Looking Back - Sept. 22, 2013

Ray Charles receives a standing ovation in 1979 at the Georgia Capitol after performing Georgia’s new official state song, “Georgia on My Mind,” for the General Assembly. (File Photo)

Ray Charles receives a standing ovation in 1979 at the Georgia Capitol after performing Georgia’s new official state song, “Georgia on My Mind,” for the General Assembly. (File Photo)

Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or mary.braswell@albanyherald.com.

It was in Albany on Sept. 23, 1930, that Ray Charles was born. Here is a look back at the life of the great musician born Ray Charles Robinson.


— Born the son of Bailey Robinson, a railroad repair man, mechanic and general handyman, and Aretha Williams Robinson, a sharecropper and laundress, Charles and his family moved when he was still an infant to Florida.

— The Robinsons lived in the poor black community of Greenville, Florida during the Great Depression. Soon after the birth of a second son, Bailey Robinson played only an occasional role as a father. He died when Charles was 10.

— When Charles was 5 years old and his brother George was 4, they were playing in the yard near their mother’s large metal washtub when the the younger brother fell into the tub. Charles was unable to get him out and by the time he summoned his mother, it was too late. Well into adulthood, and stardom, Charles expressed guilt over the accident.

— Not long after the drowning, Charles began to lose his sight from untreated glaucoma. By the time he was 7, Charles had completely lost his vision.

— Aretha Robinson never allowed her son’s lack of sight keep him from bringing in water and firewood or other chores. She allowed him to roam around the neighborhood and make his own mistakes, including sometimes tripping and/or falling. In later life, Charles credited his mother for his independence and ability to get from place to place.

— Charles, again thanks to his mother, was accepted as a charity student at what was then-called the Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb in St. Augustine, Fla. Charles stayed at the school for eight years, spending summers at home.

— Just before Charles turned 15, his mother died and life was never the same. Charles lived and worked, sporadically, as a musician in Jacksonville then Tampa. Wanting a band of his own and a new start, Charles asked a friend what city in the continental U.S. was farthest from Florida. It was 1948 when 17-year-old Charles arrived in Seattle, Wash.


— In 1949, Charles released his first single, “Confession Blues,” with the Maxin Trio. By 1953, Charles was signed by Atlantic Records and his first hit for the label was “Mess Around.”

— In 1954, Charles recorded his own composition “I Got a Woman” and the song began his first No. 1 R&B hit propelling him into the limelight in 1955.

— The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for “Georgia on My Mind,” followed by a second Grammy for “Hit the Road, Jack.”

— Two volumes of “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” helped country music as much as it did Charles in 1962. Some of the songs included “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” “Hey, Good Lookin,’” “Take these Chains from my Heart” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

— “Seven Spanish Angels” made it all the way to the top on Billboard’s Country Chart, a duet with Willie Nelson.

— Time stood still at the second game of the World Series as Ray Charles performed “America the Beautiful” just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

— Ray Charles won 12 Grammy Awards during his lifetime and another four posthumously.


— In 1959, a new contract with ABC-Paramount Records offered Charles more than most any other musician at the time. Included in the fine print was a $50,000 annual advance, higher than usual royalties and ownership of his master recordings.

— Charles had 12 children by nine different women. He was married twice.

— The seemingly unstoppable career of Charles came to screeching halt in 1965 when he was arrested for a third time for possession (and use) of heroin. This third arrest, in Boston, led to a stay at a clinic in Los Angeles in lieu of jail. Charles had been using heroin since he was about 16, not long after his mother’s death. Rehab worked and Charles stayed away from heroin for the remainder of his life. The musician did, however, enjoy a cup of coffee laced with gin daily.

— When handling cash, Charles preferred to use only one-dollar bills.

— In 1980, Charles appeared in the film “The Blues Brothers” as a seedy music store owner that sold the band a piano for $200. He, along with the band, performed “Shake Your Tailfeather.” In 1996, he played a bus driver in “Spy Hard” with the line, “Next stop, Sunset Boulevard. At least I think it’s Sunset Boulevard.”

— In 1985, Charles performed at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and again in 1993 for President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.

— Charles once made a television commercial for the Peugot 306 and, yes, he did drive the car in Death Valley.

Chess was a favorite game and Charles would often set up the specially-made chess board between sets.

— In December 2002 at a family luncheon, Charles gave the 10 of his 12 children who were in attendance each a check for $1 million.

— In 2003, Charles had to cancel a tour for the first time in 53 years as he underwent a hip replacement.

— The screenplay for “Ray” was translated into Braille so that Charles could read it. He lived long enough to sit through the first editing.

— Ray Charles died at his home in Beverly Hills on June 10, 2004 because of liver failure at the age of 73.


Aretha Robinson frequently reminded her son Ray Charles that (d) he was blind, not stupid.

“My version of ‘Georgia’ became the state song for Georgia. That was a big thing for me. It really touched me. Here is a state that used to lynch people like me suddenly declaring my version of a song as its state song. That is touching.” — Ray Charles, 1979