Did the pioneer of soul music ever don a uniform?
Ray Charles was not in the military. There is no record of Charles ever being a part of any militarized force. Ray Charles went blind when he was a young child, which would have made it impossible for him to join the military if he had so wanted.
Ray Charles lived an interesting and inspiring life. Read on to learn more.
The Early Years of Ray Charles
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in the city of Albany, Georgia, USA. Ray was the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha Williams, a laundress, of Greenville, Florida.
Robinson and his wife had taken in Ray’s mother as an older child and she became pregnant at 15.
After the ensuing scandal, Ray’s mother went back to Georgia where she had family. She eventually returned to the Robinson house with Ray and the wife of Robinson helped to raise Ray. Robinson ended up abandoning the family.
By the time Ray was 1 year old, his half brother, George, was born, the father of whom is not known.
When he was 3, Ray heard Wylie Pitman playing boogie woogie music on his piano at Wylie Pitman’s Red Wing Cafe, and was transfixed by the sound. Subsequently, Pitman taught Ray to play piano and helped the family in other ways too, such as looking after the children.
When Ray’s brother was 4, he drowned in a laundry tub. It was one of the last things Ray saw, since shortly afterwards he began losing his vision due to glaucoma. He was blind by the age of 7.
Ray’s mother managed to get Ray into the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, which he attended from 1937 to 1945.
While at school, Ray learned to play classical piano. He would play the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
His teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, also taught him how to read braille music. Reading braille notation is a very difficult undertaking, since the reader must use one hand to play and one hand to read, then vice versa, eventually combining the two parts.
Ray would perform popular songs at the South Campus Literary Society assemblies, held on Fridays. He would also play at the Black department’s socials at his school.
Ray formed a group at school, called “RC Robinson and the Shop Boys,” and once performed in the group on WFOY radio in St. Augustine.
When Ray was 14, tragedy struck again. His mother passed away. Not too long after, Ray was expelled from school for paying a prank on his teacher.
Making it as a Musician
Ray moved to Jacksonville to live with a friend of his late mother. For a year after relocating, he would play piano for various bands at the Ritz Theatre in LaVilla, earning a modest income.
When he was 16, Ray moved to Orlando, hoping to find better work, but had little luck; since World War II had ended and there was a shortage of military men to entertain in the bars.
He then moved again, in 1947, to Tampa where he got a job as a pianist for the group “Charles Brantley’s Honey Dippers.”
Until this point in his career, Ray had only been part of other people’s groups, and was eager to start his own band. He moved to Seattle, Washington, the next year, believing he would find success in a big Northern city, since most radio hits came from the north at the time.
Ray formed a group called the McSon Trio (named after Ray’s and another bandmate’s surnames). They began playing at the Rocking Chair club, between one and five in the morning.
In April of 1949, Ray and his band recorded “Confession Blues,” which became their first national hit, reaching number 2 on the Billboard R&B chart.
After finding success in Seattle, Ray moved to Los Angeles, California and began a solo career, touring with blues artist, Lowell Fulson.
After hearing one of Ray’s performances, a representative from Swing Time Records, offered Ray a record deal, which he accepted.
He released two hits with the record, “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” (1951), which reached number 5, and “Kissa Me Baby” (1952), which reached number 8 on the charts. After Swing Time went bust, Ray was signed to Atlantic Records, his first major label contract.
Ray released “What’d I Say,” in 1959, widely regarded as his most renowned song. It combined gospel, jazz, blues and Latin music. It reached number 1 on the R&B chart and number 6 on the mainstream chart. For the rest of his career, Ray closed his concerts with this song.
Listen to “What’d I Say” below.