Black History Fun Facts: Ray Charles

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Starting tonight, I am launching a new Blog Series:

Black History Fun Facts

…that will come to you every Friday from now on through February. This post will be a list of Fun Facts about the cultural, archeological, biblical, or historical identity of African Americans. Sometimes it will be a bio, sometimes it will be an amazing invention, and sometimes it will be a book or movie recommendation.

My Black History Fun Fact for today is Ray Charles and the movie Ray starring Jamie Fox on the life of Ray Charles. Released in 2004, this is one of my favorite movies. The story is about the life and career of the legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles, from his humble beginnings in the South, where he went blind at age seven after the death of his little brother, to his rise to stardom during the 1950s and 1960s. I like it more because of his talent and life than his rise to fame; the musical genius of Ray and the emotional complexity of the story, which is hard not to love. Here are some fun facts:

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Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a sharecropper, moved the family to Florida when he was an infant. One of the most traumatic events of his childhood was witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother.

Soon after his brother’s death, Charles gradually began to lose his sight. He was blind by the age of 7, and his mother sent him to a state-sponsored school, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida—where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille. He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet and trumpet. The breadth of his musical interests ranged widely, from gospel to country, to blues.

Charles’s mother died when he was 15, and for a year he toured on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the South. While on the road, he picked up a love for heroin.

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At the age of 16, Charles moved to Seattle. There, he met a young Quincy Jones, a friend and collaborator he would keep for the rest of his life. Charles performed with the McSon Trio in 1940s. His early playing style closely resembled the work of his two major influences—Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. Charles later developed his distinctive sound.

By 1953, Charles landed a deal with Atlantic Records. He celebrated his first R&B hit single with the label, “Mess Around.”

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The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for “Georgia on My Mind,” followed by another Grammy for the single “Hit the Road, Jack.” For his day, he maintained a rare level of creative control over his own music. Charles broke down the boundaries of music genres in 1962 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. On this album, he gave his own soulful interpretations of many country classics. While thriving creatively, Charles struggled in his personal life. He continued to battle with heroin addiction. In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession.

In 2003, Charles had to cancel his tour for the first time in 53 years. He underwent hip replacement surgery. While that operation was successful, Charles soon learned he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts.

Ray Charles was a pioneer of soul music, integrating R&B, gospel, pop and country to create hits like “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.” A blind genius, he is considered one of the greatest artists of all time.

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