Ray Charles was one of the most innovative blues singers of all time. He’s mostly known for his clear unique stylistic approach to gospel music and for setting the record straight that a blind man can change music. Ray Charles Robinson grew up in Georgia in the 1930s with his strong willed mother and for a brief time his younger brother George. In his life he was often underestimated, but refused to let people “cripple” him and limit the possibilities of what he could do. He showed strength through his determination to never use a dog or a cane to aid his disability. When he started going blind at the age of seven his mother taught him how to see with his ears and find his own way. He carried his own demons throughout the early stages of his life; witnessing the death of his younger brother and his battle with heroine. Through thick and thin he was able to overcome it all with the help of a few influential people to guide his way. He was compared to Nat King Cole and Charles Brown in his early career and wasn’t thought of truly original until he sang “Mess Around” with the Atlantic record producers.
Ray definitely participated in the uses of fusion and was often criticized for the integration of R&B and gospel music. The song “I Got a Woman” was one of first attempts to the mix the two genres together. A lot of religious people were outraged by this fusion and believed that it was sinful and shouldn’t be played. Ray Charles perceived on with his vision and continued to do what felt natural to him. Similar to other artists who tried to change the face of jazz music he was ridiculed immensely for constantly changing his style. Ray made sure that he was allowed to go with his feeling for music as opposed to what was currently hip. He often dismissed other people’s opinions in favor of his own which gave his music a unique authentic sound. Of course there are those who enjoyed his music. He’s often referred by his peers as “The Father of Soul”. As mentioned previously Ray Charles style was impacted mostly with the uses of fusion that first began with Miles Davis after the cool jazz scene. Most styles of fusion were shown through rock and jazz or through country and jazz, but Ray was the first to mix gospel and R&B. Ray fused blues, gospel and jazz to create both smash hits “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on my Mind”.
Due to the fact that Ray’s career was mostly stemmed from the 1950s and 1960s he faced a lot of issues with segregation. One of the most important Civil Rights Moments in music history would be when Ray refused to perform in his hometown unless the blacks were able to sit with the audience and not just in the balcony. He was fined and then later banned from playing in Georgia because of this act. After the state became desegregated Ray received a personal apology and the song “Georgia on My Mind” became the state’s official anthem. This was one of the most significant moments of his career.
The movie Ray, released on October 29, 2004, portrayed the early stages of Ray’s career and the struggles he overcame to achieve greatness. The movie starts with Ray lying about having been in WWII to gain sympathy from the bus driver. His first gig is in Seattle where he meets Quincey Jones. In this early part of the movie he shows that although he is blind he isn’t stupid and won’t be walked all over by his peers. He faces people trying to cheat him out of money, underestimating his talent and looking down upon him. Ray keeps pushing forward, moving from opportunity to opportunity with an ambition to be great. He marries Della Bea, the daughter of a preacher and writes “I got a woman” for her. Della urges Ray Charles to embrace who he really is and not who people want him to be. On the road Ray Charles picks up some pretty bad habits, heroine and infidelity. His first mistress was Mary Anne and then later he starts an affair with one of the singers from the Raylettes, Margie. Margie leaves Ray after he refuses to leave his family and kids for her. She gives birth to their son in New York alone and later overdoses on heroine. Ray is caught with drugs a few times and goes to a rehabilitation center to mandate the courts orders and avoid prison. Throughout the movie there are a series of flashbacks of Ray’s childhood regarding his guilt about his brother’s death and his mother teaching him to not let anyone cripple you. In Rehab he has a dream during withdrawals in which his mother makes him promise not let drugs ever cripple him again and his brother telling him that his death wasn’t his fault.
Ray Charles’ story is truly remarkable when taking into consideration of the extremely poor segregated background he came from and all of the challenges he had to face. He never let being blind stop him from being great and he is now legendary in music. He teaches people to preserve and that your dream is only as small as you let it be.