"Georgia on My Mind"
(Music: "Georgia on My Mind" by Ray Charles)
November 14, 1960 - November 20, 1960
Quincy Jones said of Ray Charles: "Ray doesn't follow others. He's an innovator." Time magazine confirmed, "There is no modern singer who has not learned something from him."
When the people whose business it is to make music are asked who had the most influence on them, no individual singer is mentioned more often than Ray Charles. Through his career, he blended jazz, blues, soul, country, and pop until the divisions that normally separate these categories of music dissolved. All that was left was the music.
His first number one single was the 1930 standard, "Georgia on My Mind." His driver, Tommy Brown, suggested he record it because he was always singing it on the road anyway. Ray thought that was a good idea and asked Ralph Burns, Woody Herman's pianist, to handle the arrangement. The song was recorded in New York in four takes, less than the usual 10 - 12 takes Ray was used to.
He was born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia, but he grew up in Greenville, Florida. His father, Bailey, was a handyman who did odd jobs, and his mother, Aretha, took in washing. His early life was beset by tragedies. When Ray was four years old, his younger brother George fell into a wash basin in the front yard and drowned before Ray could summon his mother for help.
At age five, Ray began to have problems with his eyes. His vision slipped away in increments, and the family was too poor to afford an eye specialist. By the time he was seven, Ray was completely blind. Years later, doctors analyzed the problem as glaucoma, but Ray is not sure. He remembers being fascinated with the sun and staring into its red-hot mass.
Ray also remembers his mother's words: "You're blind, not stupid. You lost your sight, not your mind." He was 10 when his father died. Ray went to St. Augustine's School for the Deaf and Blind in Orlando, Florida, and when he was 15 he received the news that his mother had passed away.
His teachers at St. Augustine's taught him classical music, but he loved to play boogie woogie like the music he heard as a three-year-old from his neighbor, Wylie Pittman, who had an old beat up piano on his front porch that he used to let Ray play.
Shortly after he was orphaned, Ray left school to go to Jacksonville, Florida, where he played in a hillbilly band and a group called the Honeydippers. Three years later, he was ready to leave the south behind. He asked a friend to take a map and find the furthest point away from Florida that would still be in the United States. New York was five inches away, but too intimidating. Los Angeles was seven inches away, but Ray wasn't ready for L.A. Seattle was eight inches away, and Ray arrived there with $600 in his pocket.
He was hired to play at a club, the Rockin' Chair, where he impressed audiences with his vocal similarity to Nat "King' Cole and Charles Brown. People kept telling Ray how much he sounded like them until he tired of the "compliments" and decided to sing in his own voice. That landed him a deal with a Los Angeles label, Swingtime, and he recorded "Confession Blues." But there was a musicians' strike, and Ray violated it by recording the song. He was fined his entire $600 and left penniless.
Other musicians violated the strike, but claimed they recorded their tracks before the strike began. "I only made one mistake," he said, years later. "I was so stupid I didn't know I was supposed to lie."
Reprinted from The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, copyright © 2003 by Fred Bronson.