You Say It's Your Birthday: Ray Charles

Today is the 67th birthday of soul music legend Ray Charles, who broke new ground in the '50s and '60s by refusing to quietly record so-called "race records." Along with helping invent the rhythm and blues, and soul genres, Charles recorded an entire album of country songs in the early '60s, an unprecedented move on the part of a black man.

An awesome

piano player and song craftsman, Charles is best known for hits such as

"Hit The Road Jack" and "What'd I Say." Ray Charles Robinson was born in

Albany, GA, the first child of poverty stricken Aretha and Baily Robinson.

He was raised in Greenville, Fla., and started playing piano at the age of

five. Later that year, Charles was diagnosed with glaucoma but his family

couldn't afford treatment. Completely blind by the age of seven, he spent

1937-1945 studying composition (using Braille) and learning to play

clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet and organ as a student at the St.

Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. Both of his parents died by

the time he turned 15, and Charles dropped out of school to begin touring

with Florida area dance bands. It was during this time that he dropped the

Robinson from his name to avoid any confusion with boxer Sugar Ray

Robinson. Charles saved up $600 from his dance band work by 1947

and moved to Seattle, Wash. where he worked as a Nat King Cole-style

crooner.

Charles' first hit was 1951's "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand." It earned

him an opening slot on one of blues man Lowell Fulsom's national tours and a gig as pianist

and arranger for Guitar Slim. Charles was signed by a relatively new record label, Atlantic, in 1954 and hit #2

on the R&B charts in 1955 with "I've Got a Woman," a faster, more gospel

sounding song than any of Charles' previous recordings.

1959's "What'd I Say" was Charles' first million seller and was

followed by 1960's "Georgia On My Mind" and 1961's "Hit The Road Jack."

The following year he recorded Modern

Sounds In Country Western, an excellent collection of country covers that

also sold over a million copies.

In 1965, Charles was arrested for heroin

possession and spent a year away from performing while he rehabilitated

himself. His albums in the '60s moved away from gospel and blues and more

towards pop songs and show tunes. He published his autobiography,

Brother Ray, in 1978 and later that year "Georgia On My Mind" was

proclaimed the official song of the State of Georgia. In the '80s he had a cameo in The Blues Brothers, and appeared in an

episode of St. Elsewhere; he pushed Diet Pepsi with 1990's commercial

campaign "You've Got The Right One, Baby! Uh-Huh!". He also

lent his name to many charitable causes, including USA For Africa and a

wide variety of civil rights groups.

Charles was inducted into the Rock and

Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and in 1987 he was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy (to date he has ten Grammy statues sitting on the mantle). Later that year, he was bestowed with a Kennedy

Center Honor. Charles continues to record and tour today when he isn't

working with the foundation he created, the Robinson Foundation for

Hearing Disorders. A multi-CD collection of Charles' classic recordings was recently released.

Other birthdays: Ben E. King, 59; Steve Boone (Lovin' Spoonful), 54; Julio

Iglesias, 54; Wallace And Wally Scott (Whispers), 54; Ron Bushley (Iron

Butterfly), 52; Jerry Corbetta (Sugarloaf), 50; John Rocca (Freeze), 37 and

Mike Felumiee (Smoking Popes), 23.