At 73 years old, Ray Charles has this physical status:
After leaving school, Charles moved to Jacksonville to live with Charles Wayne Powell, who had been friends with his late mother. He played the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla for over a year, earning $4 a night (US$41, in 2021 value). He joined Local 632 of the American Federation of Musicians, in the hope that it would help him get work, and was able to use the union hall's piano to practice, since he did not have one at home; he learned piano licks from copying the other players there. He started to build a reputation as a talented musician in Jacksonville, but the jobs did not come fast enough for him to construct a strong identity, so, at age 16, he moved to Orlando, where he lived in borderline poverty and went without food for days. It was difficult for musicians to find work; since World War II had ended, there were no "G.I. Joes" left to entertain. Charles eventually started to write arrangements for a pop music band, and in the summer of 1947, he unsuccessfully auditioned to play piano for Lucky Millinder and his sixteen-piece band.
In 1947, Charles moved to Tampa, where he held two jobs, including one as a pianist for Charles Brantley's Honey Dippers.
In his early career, Charles modeled himself on Nat King Cole. His first four recordings—"Wondering and Wondering", "Walking and Talking", "Why Did You Go?" and "I Found My Baby There"—were allegedly done in Tampa, although some discographies claim he recorded them in Miami in 1951 or else Los Angeles in 1952.
Charles had always played piano for other people, but he was keen to have his own band. He decided to leave Florida for a large city, and, considering Chicago and New York City too big, followed his friend Gossie McKee to Seattle, Washington, in March 1948, knowing that the biggest radio hits came from northern cities. There he met and befriended, under the tutelage of Robert Blackwell, the 15-year-old Quincy Jones.
With Charles on piano, McKee on guitar, and Milton Garred on bass, the McSon Trio (named for McKee and Robinson) started playing the 1–5 A.M. shift at the Rocking Chair. Publicity photos of this trio are some of the earliest known photographs of Charles. In April 1949, he and his band recorded "Confession Blues", which became his first national hit, soaring to the second spot on the Billboard R&B chart. While still working at the Rocking Chair, Charles also arranged songs for other artists, including Cole Porter's "Ghost of a Chance" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Emanon". After the success of his first two singles, Charles moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and spent the next few years touring with the blues musician Lowell Fulson as Fulson's musical director.
In 1950, Charles' performance in a Miami hotel impressed Henry Stone, who went on to record a Ray Charles Rockin' record, which did not achieve popularity. During his stay in Miami, Charles was required to stay in the segregated but thriving black community of Overtown. Stone later helped Jerry Wexler find Charles in St. Petersburg.
After signing with Swing Time Records, Charles recorded two more R&B hits under the name Ray Charles: "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand" (1951), which reached No. 5, and "Kissa Me Baby" (1952), which reached No. 8. Swing Time folded the following year, and Ahmet Ertegun signed Charles to Atlantic.
In addition to being a musician, Charles was also a record producer, producing Guitar Slim's number 1 hit, "The Things That I Used to Do".
In June 1952, Atlantic bought Charles's contract for $2,500 (US$25,511 in 2021 dollars). His first recording session for Atlantic ("The Midnight Hour"/"Roll with My Baby") took place in September 1952, although his last Swing Time release ("Misery in My Heart"/"The Snow Is Falling") would not appear until February 1953.
In 1953, "Mess Around" became his first small hit for Atlantic; during the next year, he had hits with "It Should've Been Me" and "Don't You Know". He also recorded the songs "Midnight Hour" and "Sinner's Prayer" around this time.
Late in 1954, Charles recorded "I've Got a Woman". The lyrics were written by bandleader Renald Richard. Charles claimed the composition. They later admitted that the song went back to the Southern Tones' "It Must Be Jesus" (1954). It became one of his most notable hits, reaching No. 2 on the R&B chart. "I've Got a Woman" combined gospel, jazz, and blues elements. In 1955, he had hits with "This Little Girl of Mine" and "A Fool for You". In upcoming years, hits included "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Hallelujah I Love Her So".
Charles also recorded jazz, such as The Great Ray Charles (1957). He worked with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, releasing Soul Brothers in 1958 and Soul Meeting in 1961. By 1958, he was not only headlining major black venues such as the Apollo Theater in New York, but also larger venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival, where his first live album was recorded in 1958. He hired a female singing group, the Cookies, and renamed them the Raelettes. In 1958, Charles and the Raelettes performed for the famed Cavalcade of Jazz concert produced by Leon Hefflin Sr. held at the Shrine Auditorium on August 3. The other headliners were Little Willie John, Sam Cooke, Ernie Freeman, and Bo Rhambo. Sammy Davis Jr. was also there to crown the winner of the Miss Cavalcade of Jazz beauty contest. The event featured the top four prominent disc jockeys of Los Angeles.
Charles reached the pinnacle of his success at Atlantic with the release of "What'd I Say", which combined gospel, jazz, blues and Latin music. Charles said he wrote it spontaneously while he was performing in clubs with his band. Despite some radio stations banning the song because of its sexually suggestive lyrics, the song became Charles' first top-ten pop record. It reached No. 6 on the Billboard Pop chart and No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1959. Later that year, he released his first country song (a cover of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On") and recorded three more albums for the label: a jazz record (The Genius After Hours, 1961); a blues record (The Genius Sings the Blues, 1961); and a big band record (The Genius of Ray Charles, 1959) which was his first Top 40 album, peaking at No. 17.
Charles' contract with Atlantic expired in 1959, and several big labels offered him record deals. Choosing not to renegotiate his contract with Atlantic, he signed with ABC-Paramount in November 1959. He obtained a more liberal contract than other artists had at the time, with ABC offering him a $50,000 (US$464,783 in 2021 dollars) annual advance, higher royalties than before, and eventual ownership of his master tapes—a very valuable and lucrative deal at the time. During his Atlantic years, Charles had been hailed for his inventive compositions, but by the time of the release of the largely instrumental jazz album Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960) for ABC's subsidiary label Impulse!, he had given up on writing in favor of becoming a cover artist, giving his own eclectic arrangements of existing songs.
With "Georgia on My Mind", his first hit single for ABC-Paramount in 1960, Charles received national acclaim and four Grammy Awards, including two for "Georgia on My Mind" (Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track, Male, and Best Performance by a Pop Single Artist). Written by Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael, the song was Charles' first work with Sid Feller, who produced, arranged and conducted the recording. Charles' rendition of the tune would help elevate it to the status of an American classic, and his version also became the state song of Georgia later on in 1979.
Charles earned another Grammy for the follow-up track "Hit the Road Jack", written by R&B singer Percy Mayfield.
By late 1961, Charles had expanded his small road ensemble to a big band, partly as a response to increasing royalties and touring fees, becoming one of the few black artists to cross over into mainstream pop with such a level of creative control. This success, however, came to a momentary halt during a concert tour in November 1961, when a police search of Charles's hotel room in Indianapolis, Indiana, led to the discovery of heroin in the medicine cabinet. The case was eventually dropped, as the search lacked a proper warrant by the police, and Charles soon returned to music.
In the early 1960s, on the way from Louisiana to Oklahoma City, Charles faced a near-death experience when the pilot of his plane lost visibility, as snow and his failure to use the defroster caused the windshield of the plane to become completely covered in ice. The pilot made a few circles in the air before he was finally able to see through a small part of the windshield and land the plane. Charles placed a spiritual interpretation on the experience, claiming that "something or someone which instruments cannot detect" was responsible for creating the small opening in the ice on the windshield which enabled the pilot to eventually land the plane safely.
The 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and its sequel, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2, helped to bring country music into the musical mainstream. Charles's version of the Don Gibson song "I Can't Stop Loving You" topped the Pop chart for five weeks, stayed at No. 1 on the R&B chart for ten weeks, and gave him his only number-one record in the UK. In 1962, he founded his record label, Tangerine, which ABC-Paramount promoted and distributed.: 248 : 213–16 He had major pop hits in 1963 with "Busted" (US No. 4) and "Take These Chains from My Heart" (US No. 8). In 1964, Margie Hendrix was kicked out of the Raelettes after a big argument.
In 1964, Charles's career was halted once more after he was arrested for a third time for possession of heroin. He agreed to go to a rehabilitative facility to avoid jail time and eventually kicked his habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. After spending a year on parole, Charles reappeared in the charts in 1966 with a series of hits composed with Ashford & Simpson and Jo Armstead, including the dance number "I Don't Need No Doctor" and "Let's Go Get Stoned", which became his first number-one R&B hit in several years. His cover version of "Crying Time", originally recorded by country singer Buck Owens, reached No. 6 on the pop chart and helped Charles win a Grammy Award the following March. In 1967, he had a top-twenty hit with another ballad, "Here We Go Again".
Charles's renewed chart success, however, proved to be short lived, and by the 1970s his music was rarely played on radio stations. The rise of psychedelic rock and harder forms of rock and R&B music had reduced Charles's radio appeal, as did his choosing to record pop standards and covers of contemporary rock and soul hits, since his earnings from owning his master tapes had taken away the motivation to write new material. Charles nonetheless continued to have an active recording career. Most of his recordings between 1968 and 1973 evoked strong reactions: either adored or panned by fans and critics alike. His recordings during this period, especially 1972's A Message from the People, moved toward the progressive soul sound popular at the time. A Message from the People included his unique gospel-influenced version of "America the Beautiful" and a number of protest songs about poverty and civil rights. Charles was often criticized for his version of "America the Beautiful" because it was very drastically changed from the song's original version. On July 14, 1973, Margie Hendrix, the mother of Ray's son Charles Wayne Hendrix, died at 38 years old, which led to Ray caring for the child. The official cause of her death is unknown.
In 1974, Charles left ABC Records and recorded several albums on his own label, Crossover Records. A 1975 recording of Stevie Wonder's hit "Living for the City" later helped Charles win another Grammy. In 1977, he reunited with Ahmet Ertegun and re-signed to Atlantic Records, for which he recorded the album True to Life, remaining with his old label until 1980. However, the label had now begun to focus on rock acts, and some of their prominent soul artists, such as Aretha Franklin, were starting to be neglected. In November 1977 he appeared as the host of the NBC television show Saturday Night Live.
In April 1979, his version of "Georgia on My Mind" was proclaimed the state song of Georgia, and an emotional Charles performed the song on the floor of the state legislature. In 1980 Charles performed in the musical film The Blues Brothers. Although he had notably supported the American Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, Charles was criticized for performing at the Sun City resort in South Africa in 1981 during an international boycott protesting that country's apartheid policy. He later defended his choice of performing there, insisting that the audience of black and white fans would integrate while he was there.
In 1983, Charles signed a contract with Columbia. He recorded a string of country albums and had hit singles in duets with singers such as George Jones, Chet Atkins, B. J. Thomas, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams Jr., Dee Dee Bridgewater ("Precious Thing") and his longtime friend Willie Nelson, with whom he recorded "Seven Spanish Angels".
In 1985, Charles participated in the musical recording and video "We Are the World", a charity single recorded by the supergroup United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa.
Before the release of his first album for Warner, Would You Believe, Charles made a return to the R&B charts with a cover of the Brothers Johnson's "I'll Be Good to You", a duet with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones and the singer Chaka Khan, which hit number one on the R&B chart in 1990 and won Charles and Khan a Grammy for their duet. Prior to this, Charles returned to the pop charts with "Baby Grand", a duet with singer-songwriter Billy Joel. In 1989, he recorded a cover of the Southern All Stars' "Itoshi no Ellie" for a Japanese TV advertisement for the Suntory brand, releasing it in Japan as "Ellie My Love", where it reached No. 3 on its Oricon chart. In the same year he was a special guest at the Arena di Verona during the tour promoting Oro Incenso & Birra of the Italian singer Zucchero Fornaciari.
In 2001–02, Charles appeared in commercials for the New Jersey Lottery to promote its campaign "For every dream, there's a jackpot".
In 2003, he headlined the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, D.C., attended by President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Also in 2003, Charles presented Van Morrison with Morrison's award upon being inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the two sang Morrison's song "Crazy Love" (the performance appears on Morrison's 2007 album The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3). In 2003, Charles performed "Georgia on My Mind" and "America the Beautiful" at a televised annual banquet of electronic media journalists held in Washington, D.C. His final public appearance was on April 30, 2004, at the dedication of his music studio as a historic landmark in Los Angeles.