'boogie-woogie' tunes on his upright piano. “I was born with music inside me,” he said. “And from the moment I learned there were piano keys to be mashed, I started mashing ‘em, trying to make sounds out of feelings”. (Charles, 1992) Unfortunately, not all of his early memories were fond ones. At the young age of four, Charles witnessed his younger brother drown in the bath tub in the back yard of their home, he had tried to save him but wasn't strong enough to pull him to safety. In the biography written by Charles' son, Ray Charles Robinson Jr, he disclosed that the ordeal had affected his father for the rest of his life and that he had always felt responsible for the death of his sibling (2010). Shortly after this tragedy and just five years old, Charles contracted Glaucoma, an eye condition which left him completely and irrevocably blind within two years. Charles made mention of this period in his life in his autobiography, 'Brother Ray'. He said, “My music has roots which I'd dug up from my own childhood, musical roots buried in the darkest soil.” (1992). His single mother, who passed away when Charles was just fifteen, enrolled him at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. It was at this school that Charles' musical creativity began to develop and take shape.
At school he was taught classical piano and learned to read music by brail. He was drawn to the radio and would spend hours on end listening to music of all kinds. “I was totally in love with Nat King Cole's music, I ate, slept, and drank everything Nat King Cole. I wanted to be like him because he played the piano and sang and put all those tasty little things behind his singing. That's what I wanted to do, so he became my idol. I practiced day and night to sound like Nat Cole.”(Charles, 1992) Charles was also heavily influenced by the blues singer and piano player Charles Brown however, his greatest influence was Louis Jordan who had dominated black radio stations during the 1940's with his 'Feel Good' tunes. Jordan had brought a new sound to the listeners, something different to the Jazz and Blues music that had frequented black radio stations for years. In 1945 Jordan released 'Caledonia' it was one of his biggest hits and lead the way for entire generation of musicians. He had created a 'Brand New' type of music (Charles, 2005). This kind of music went on to become know as Rhythm and Blues or R&B and was the genre of which Charles would later embrace and build a career upon.
After leaving school…