Born poor and black in the South, losing his vision by age 7, and orphaned at 15, Charles spent his life fighting low expectations. Learning to read and write music in Braille and to play numerous instruments helped him score and arrange music for the various bands he would join. He played the Florida Chitlin’ Circuit, then made the rounds of Seattle’s Red Light District, where he met a lifelong friend, the young Quincy Jones. Ray formed the McSon Trio, who had a regional hit with “Confession Blues”, and he was signed to Swing Time Records. In 1952, Atlantic Records bought out his contract.
In 1954, he released the record that would mark his place in musical history. “I Got a Woman” which combined gospel and the blues and was the first song ever to be called ‘soul’ music. It climbed the R & B charts to number one, and earned Ray the honored title of “genius.”
Ray was soon a hot touring act, playing Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz festival. One night in 1959 he ran run out of material, so he spontaneously began a simple call-and-response. He knew by the reaction from the audience that he had to record “What’d I Say”. This would turn out to be his first top 10 hit, even though many radio stations wouldn’t play it due to of the suggestive moans of the Raelettes. The next year, 1960, he had his first number one smash “Georgia on My Mind.”
Charles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show occurred on December 3rd 1967. The episode opened with a bang as Ray and Billy Preston played “Double Oh Soul”. Ray also performed a stirring cover of “Yesterday” and his hit “What’d I Say” while the Raelettes sang back-up.
Ray’s only other appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was on December 8th 1968. He once again opened the show singing “Marie” with the Ray Charles Orchestra. He followed it up with a soulful cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, again with the Raelettes, and finished with a solo performance of the Little Milton’s bluesy classic, “If It Weren’t For Bad Luck.”
Ray would become known for exploring his gospel, R & B, soul and country music roots. Armed with thirty-three Top 40 hits, Ray Charles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. Although he passed away in 2004 due to liver cancer, Charles’ record company was able to release three posthumous albums, one of which (“Genius Loves Company”) was honored with 8 Grammy awards. Ray Charles is the epitome of soul which he defined for Time magazine in 1968, “It’s a force that can light a room. The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you’ve been and what it means. Soul is a way of life—but it’s always the hard way.” Ray Charles was already a superstar when he graced the Sullivan stage and its history is richer for Ray’s unforgettable performances which were witnessed by tens of millions of Sunday night viewers.