Frank Sinatra called him a genius. Billy Joel called him more important than Elvis Presley. Country singer Glen Campbell sang at his funeral. So what kind of performer gets this wide variety of attention? The answer is Ray Charles, the crossover king. Charles had his hands in all kinds of music styles and, in his spare time, was enmeshed in his fair share of scandal. Oh, did I mention he was also blind? Keep reading to see how this complex, multi-talented—and occasionally infuriating—man became known as the Crossover King.
In Albany Georgia, Aretha Robinson gave birth to Ray Charles Robinson on September 30, 1930—but the story is a little more complicated than that. You see, Aretha had lost her mother when she was a girl, and her father, unable to care for a baby, did something drastic. He simply handed his little girl over to his boss, Bailey Robinson. Robinson and his wife Mary promised to raise Aretha as if she were their own.
Let’s just say…that did not happen. Not at all.
By the time Charles’ mother Aretha Robinson was 15, she was pregnant. But that wasn’t the worst news. It turns out that the man who got her pregnant was none other than Aretha’s adoptive father. A scandal erupted, and Aretha Robinson escaped her family home to be with her aunts and uncles. It was there that she gave birth to Ray Charles Robinson.
What Aretha did next, however, defied explanation.
For some reason, Aretha Robinson packed up her young son and returned to the home of Bailey and Mary Robinson—the very place where her assault had taken place. Bailey quickly took flight from the volatile situation, and Aretha quietly set up house with Mary Robinson, the wife of the man who’d attacked her. The two women raised Charles together—which may have been more than a little awkward.
At the tender age of three, Charles was hanging out at the Wylie Pitman’s Red Wing Cafe. Pitman liked to play piano in the boogie-woogie style popular at the time, and people started to notice how much young Charles liked it. Pitman was a family friend and he took Charles under his wing, even teaching him to play the piano. Little did Pitman know the talent he was kindling.
Before Charles could become famous, however, there was a whole lot of heartache coming his way.
When Charles was just five years old, he witnessed a horrific tragedy. It was his baby brother George’s bath time and someone left him unattended in his washtub. Charles watched in horror as his baby brother slipped down into the bathwater. Five-year-old Charles was helpless, he could do nothing but watch his little brother drown.
Charles then went from seeing something awful—to not seeing anything at all.
It was around the same time as the loss of his brother that Charles’ eyesight started to diminish. By the time he was seven years old, Charles was completely blind. Life was extremely hard for the Robinsons. They were dirt poor and his single mom faced raising a blind child on her own—while mourning the loss of his baby brother.
Don’t forget, however, that Charles actually had two women looking out for him.
At this time, Charles and his mother were still living with Charles’ father’s former wife: Mary Robinson. The story goes that Mary Robinson, who he called Mother, was a more indulgent nurturer. It was Mama, his biological mother, who was bent on making Charles independent despite his blindness. Mama, with no education of her own—and no money to speak of—searched for a proper education for her blind son.
If she hadn’t found a school for her son, who knows what would have become of him.
After a tireless search, Aretha found the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind—located in St. Augustine. The school accepted Charles at the age of seven and, lucky for him, there was a music program there. Charles learned to play classical music while still a young child. But wasn’t there a problem? How could he read the music if he was completely blind?
Charles' teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, taught Charles a rather difficult process. What he read with braille on his right hand, he played on the piano with his left—and vice versa. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it was. The fact that Charles could do this as a child was a good indicator of his musical genius to come.
Ray Charles didn’t only play the piano at school. Teachers there also taught him the saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet. He also learned how to compose music in braille. By the age of 12, Charles could do something incredible. He could single-handedly arrange and write the score for big band music. Charles later said that something even more life-changing happened while at school—something definitely not on the curriculum.
Ray Charles claimed in his biography that when he was just 12 years old, he met a woman who was 20. Somehow the two got into some kind of relationship, and he lost his virginity to her. While many might see this as a tragic situation, grown-up Charles later saw it as a passage of life. Clearly, Charles was making the most of his education.
But while he was shaking things up at his St. Augustine school, tragedy awaited him back at home.
At the age of 14, Charles was still attending Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. One day he got a phone call, and it was the worst news Charles could hear. His mother—his “guiding light”—had passed on, and Charles was devastated. He later said that he had two great tragedies in his life: the passing of his brother and his mother. Notice he didn’t even mention losing his eyesight.
Once he had his mother buried, Charles made a bold decision.
Even though Charles never knew his father, he had found out that he too had passed, which left Charles with literally no one. So, at the age of 15, he packed up and went to Jacksonville and lived with a friend of his mother’s. Here, Charles got jobs playing for bands and made $4 a night. Adjusting for inflation, it’s still only about $41. Charles needed more money, and working in Florida was not going to provide it.
Ray Charles wanted to move, but he was afraid of getting lost in the huge Chicago and New York music scenes. Instead, he set his sights on Seattle, which seemed much more manageable. Once in Seattle, Charles met another 15-year-old musician—Quincy Jones. Who could have guessed that these two teenagers would one day dominate the American music scene.
But before Charles could really make it big, he had to first make it small.
At the tender age of 19, Charles started up a trio and he called it McSon. His partner’s name was McKee, and Charles was still going by Robinson. With McSon, Charles played the night shift: 1-5 AM at a bar called the Rocking Chair. McSon also did something more important. They made a national hit record. Things were looking up for Charles, and that's when he took another kind of hit—getting into illicit substances.
We’ll soon see how this casual use would lead to some major trouble for Charles.
Charles’ hit record—Confession Blues—led him to some performance dates at a Miami hotel. Instead of staying in the hotel where he was playing, they asked Charles to stay somewhere else. Was it because he was a big star and they wanted somewhere more deluxe than the hotel? Absolutely not. No, the real reason was far more disturbing.
This was 1950, and racial segregation required Charles to stay in Overtown, Florida—a neighborhood for Black Americans. In spite of insulting situations like these, Charles continued to move his career forward.
Ray Charles was soon under contract with Atlantic Records. There was no stopping Charles—he churned out hit after hit. In 1954, however, “I’ve Got A Woman” almost derailed his entire career. While Charles’ bandmate took credit for the lyrics, Charles said the composition was his. But the listening public swore they’d heard the tune somewhere before.
Sure enough, Charles had lifted the melody from “It Must Be Jesus” by the Southern Tones. This got him into trouble for two reasons.
Of course, no one likes an artist who takes credit for someone else’s work. But there was something else—something much more scandalous. You see, Charles had taken a religious song and made it…well…very unreligious. Preachers and members of their congregations were livid. The song was supposed to be about Jesus, and Charles had changed it to something nasty.
Despite the controversy, Charles was onto something.
Ray Charles was certainly not the first musician to combine his blues with a little gospel, but he added something to the mix that was unique—himself. Charles had created a signature sound that the music-loving public was latching on to. Before long, he stopped trying to hide the fact that he was borrowing tunes from Gospel songs. Check out this obvious adaptation: the Gospel song “This Little Light of Mine” simply became “This Little Girl of Mine.”
Charles may have been dabbling in gospel tunes—but in his real life, he was dabbling in something much darker.
After Charles tried weed, he found something stronger: opiates. It’s not clear when he started using, but it was very clear when the authorities found out. They caught Charles backstage with cannabis and, worse still, paraphernalia associated with intravenous drug use. Officers detained him in 1955. But this did not stop Charles, who was now a full-on addict.
Between all the touring and the substance misuse, Ray Charles managed to marry not just one, but two women. The first was Eileen Williams, but this only lasted a year. His second wife, however, had staying power. Her name was Della Beatrice Howard, who Charles called Bea. The two met in Texas in 1954 and married the next year.
The same year they got married they produced a son: Ray Charles Robinson Jr. But Charles had an exhausting career and an addiction—what kind of future could this marriage possibly have?
Having personal problems—and now a small family—didn’t slow Charles' career down. He played exclusively Black venues like the Apollo Theater and also more prominent venues like Carnegie Hall. In 1958, Charles realized he needed something: his own backup singers. The all-female group The Cookies became the exclusive property of Charles, who—in order to claim the group as his own—changed their name to the Raelettes.
One night in 1958, Ray Charles stood in front of an audience and had a problem. He and the Raelettes had performed all their songs, but they had 12 minutes left in the set. Charles quietly asked the Raelettes to follow his lead, and he started playing the keyboard. He began improvising random lyrics and the Raelettes started calling them back.
Charles couldn’t help but notice that the room was literally shaking from the audience’s excited response.
After performing the song a few more times—and getting a similar audience response—Charles made a decision. He was going to record the improvised song. The title was “What’d I Say” and it was recorded in a cramped recording studio at Atlantic Records. Charles was sure it would be a hit—while producers were pretty sure about something else.
The song was absolutely obscene.
The improvised lyrics of “What’d I Say” were not really the issue: and they could easily remove a few problematic lyrics like “Shake that thing”. The obscene part was the moans and groans of Charles and the Raelettes that Charles himself compared to the “sweet sounds of love”. They may have been sweet, but they were not radio-friendly—not in 1959 anyway.
There was another problem. The song was too long. This was when the recording engineer had a great idea.
The recording engineer of “What’d I Say” had the idea to split the song into two parts. The first side, imaginatively titled “What’d I Say Part I,” clocked in at 3:05 and stopped before the moans and groans got too explicit. “What I’d Say Part II” was shorter and much more raunchy. What they had was a radio version and a home-use version. Problem solved.
Who knew that this raunchy improvised song would be Charles’ ticket to the big time?
There was something else about “What’d I Say”. The song brought together all the sounds that Charles had been playing with. It used gospel and rhumba and created something new—soul music. This was the first song called soul, and Black audiences ate it up. What was also surprising was the response of white listeners. They took notice of Charles for the first time.
Charles had now successfully crossed over—and there was no stopping him.
Ray Charles and the Raelettes were becoming famous for their recorded sounds of love—but there was also something scandalous happening off the record as well. The same year that Charles released “What’d I Say,” he started an affair with Raelettes member Margie Hendrix—even though he was still married to Bea. His relationship with Hendrix may have flown under the radar, except for one thing.
In 1959, the two had a child together. Hendrix wanted Charles to leave Bea and live with her and their son…but Charles had no intention of doing any such thing.
While Charles was dealing with romantic entanglements, he was also struggling with professional ones. His contract with Atlantic Records had expired and he took the opportunity to make a switch to ABC-Paramount. Here Charles got higher royalties, huge advances, and something most musicians craved: ownership of the master tapes.
Charles was soon flying high with such hits as “Georgia on my Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack”. But when Charles hit the road for a tour, there was trouble waiting for him.
Charles’ drug use was not only a problem for his health, but also for his reputation. After his trouble with law enforcement in 1955, officers again took him in from a Harlem street corner in 1958. Three years later, there was a third infraction. This time it was in an Indiana hotel room. Charles admitted that he’d been an addict since the age of 16.
His career was soaring, but how could he continue when he was always in trouble with the law?
In 1961 Charles had a gig at a dance party in Augusta, Georgia. He was all set to start when he received disturbing news. It turned out that the larger auditorium would have a cruel distinction: it would only be for white fans. Anyone Black would have to sit in the balcony. Charles refused to abide by the rule. When they wouldn’t change it, he canceled the concert.
This act of defiance would soon yield the result Charles wanted.
Ray Charles received a $757 fine for canceling the Augusta Georgia party. However, a few years later, in 1963, Charles returned to the same auditorium in Augusta and played a concert. The difference was that in that short time, the auditorium had become desegregated. In fact, many years later, the state of Georgia unveiled a large statue of Charles sitting at a piano.
Sitting at the piano was a safe place for Charles. Sitting on an airplane? Not so much.
Charles was in a small plane between Oklahoma City and Louisiana when something went horribly wrong. For some reason, the pilot had neglected to use the defroster and the windshield quickly iced up. Eventually, the windshield of the plane was completely covered in snow and ice, and the pilot could see absolutely nothing.
The man in the cockpit was suddenly as blind as his passenger.
The pilot continued to circle around, hoping he would be able to see through the windshield. Eventually, a small break in the ice allowed the pilot to see, and he carefully landed the plane. Once on solid ground, Charles had a moment to survey his life. He saw the incident as a spiritual moment, a time to take stock of the man he’d become. He was a womanizer and a drug addict.
Surely, it was time for a change. While the moment may have been spiritual, it sadly didn’t change a thing.
At this point, Ray Charles was juggling relationships with both Raelette Margie Hendrix and his wife Bea. In 1963, he started up with someone new. Her name was Mae Mosley Lyles, and she was also a singer with the Raelettes. As with Hendrix, this relationship produced a child: Baby Renee was born in 1961. Two years later, it happened again.
This time, the woman was Sandra Jean Betts and the two had a daughter. Charles definitely had a soft spot for women, and juggling them all was almost a full-time job.
Hendrix had to get used to the fact that she and her son did not come first in Charles’ life—but she couldn’t. She continued to sing back up for Charles, but it had dire consequences. Drinking and recreational drug use took over her life. In 1964, the two had a huge argument while on tour in Europe. Charles fired her and she left the Raelettes.
Less than ten years later, she passed on at the age of 38.
Around this time, Charles’ own problems with addiction were coming back to haunt him. He was once again detained by officers for drug-related offenses—this time at Logan Airport in Boston. Charles knew he had to quit, so he checked into rehab and did something astonishing. He went cold turkey for four days. Then, once he was clean, he had to face a judge.
Charles’ four-day stint in rehab impressed the judge. It didn’t, however, impress the prosecution, who wanted two years in prison and a huge fine. This was when Charles’ psychiatrist spoke up. Dr. Hacker’s story of Charles’ battle moved the judge. He ordered Charles to go to a hospital and get regular exams by a government doctor—to prove he was clean.
He had to do this for a year, and then the judge would decide his fate.
After one year with a clean record, Charles stood before the judge once again. The judge saw a man who had kicked a dangerous habit, and he felt compassion. Charles received a suspended sentence of five years, a fine of $10,000, and probation for four years. It was a huge relief. To show his true feelings about the outcome, Charles quickly released two hits: “Let’s Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”
There was one bad habit, however, that Charles could not quit.
Ray Charles was quite open about his obsessive love of women. He had a large number of partners before, during, and after his marriage to Bea. Charles tended to like women who were older than him and—let’s put it gently—not so easy on the eyes. He said that beautiful women had the attitude that they were doing him a favor, and so he actively avoided them.
Charles' obsession with women seemed to have no end. The fans’ obsession with his music, on the other hand, did.
By the early 1970s, the music-loving public had made a switch: They now preferred hard and even psychedelic rock. While Charles continued to record, his popularity was on a decline. He then stunned audiences with a gospel-style rendition of “America the Beautiful”. The song polarized Charles’ fans. Some overly patriotic fans thought he shouldn’t have changed their beloved song so dramatically.
Clearly, Ray Charles’ career was no longer on the upswing—but he quickly found another way to soar.
At one point in his career, Ray Charles used a chartered jet to get from concert to concert. The pilot of the jet was a big fan of Charles and during some flights, he did something that really made Charles happy. The flight was usually filled with Charles’ band, and they would sometimes get a surprise. The voice of the pilot on the intercom calling out Charles' name.
Charles knew what it meant, and he would run joyfully up into the cockpit.
Once in the cockpit, Charles got into the driver’s seat of the small plane and did something most blind people have never done. He would then pilot a plane. Charles later said that he didn’t want to recommend this dangerous activity to other vision impaired people—in case something went terribly wrong. But there was something else that happened in the friendly skies—and it was even more dangerous.
The guys in Charles's band didn’t like it when he flew the plane, because it made them feel incredibly nervous. Well, it’s a good thing they didn’t know what else went on in the cockpit. The band members didn’t know it at the time, but the pilot would let Charles do something that was extremely unsafe. They would get him to land the plane.
Can you imagine what it would take to have the nerve to land a plane without being able to see? Well, there’s evidence that Charles was a better pilot than the one who was trained for the job.
In 1985, Ray Charles and company were in a private jet attempting to land at Monroe County Airport in Indiana. The conditions were abysmal due to heavy rain. During the landing, the pilot lost control. The out-of-control plane skidded on the runway, slid down a hill, and finally came to rest in a field. Charles, who was playing chess as the plane crashed, ended up in hospital with most of the people on board. Luckily, there were no serious injuries.
Ray Charles had stopped writing his own music and was often in search of material to record. In the mid-1970s, Parisian singer-songwriter Arlette Kotchounian pushed her way into a meeting with Charles. She was clutching a record of a song that she thought he might record. Charles seemed to like the song, but also felt a strong draw to Kotchounian herself.
In 1977, Charles and Kotchounian had a son together. Clearly, Ray Charles was still up to his womanizing ways—but this time, his wife was fed up.
Maybe the child with Kotchounian was the last straw. During all these affairs and births—and his addiction problems—his wife Bea had remained by Charles’s side. By 1977, she’d had it. Charles was rarely at home because of his touring. When he was at home, his behavior was volatile. It was no longer worth it being Ray Charles’ wife.
After 22 years of marriage, Bea finally asked him for a divorce. Charles had never been a one-woman man, and now he was about to pay for it—literally.
Much later in his life, when Charles thought he may not have long to live, he wanted to provide for his many children. All his affairs had left him the father of 12 children—from nine different women. The proud father set up a lunch and invited all 12 kids. At the luncheon, Charles announced that he had a gift for each of his kids: $500,000.
Charles was preparing for the end of his life.
While Ray Charles did kick harder substances, he continued to lubricate himself with other harmful substances. Until his passing, he drank a bottle of gin and consumed what he called “large quantities” of marijuana every day. He once proudly said that his substance use had never kept him from working. This may be true, but, as it turned out, it wasn’t great for his health.
In 2003, just after having hip surgery, Charles' doctor said he had two other problems: liver disease and Hepatitis C. He had a tour planned, but he canceled it. On June 10, 2004, Ray Charles passed on in his home in Beverly Hills. He was 73 years old. His star-studded funeral had performances by B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Wynton Marsalis, and even country singer Glen Campbell.
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