Ray Charles Robinson was born in 1930 in Greenville, Florida to a laborer and a laundress. His mother Aretha was only fifteen when she became pregnant by Ray’s father Bailey, who was married and had taken her in as a child.
To flee the scandal, she moved to Albany, Georgia before returning to Florida after Ray was born. Bailey’s wife helped with Ray’s upbringing after Bailey skipped town.
A local restaurant owner taught Ray how to play the upright piano, including the popular boogie woogie tunes of the day. But by age four, he started to lose his sight.
By age seven, he was completely blind due to glaucoma. He was sent to study at a school for the deaf and blind in St. Augustine, one of the few that would accept Black students.
His mother died suddenly in 1945 and he left school for good, moving to Jacksonville to live with a friend of his mother’s, who was a touring musician.
It was here that he played for over a year at the Ritz Theatre in the city’s African-American neighborhood before leaving again for Orlando and Tampa.
In 1949, Charles and his band recorded their first hit, “Confession Blues.” In 1952, he signed with Atlantic Records and penned further hits like “I’ve Got a Woman” and “Georgia on My Mind,” which became the official state song.
Charles overcame heroin addiction and took up a chess hobby. He went on to have twelve children. He died in 2004 from complications from surgery.
His influence stretches across nearly every genre. During his life, Ray Charles received 17 Grammy awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honors.
He was one of the first nominees into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ray Charles Landmarks in the South
Despite the short amount of time that he lived in the town, Albany, Georgia honors the music legend at Ray Charles Plaza. His namesake park features a fountain that plays some of his famous tunes, surrounded by a piano-key design.
Ray Charles performed in venues great and small all over the country but among them was the Grand Opera House in Macon. It was built in 1904 and has hosted a wide array of artists.
He was also the first inductee into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which was previously headquartered in Macon. Today, his portrait by Steve Penley hangs in the nearby Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
The town of Greenville, Florida is considered to be Ray Charles’ hometown. His childhood home in the Jellyroll neighborhood has been restored and operates as a museum.
There’s another statue devoted to the musician, also featuring him playing his piano. Located inside Haffye Hays Park, it was unveiled in 2006.
St. Augustine, Florida
Ray Charles attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine between the years of 1937 and 1945. It was here that he continued his music education including classical piano and braille music.
The school was founded in 1882 by Thomas Hines Coleman, a graduate of the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind. The first Black student graduated in 1914. It’s still open today.
Other Ray Charles Landmarks
Los Angeles, California
Ray Charles moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and, despite his Southern roots, lived most of his adult life there. He lived in a Beverly Hills mansion when he died and was buried in nearby Inglewood Park Cemetery near the grave of Etta James. He’s also honored at the Ray Charles Memorial Library.
Looking for a place to stay during your Ray Charles pilgrimage? We recommend Merry Acres Inn in Albany, 1842 Inn in Macon (review here), The Collector Inn in St. Augustine, and Best Western Plus Madison Inn near Greenville.
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