As much as any musician, Ray Charles can be credited for creating what came to be known as Soul music, and laying many of the foundations for what became Rock and Roll. By combining the rhythmic fervor of African-American Gospel with the sound and instrumentation of Jazz and R&B, the singer-pianist made music that was both gritty and sophisticated, and blazed multiple musical trails through the 50s and 60s. In the process, Charles, whose emotion-charged vocals are instantly identifiable, emerged as one of America's most beloved musical icons.
Born Ray Charles Robinson in Georgia, the artist lost his sight at the age of six. He quickly became self-sufficient, and learned to compose and to play multiple instruments while attending the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. Orphaned by the time he reached his teens, he gained early experience as a sideman for Lowell Fulson, Guitar Slim, and Ruth Brown, and made his own first recordings (for the small Swing Time label) in 1951, in a derivative, relatively lightweight style patterned after Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown.
It was after Charles' Swing Time contract was purchased by New York's Atlantic Records that he was able to find his own voice as an artist. At Atlantic, he quickly staked out a signature style on a series of groundbreaking hits beginning with the self-penned "I Got a Woman," which became a No. 1 R&B smash in 1955. It was followed by a series of hits including "This Little Girl of Mine," "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "Lonely Avenue" and "The Night Time (Is the Right Time)." In 1959, he made a major breakthrough with the white Rock and Roll audience with the fervent "What'd I Say," which became his first Top 10 Pop hit. While scoring hit singles at Atlantic, he also recorded several instrumental Jazz LPs, including a pair with vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
By the time he left Atlantic to sign with ABC later in 1959, Charles was a big enough star that he could demand and receive complete creative control and ownership of his master recordings — an unheard-of concession at the time, particularly for a black artist. ABC's willingness to grant Charles such leeway was rewarded with such early-60s hits as "Georgia on My Mind," "Unchain My Heart," and "Hit the Road, Jack." In 1962, he broke down more musical and racial barriers by creating a visionary country/R&B fusion on the massively popular LP Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which spawned the hit "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Charles continued to make memorable hit records through the mid-60s — "Busted," "You Are My Sunshine," "Take These Chains from My Heart," "Crying Time" — although his career was interrupted in mid-decade by a drug bust and a painful but ultimately successful effort to beat a longstanding heroin addiction. By the late 60s, Charles had settled into a less adventurous easy-listening style, but he remained one of the world's most recognizable and beloved performers. He continued to record and tour prolifically for the remainder of his life, as multiple generations of R&B and Rock artists continued to mine his influence. Charles’ life story was depicted in the 2004 Taylor Hackford movie Ray.