Born in Albany, Georgia, he was blinded by glaucoma by the time he was 7 years old.
His full name: Ray Charles Robinson - friends called him "RC." He dropped the "Robinson" so he wouldn't be confused with the famous boxer Ray Robinson.
When Ray was 4, his younger brother George fell into a wash basin and drowned before Ray could get his mother for help. When Ray was 10, his father died.
He went to a state school for the blind in St. Augustine, Florida. He became a professional musician after leaving there in 1945, after the death of his mother. A piece of advice that Ray's mother gave to him: "You're blind, not stupid."
Immediately after dropping out of school, RC worked around Florida - one of the groups with whom he worked was a white hillbilly group, the Florida Playboys. He learned to yodel from them.
He moved to Seattle because it was the farthest he could get from Florida. Jack Lauderdale, one of the first black record label owners, signed "RC" to the Downbeat label, for whom Charles had his first hit in 1949, "Confession Blues." The recording session for "Confession Blues" was noteworthy for another reason - Charles recorded it while there was a musicians' strike. The union fined him $600 - his life savings at that point - for the infraction.
Charles' recording contract was sold to Atlantic Records in 1952, shortly after he moved to LA.
He formed his own band in 1954, hitting regularly on the R&B charts with "It Should Have Been Me" (1954), "I Got a Woman" (1955), "This Little Girl of Mine" (1955), "Hallelujah I Love Her So" (1956 - a rewrite of Dorothy Love Coates' "Hallelujah I Love Him So"), "Lonely Avenue" (1956 -- written by Doc Pomus, who later wrote hits for the Drifters and Elvis Presley), and "(Night Time Is) The Right Time" (1959).
Charles' first Top 40 hit was released in 1957: "Swanee River Rock (Talkin' 'Bout That River)," an update of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," reached #34.
His first ABC-Paramount single, "Sticks and Stones," matched "I'm Movin' On"'s #40 peak in late 1959. His second was his #1 version of Frankie Trumbauer's "Georgia on My Mind," which added strings to his big band sound.
After several more hits, Charles recorded two landmark LPs, both named Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, after he listened to over 150 candidates for inclusion. Volume 1 - released in 1962 - yielded the #1 hit (and Grammy-winning) "I Can't Stop Loving You" and #2 "You Don't Know Me" (with "Born to Lose" on the B-side); 1963's Volume 2 had #7 "You Are My Sunshine" (with #29 "Your Cheating Heart" as the B-side of the single) and #8 "Take These Chains From My Heart."
After moving to ABC, RC has relied much more on other people's material than his own songwriting ability. The hits continued in the latter part of 1963 and 1964: "No One" hit #21 while the B-side, a remake of Clyde McPhatter's "Without Love (There Is Nothing)," reached #29; Charles' cover of Johnny Cash's "Busted" went to #4; his version of Frankie Laine's #1 hit "That Lucky Old Sun" went to #20; and RC's followup to that success, the #38 "My Heart Cries for You" was a cover of a song that had 8 different Top 30 versions in 1951.
In 1964 Charles was arrested at Logan International Airport (Boston) -- his third heroin bust (Philadelphia 1958, Indianapolis 1961). The trial didn't happen until a year after the arrest, and sentencing was delayed another year to see if RC really kicked his longtime habit. As a result there were no new RC recordings (and no Top 40 Hits) and no touring for a year and a half.
Charles returned to the Top 10 for the last time in early 1966 with a #6 cover of a Buck Owens song, "Crying Time." Afterwards the hits were getting smaller: #19 "Together Again" (another Buck Owens song), #31 "Let's Go Get Stoned (written by Ashford and Simpson), and #32 "I Choose to Sing the Blues" (co-written by Charles) in 1966; and #15 "Here We Go Again" and #33 "In the Heat of the Night" (from the film of the same name) in 1967 -- followed by covers of two Beatles songs, "Yesterday" (#25 in 1967) and "Eleanor Rigby" (#35 in 1968).
In the 14 years after moving from Atlantic Records in 1959, Ray released albums on ABC Records, but the labels kept changing: ABC-Paramount (1959-66), Impulse (1961 instrumentals), ABC (1966), ABP/TRC (Charles' personal label, and Tangerine Recording Company, 1967-73). In 1973, he established Crossover Records, distributed by Atlantic.
In 1971, RC had a pair of #36 hits, "Don't Change on Me" and "Booty Butt," the latter being an instrumental credited to the Ray Charles Orchestra. He had no more top 40 hits until 1989, when he collaborated with Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on a #18 remake of the Johnson Brothers hit "I'll Be Good to You" (the original hit #3 in 1976).
Frank Sinatra claimed that Ray Charles was "the only genius in the business." RC replied, "Art Tatum -- he was a genius. And Einstein, not me."
When asked in an interview, "Do you think there is any element in your style that is essential to your continued popularity?" RC replied, "Me."
Ray had a small role in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. He played the blind owner of a used music instrument store (typecasting?) and sang "Shake A Tail Feather." (thanks, Jesse - Mesa, AZ)
Ray Charles started playing the piano at the age of three. "I was born with music inside me," he said. "And from the moment I learned there were piano keys to be mashed, I started mashing 'em, trying to make sounds out of feelings."