Member only
Episode
226

The Amazing Life Of Ray Charles

Jan 7, 2022
Arts & Culture
-
18
minutes
Music
1950s
1960s
USA
Racism
Drugs
20th Century
Geniuses

His early life was full of tragedy and misfortune, but Ray Charles never let this get in his way.

In this episode, we'll learn about how Ray Charles overcame adversity to become one of the most loved musicians in American history.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another three-part mini-series, this time on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:35] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll talk about the man they called The Genius, Ray Charles.

[00:00:43] His is an amazing story of escaping from dire poverty and tragic circumstances as a boy through to becoming one of the most successful musicians of his time, against all the odds.

[00:00:57] Then, in our next episode - which will be one of our member-only ones - we’ll talk about Johnny Cash, "The Man in Black", another man who grew up in poverty yet became a defining voice of his generation.

[00:01:11] And to finish it off we’ll learn about the life of the man they called “The King”, Elvis Presley, someone who was considered “average” by his teachers as a boy but went on to really create the category of rock and roll.

[00:01:28] In these three stories to different degrees, we’ll meet adversity, we’ll learn about America in the 1950s, we’ll come up against near death experiences, there will be sex, drugs, rock and roll, and plenty of personal demons to battle with.

[00:01:45] All three of these episodes have been a huge amount of fun to make so I hope you’ll enjoy them.

[00:01:52] Ok then, the Amazing Life of Ray Charles.

[00:02:00] It is hard to imagine many people who have had a tougher start to life than the subject of today’s episode.

[00:02:09] Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23rd, 1930, in Georgia, in the deep south of the United States. 

[00:02:19] His mother, Aretha, was 15 years old when she fell pregnant with him. His father left before Ray really knew him, and he was brought up by his devoted young mother.

[00:02:33] He had a younger brother, George, who was born before Ray’s first birthday. Yet nobody seemed to know who his father was, and he certainly wasn’t around.

[00:02:44] So, while she was still a teenager herself, Ray Charles’ mother was busy looking after two young boys, trying to make ends meet

[00:02:55] They lived in abject poverty. They were dirt poor

[00:03:00] What's more, the country they lived in, and in particular the area of the country, the deep south of the United States, was very racist. 

[00:03:10] This was still the era of the Jim Crow laws, where black people were not allowed to sit in the same places as white people.

[00:03:20] So, we have this brave young mother trying to bring up two children in an institutionally racist country. And this family, given their poverty and lack of a father figure, were at an even greater disadvantage than most African Americans at the time.

[00:03:38] In his autobiography, Ray Charles would later write "Even compared to other blacks we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground". 

[00:03:52] Ray Charles was also to experience deep personal tragedy and huge trauma when, as a four year old, he saw his young brother drowning to death in the bath.

[00:04:05] As if the cards weren’t already sufficiently stacked against him, as a young black boy who had lost a brother, growing up poor with a teenage mother in an institutionally racist America, the young Ray Charles was starting to lose his sight, he was going blind.

[00:04:24] He suffered from something called glaucoma, a condition that damages the optic nerve and can cause blindness, and by the time he was 7 years old he was completely blind.

[00:04:39] His mother tried her hardest to find a school that would take a young, blind black boy with no money to his name, and eventually found one in Florida, where Ray Charles went when he was 7 years old.

[00:04:55] It was to be here that the young Ray Charles started to develop a great talent for music, in particular, on the piano. 

[00:05:04] He had begun playing music when he was a much younger boy, at even three years old, but it was here at this school that he really started to excel.

[00:05:15] Now to state the obvious that piano is not an easy instrument to play if you are blind, especially when you are first learning how to play it.

[00:05:25] If you watch famous pianists now, their hands move up and down the keyboard and they barely need to look. But that is the product of tens of thousands of hours of practice.

[00:05:38] Because he was blind, Ray Charles needed to use braille music, music specifically designed to be read by blind people with their hands.

[00:05:50] He would learn the notes that needed to be played by the left hand by using his right hand to touch and read the music, then he would learn the right hand movements by using his left hand to touch and read the music. 

[00:06:04] And then, of course, he would have to memorise the music to play it together.

[00:06:09] Learning the piano when you are blind is certainly no mean feat.

[00:06:16] Now, although by all accounts Ray’s time at the school for the blind was a happy one, further tragedy was to befall him when in 1945 his devoted mother died before her 30th birthday. 

[00:06:32] Aged 14, he was now completely alone in the world. 

[00:06:37] No brother, no mother, and he had never known his father. 

[00:06:40] This tragedy caused Ray Charles to drop out of school, and go and join a friend of his mother’s in Jacksonville, the largest city in Florida. 

[00:06:52] He managed to get some work playing piano, but it was incredibly low paid, and he barely made enough money to eat.

[00:07:02] Ray Charles had bigger hopes and dreams than playing in someone else’s band, though. He wanted to write his own music, to create his own songs, to carve his own path in the world.

[00:07:16] The musical expectations at this time in the United States were clearly fixed. 

[00:07:21] There were clearly defined genres, and expectations of the kind of music someone would make based on the colour of their skin.

[00:07:31] And if you were black, the expectation was that you’d play jazz music.

[00:07:36] The most successful jazz musician at the time that Ray Charles was growing up was Nat King Cole. 

[00:07:43] When Ray Charles started to write his own music, it was really in the style of Nat King Cole. It’s slow, soulful jazz music. 

[00:07:55] In 1948, three years after Charles had left school, and when he was not yet 18 years old, he moved to Seattle. 

[00:08:05] The story goes that he asked a friend what city in the United States was furthest away from where he was, in Tampa, Florida. 

[00:08:15] His friend took out a map and drew a line all the way across, getting to Seattle, on the far north-west of the country. He made the 5-day bus journey across the country, finally arriving in this new city.

[00:08:32] It was here that he met another ambitious boy, a 15-year-old called Quincy Jones, a man whose career would go on to include working with Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

[00:08:45] In Seattle he had his own apartment, he lived independently, and he started to make a name for himself as “Ray Charles, the blind singing sensation”.

[00:08:58] His big break was to come four years later, in 1952, when he was signed to a record label called Atlantic Records.

[00:09:08] This finally gave him the distribution that he so badly needed, and success came quickly after with the release of “Mess Around” in 1953, and then the following year, in 1954 with the song that really catapulted him to nationwide fame: “ I got a woman”.

[00:09:29] When it comes to the evolution of the musical style of Ray Charles, you can clearly hear that he has moved away from the slow jazz, the Nat King Cole style what’s called “ crooning”.

[00:09:43] And by now he has mixed, he has fused together a variety of different styles of music - there is jazz in there, but he has combined it with blues and even gospel, the style of music popular in churches in the American south.

[00:10:02] This was something that people simply didn't do.

[00:10:06] Gospel music was holy, it was music that was sung in church. Blues, on the other hand, was sexual, it was smooth, it was the opposite of gospel.

[00:10:18] By blending the two styles Ray Charles was putting a type of music associated with sin and debauchery together with music sung in church.

[00:10:31] He would also use gospel lyrics and switch parts of them. For example, in “I’ve got a woman” he takes a gospel song called “This little light of mine” but switches “light” for “girl”, and he really, he is sexualising a hymn.

[00:10:51] And there were large parts of black America that reacted badly to it - they didn’t like what Ray Charles was doing. He was even accused of sacrilege by gospel pastors, who accused him of bastardizing the hymns.

[00:11:08] There was little that could stop Ray Charles though, and he continued to have hit after hit.

[00:11:15] He was becoming such a star that he was even offered a new, incredibly generous contract by another record label. In 1959 he switched from Atlantic Records to ABC records when he was offered a $50,000 annual advance, which was about half a million dollars per year at the time, plus ownership of all of his records - this would have been an incredible deal for the period.

[00:11:45] Ray Charles, alongside being a bold and incredibly talented musician, was also a shrewd negotiator and an excellent businessman.

[00:11:56] He would negotiate his own contracts, he owned his own music, he had his own music studio, he later on even started his own record label.

[00:12:07] He was blind, but he saw more clearly than most the commercial advantages of having control over your own music and your own destiny - at the time most other musicians would have had their record labels manage all of this for them.

[00:12:23] And although he was completely blind, and his eyes had literally been removed from his body, he was incredibly independent.

[00:12:32] He never used a stick and he never had a dog to guide him. He walked on his own, confidently, feeling his way over to where he needed to go. So much so that people would often doubt that he was really blind at all.

[00:12:49] This bravery is believed to have partly come from his mother, who would tell him “you’re blind, you ain’t stupid”. 

[00:12:59] From a young age, Ray Charles was taught that there was no point feeling sorry for yourself. 

[00:13:04] Yes, he had had a very tough start to life - he had grown up poor, blind, and black in a racist country. 

[00:13:13] But this shouldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted in life. 

[00:13:18] And by the mid 1960s, Ray Charles was certainly a huge success by anyone’s standards.

[00:13:26] However, there was a darker element to his life that was of his own making.

[00:13:32] He had been addicted to heroin since he was 18 years old. 

[00:13:37] Obviously, being addicted to hard drugs is not a sensible life choice for anyone, but in the late 1940s and 50s, especially in the circles he was in, of jazz and blues musicians, it was nothing completely unordinary

[00:13:55] Other jazz musicians took heroin very happily, including lots of people that Ray Charles looked up to. 

[00:14:02] He thought it was a way of relaxing and it helped creativity, and he had been a full-on addict since he was 18.

[00:14:11] Although he was deeply addicted to the drug, he managed to function semi-normally. It was still an illegal drug though, and after being arrested several times in the 1950s for possession, and then finally again in 1964, he decided to go to rehab and he managed to kick his addiction once and for all.

[00:14:35] There was one more addiction, another vice, or perhaps we should just say another part of Ray Charles’ character, that he never really managed to overcome.

[00:14:46] His love of women. 

[00:14:49] He was married twice, for a total of 23 years, but had numerous other relationships and is known to have fathered 12 different children, only three of whom came from his marriages.

[00:15:01] He would sleep with his band members, with fans, with women he met on his tours. And there was no shortage of women who were attracted to Ray Charles.

[00:15:13] Despite not being able to see, Ray Charles was reportedly a keen admirer of female physical beauty. When he met a woman he would take her hand and arms, run his hand over them, to get a feel of whether this was a woman that he was attracted to. 

[00:15:32] You can perhaps tell this from Ray Charles’ music, but he was an incredibly sensual person. Of course, if you do not have the luxury of being able to see, your other senses become heightened, and it seems that for Ray Charles it was his sense of touch and of hearing that compensated for the lack of vision.

[00:15:55] Musically, he went on to become a national and global sensation. He made more than 60 albums, won countless awards, and has had a profound influence on the generation of musicians who followed him. 

[00:16:12] He died at his home in Beverly Hills in 2004, aged 73, after complications from liver surgery, leaving behind an incredible back catalogue and a completely new and unique sound.

[00:16:28] Despite all of the odds, despite the deck being stacked against him, he went on to be one of the defining voices of his generation. He never felt that people should be sympathetic towards him, or that he was unlucky in life. 

[00:16:44] He never let his blindness stop him from doing anything, he was a truly determined and evidently a very brave man.

[00:16:53] And perhaps there is no greater compliment of Ray Charles than how another musical icon, Frank Sinatra was to describe him - he called him “The only true genius in our business”.

[00:17:08] OK then, that is it for today’s episode, The Amazing Life of Ray Charles. 

[00:17:14] As a reminder, this was part one of a three-part mini-series. Next up will be Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, then part three is going to be on Elvis Presley.

[00:17:27] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:31] For the Ray Charles fans out there, what is your favourite of his songs, and why? 

[00:17:37] Where else can you see the influences of Ray Charles?

[00:17:41] And what other examples can you think of people who did not let obstacles get in their way?

[00:17:47] I would love to know.

[00:17:49] So, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:58] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another three-part mini-series, this time on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:35] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll talk about the man they called The Genius, Ray Charles.

[00:00:43] His is an amazing story of escaping from dire poverty and tragic circumstances as a boy through to becoming one of the most successful musicians of his time, against all the odds.

[00:00:57] Then, in our next episode - which will be one of our member-only ones - we’ll talk about Johnny Cash, "The Man in Black", another man who grew up in poverty yet became a defining voice of his generation.

[00:01:11] And to finish it off we’ll learn about the life of the man they called “The King”, Elvis Presley, someone who was considered “average” by his teachers as a boy but went on to really create the category of rock and roll.

[00:01:28] In these three stories to different degrees, we’ll meet adversity, we’ll learn about America in the 1950s, we’ll come up against near death experiences, there will be sex, drugs, rock and roll, and plenty of personal demons to battle with.

[00:01:45] All three of these episodes have been a huge amount of fun to make so I hope you’ll enjoy them.

[00:01:52] Ok then, the Amazing Life of Ray Charles.

[00:02:00] It is hard to imagine many people who have had a tougher start to life than the subject of today’s episode.

[00:02:09] Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23rd, 1930, in Georgia, in the deep south of the United States. 

[00:02:19] His mother, Aretha, was 15 years old when she fell pregnant with him. His father left before Ray really knew him, and he was brought up by his devoted young mother.

[00:02:33] He had a younger brother, George, who was born before Ray’s first birthday. Yet nobody seemed to know who his father was, and he certainly wasn’t around.

[00:02:44] So, while she was still a teenager herself, Ray Charles’ mother was busy looking after two young boys, trying to make ends meet

[00:02:55] They lived in abject poverty. They were dirt poor

[00:03:00] What's more, the country they lived in, and in particular the area of the country, the deep south of the United States, was very racist. 

[00:03:10] This was still the era of the Jim Crow laws, where black people were not allowed to sit in the same places as white people.

[00:03:20] So, we have this brave young mother trying to bring up two children in an institutionally racist country. And this family, given their poverty and lack of a father figure, were at an even greater disadvantage than most African Americans at the time.

[00:03:38] In his autobiography, Ray Charles would later write "Even compared to other blacks we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground". 

[00:03:52] Ray Charles was also to experience deep personal tragedy and huge trauma when, as a four year old, he saw his young brother drowning to death in the bath.

[00:04:05] As if the cards weren’t already sufficiently stacked against him, as a young black boy who had lost a brother, growing up poor with a teenage mother in an institutionally racist America, the young Ray Charles was starting to lose his sight, he was going blind.

[00:04:24] He suffered from something called glaucoma, a condition that damages the optic nerve and can cause blindness, and by the time he was 7 years old he was completely blind.

[00:04:39] His mother tried her hardest to find a school that would take a young, blind black boy with no money to his name, and eventually found one in Florida, where Ray Charles went when he was 7 years old.

[00:04:55] It was to be here that the young Ray Charles started to develop a great talent for music, in particular, on the piano. 

[00:05:04] He had begun playing music when he was a much younger boy, at even three years old, but it was here at this school that he really started to excel.

[00:05:15] Now to state the obvious that piano is not an easy instrument to play if you are blind, especially when you are first learning how to play it.

[00:05:25] If you watch famous pianists now, their hands move up and down the keyboard and they barely need to look. But that is the product of tens of thousands of hours of practice.

[00:05:38] Because he was blind, Ray Charles needed to use braille music, music specifically designed to be read by blind people with their hands.

[00:05:50] He would learn the notes that needed to be played by the left hand by using his right hand to touch and read the music, then he would learn the right hand movements by using his left hand to touch and read the music. 

[00:06:04] And then, of course, he would have to memorise the music to play it together.

[00:06:09] Learning the piano when you are blind is certainly no mean feat.

[00:06:16] Now, although by all accounts Ray’s time at the school for the blind was a happy one, further tragedy was to befall him when in 1945 his devoted mother died before her 30th birthday. 

[00:06:32] Aged 14, he was now completely alone in the world. 

[00:06:37] No brother, no mother, and he had never known his father. 

[00:06:40] This tragedy caused Ray Charles to drop out of school, and go and join a friend of his mother’s in Jacksonville, the largest city in Florida. 

[00:06:52] He managed to get some work playing piano, but it was incredibly low paid, and he barely made enough money to eat.

[00:07:02] Ray Charles had bigger hopes and dreams than playing in someone else’s band, though. He wanted to write his own music, to create his own songs, to carve his own path in the world.

[00:07:16] The musical expectations at this time in the United States were clearly fixed. 

[00:07:21] There were clearly defined genres, and expectations of the kind of music someone would make based on the colour of their skin.

[00:07:31] And if you were black, the expectation was that you’d play jazz music.

[00:07:36] The most successful jazz musician at the time that Ray Charles was growing up was Nat King Cole. 

[00:07:43] When Ray Charles started to write his own music, it was really in the style of Nat King Cole. It’s slow, soulful jazz music. 

[00:07:55] In 1948, three years after Charles had left school, and when he was not yet 18 years old, he moved to Seattle. 

[00:08:05] The story goes that he asked a friend what city in the United States was furthest away from where he was, in Tampa, Florida. 

[00:08:15] His friend took out a map and drew a line all the way across, getting to Seattle, on the far north-west of the country. He made the 5-day bus journey across the country, finally arriving in this new city.

[00:08:32] It was here that he met another ambitious boy, a 15-year-old called Quincy Jones, a man whose career would go on to include working with Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

[00:08:45] In Seattle he had his own apartment, he lived independently, and he started to make a name for himself as “Ray Charles, the blind singing sensation”.

[00:08:58] His big break was to come four years later, in 1952, when he was signed to a record label called Atlantic Records.

[00:09:08] This finally gave him the distribution that he so badly needed, and success came quickly after with the release of “Mess Around” in 1953, and then the following year, in 1954 with the song that really catapulted him to nationwide fame: “ I got a woman”.

[00:09:29] When it comes to the evolution of the musical style of Ray Charles, you can clearly hear that he has moved away from the slow jazz, the Nat King Cole style what’s called “ crooning”.

[00:09:43] And by now he has mixed, he has fused together a variety of different styles of music - there is jazz in there, but he has combined it with blues and even gospel, the style of music popular in churches in the American south.

[00:10:02] This was something that people simply didn't do.

[00:10:06] Gospel music was holy, it was music that was sung in church. Blues, on the other hand, was sexual, it was smooth, it was the opposite of gospel.

[00:10:18] By blending the two styles Ray Charles was putting a type of music associated with sin and debauchery together with music sung in church.

[00:10:31] He would also use gospel lyrics and switch parts of them. For example, in “I’ve got a woman” he takes a gospel song called “This little light of mine” but switches “light” for “girl”, and he really, he is sexualising a hymn.

[00:10:51] And there were large parts of black America that reacted badly to it - they didn’t like what Ray Charles was doing. He was even accused of sacrilege by gospel pastors, who accused him of bastardizing the hymns.

[00:11:08] There was little that could stop Ray Charles though, and he continued to have hit after hit.

[00:11:15] He was becoming such a star that he was even offered a new, incredibly generous contract by another record label. In 1959 he switched from Atlantic Records to ABC records when he was offered a $50,000 annual advance, which was about half a million dollars per year at the time, plus ownership of all of his records - this would have been an incredible deal for the period.

[00:11:45] Ray Charles, alongside being a bold and incredibly talented musician, was also a shrewd negotiator and an excellent businessman.

[00:11:56] He would negotiate his own contracts, he owned his own music, he had his own music studio, he later on even started his own record label.

[00:12:07] He was blind, but he saw more clearly than most the commercial advantages of having control over your own music and your own destiny - at the time most other musicians would have had their record labels manage all of this for them.

[00:12:23] And although he was completely blind, and his eyes had literally been removed from his body, he was incredibly independent.

[00:12:32] He never used a stick and he never had a dog to guide him. He walked on his own, confidently, feeling his way over to where he needed to go. So much so that people would often doubt that he was really blind at all.

[00:12:49] This bravery is believed to have partly come from his mother, who would tell him “you’re blind, you ain’t stupid”. 

[00:12:59] From a young age, Ray Charles was taught that there was no point feeling sorry for yourself. 

[00:13:04] Yes, he had had a very tough start to life - he had grown up poor, blind, and black in a racist country. 

[00:13:13] But this shouldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted in life. 

[00:13:18] And by the mid 1960s, Ray Charles was certainly a huge success by anyone’s standards.

[00:13:26] However, there was a darker element to his life that was of his own making.

[00:13:32] He had been addicted to heroin since he was 18 years old. 

[00:13:37] Obviously, being addicted to hard drugs is not a sensible life choice for anyone, but in the late 1940s and 50s, especially in the circles he was in, of jazz and blues musicians, it was nothing completely unordinary

[00:13:55] Other jazz musicians took heroin very happily, including lots of people that Ray Charles looked up to. 

[00:14:02] He thought it was a way of relaxing and it helped creativity, and he had been a full-on addict since he was 18.

[00:14:11] Although he was deeply addicted to the drug, he managed to function semi-normally. It was still an illegal drug though, and after being arrested several times in the 1950s for possession, and then finally again in 1964, he decided to go to rehab and he managed to kick his addiction once and for all.

[00:14:35] There was one more addiction, another vice, or perhaps we should just say another part of Ray Charles’ character, that he never really managed to overcome.

[00:14:46] His love of women. 

[00:14:49] He was married twice, for a total of 23 years, but had numerous other relationships and is known to have fathered 12 different children, only three of whom came from his marriages.

[00:15:01] He would sleep with his band members, with fans, with women he met on his tours. And there was no shortage of women who were attracted to Ray Charles.

[00:15:13] Despite not being able to see, Ray Charles was reportedly a keen admirer of female physical beauty. When he met a woman he would take her hand and arms, run his hand over them, to get a feel of whether this was a woman that he was attracted to. 

[00:15:32] You can perhaps tell this from Ray Charles’ music, but he was an incredibly sensual person. Of course, if you do not have the luxury of being able to see, your other senses become heightened, and it seems that for Ray Charles it was his sense of touch and of hearing that compensated for the lack of vision.

[00:15:55] Musically, he went on to become a national and global sensation. He made more than 60 albums, won countless awards, and has had a profound influence on the generation of musicians who followed him. 

[00:16:12] He died at his home in Beverly Hills in 2004, aged 73, after complications from liver surgery, leaving behind an incredible back catalogue and a completely new and unique sound.

[00:16:28] Despite all of the odds, despite the deck being stacked against him, he went on to be one of the defining voices of his generation. He never felt that people should be sympathetic towards him, or that he was unlucky in life. 

[00:16:44] He never let his blindness stop him from doing anything, he was a truly determined and evidently a very brave man.

[00:16:53] And perhaps there is no greater compliment of Ray Charles than how another musical icon, Frank Sinatra was to describe him - he called him “The only true genius in our business”.

[00:17:08] OK then, that is it for today’s episode, The Amazing Life of Ray Charles. 

[00:17:14] As a reminder, this was part one of a three-part mini-series. Next up will be Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, then part three is going to be on Elvis Presley.

[00:17:27] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:31] For the Ray Charles fans out there, what is your favourite of his songs, and why? 

[00:17:37] Where else can you see the influences of Ray Charles?

[00:17:41] And what other examples can you think of people who did not let obstacles get in their way?

[00:17:47] I would love to know.

[00:17:49] So, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:58] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another three-part mini-series, this time on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:35] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll talk about the man they called The Genius, Ray Charles.

[00:00:43] His is an amazing story of escaping from dire poverty and tragic circumstances as a boy through to becoming one of the most successful musicians of his time, against all the odds.

[00:00:57] Then, in our next episode - which will be one of our member-only ones - we’ll talk about Johnny Cash, "The Man in Black", another man who grew up in poverty yet became a defining voice of his generation.

[00:01:11] And to finish it off we’ll learn about the life of the man they called “The King”, Elvis Presley, someone who was considered “average” by his teachers as a boy but went on to really create the category of rock and roll.

[00:01:28] In these three stories to different degrees, we’ll meet adversity, we’ll learn about America in the 1950s, we’ll come up against near death experiences, there will be sex, drugs, rock and roll, and plenty of personal demons to battle with.

[00:01:45] All three of these episodes have been a huge amount of fun to make so I hope you’ll enjoy them.

[00:01:52] Ok then, the Amazing Life of Ray Charles.

[00:02:00] It is hard to imagine many people who have had a tougher start to life than the subject of today’s episode.

[00:02:09] Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23rd, 1930, in Georgia, in the deep south of the United States. 

[00:02:19] His mother, Aretha, was 15 years old when she fell pregnant with him. His father left before Ray really knew him, and he was brought up by his devoted young mother.

[00:02:33] He had a younger brother, George, who was born before Ray’s first birthday. Yet nobody seemed to know who his father was, and he certainly wasn’t around.

[00:02:44] So, while she was still a teenager herself, Ray Charles’ mother was busy looking after two young boys, trying to make ends meet

[00:02:55] They lived in abject poverty. They were dirt poor

[00:03:00] What's more, the country they lived in, and in particular the area of the country, the deep south of the United States, was very racist. 

[00:03:10] This was still the era of the Jim Crow laws, where black people were not allowed to sit in the same places as white people.

[00:03:20] So, we have this brave young mother trying to bring up two children in an institutionally racist country. And this family, given their poverty and lack of a father figure, were at an even greater disadvantage than most African Americans at the time.

[00:03:38] In his autobiography, Ray Charles would later write "Even compared to other blacks we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground". 

[00:03:52] Ray Charles was also to experience deep personal tragedy and huge trauma when, as a four year old, he saw his young brother drowning to death in the bath.

[00:04:05] As if the cards weren’t already sufficiently stacked against him, as a young black boy who had lost a brother, growing up poor with a teenage mother in an institutionally racist America, the young Ray Charles was starting to lose his sight, he was going blind.

[00:04:24] He suffered from something called glaucoma, a condition that damages the optic nerve and can cause blindness, and by the time he was 7 years old he was completely blind.

[00:04:39] His mother tried her hardest to find a school that would take a young, blind black boy with no money to his name, and eventually found one in Florida, where Ray Charles went when he was 7 years old.

[00:04:55] It was to be here that the young Ray Charles started to develop a great talent for music, in particular, on the piano. 

[00:05:04] He had begun playing music when he was a much younger boy, at even three years old, but it was here at this school that he really started to excel.

[00:05:15] Now to state the obvious that piano is not an easy instrument to play if you are blind, especially when you are first learning how to play it.

[00:05:25] If you watch famous pianists now, their hands move up and down the keyboard and they barely need to look. But that is the product of tens of thousands of hours of practice.

[00:05:38] Because he was blind, Ray Charles needed to use braille music, music specifically designed to be read by blind people with their hands.

[00:05:50] He would learn the notes that needed to be played by the left hand by using his right hand to touch and read the music, then he would learn the right hand movements by using his left hand to touch and read the music. 

[00:06:04] And then, of course, he would have to memorise the music to play it together.

[00:06:09] Learning the piano when you are blind is certainly no mean feat.

[00:06:16] Now, although by all accounts Ray’s time at the school for the blind was a happy one, further tragedy was to befall him when in 1945 his devoted mother died before her 30th birthday. 

[00:06:32] Aged 14, he was now completely alone in the world. 

[00:06:37] No brother, no mother, and he had never known his father. 

[00:06:40] This tragedy caused Ray Charles to drop out of school, and go and join a friend of his mother’s in Jacksonville, the largest city in Florida. 

[00:06:52] He managed to get some work playing piano, but it was incredibly low paid, and he barely made enough money to eat.

[00:07:02] Ray Charles had bigger hopes and dreams than playing in someone else’s band, though. He wanted to write his own music, to create his own songs, to carve his own path in the world.

[00:07:16] The musical expectations at this time in the United States were clearly fixed. 

[00:07:21] There were clearly defined genres, and expectations of the kind of music someone would make based on the colour of their skin.

[00:07:31] And if you were black, the expectation was that you’d play jazz music.

[00:07:36] The most successful jazz musician at the time that Ray Charles was growing up was Nat King Cole. 

[00:07:43] When Ray Charles started to write his own music, it was really in the style of Nat King Cole. It’s slow, soulful jazz music. 

[00:07:55] In 1948, three years after Charles had left school, and when he was not yet 18 years old, he moved to Seattle. 

[00:08:05] The story goes that he asked a friend what city in the United States was furthest away from where he was, in Tampa, Florida. 

[00:08:15] His friend took out a map and drew a line all the way across, getting to Seattle, on the far north-west of the country. He made the 5-day bus journey across the country, finally arriving in this new city.

[00:08:32] It was here that he met another ambitious boy, a 15-year-old called Quincy Jones, a man whose career would go on to include working with Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

[00:08:45] In Seattle he had his own apartment, he lived independently, and he started to make a name for himself as “Ray Charles, the blind singing sensation”.

[00:08:58] His big break was to come four years later, in 1952, when he was signed to a record label called Atlantic Records.

[00:09:08] This finally gave him the distribution that he so badly needed, and success came quickly after with the release of “Mess Around” in 1953, and then the following year, in 1954 with the song that really catapulted him to nationwide fame: “ I got a woman”.

[00:09:29] When it comes to the evolution of the musical style of Ray Charles, you can clearly hear that he has moved away from the slow jazz, the Nat King Cole style what’s called “ crooning”.

[00:09:43] And by now he has mixed, he has fused together a variety of different styles of music - there is jazz in there, but he has combined it with blues and even gospel, the style of music popular in churches in the American south.

[00:10:02] This was something that people simply didn't do.

[00:10:06] Gospel music was holy, it was music that was sung in church. Blues, on the other hand, was sexual, it was smooth, it was the opposite of gospel.

[00:10:18] By blending the two styles Ray Charles was putting a type of music associated with sin and debauchery together with music sung in church.

[00:10:31] He would also use gospel lyrics and switch parts of them. For example, in “I’ve got a woman” he takes a gospel song called “This little light of mine” but switches “light” for “girl”, and he really, he is sexualising a hymn.

[00:10:51] And there were large parts of black America that reacted badly to it - they didn’t like what Ray Charles was doing. He was even accused of sacrilege by gospel pastors, who accused him of bastardizing the hymns.

[00:11:08] There was little that could stop Ray Charles though, and he continued to have hit after hit.

[00:11:15] He was becoming such a star that he was even offered a new, incredibly generous contract by another record label. In 1959 he switched from Atlantic Records to ABC records when he was offered a $50,000 annual advance, which was about half a million dollars per year at the time, plus ownership of all of his records - this would have been an incredible deal for the period.

[00:11:45] Ray Charles, alongside being a bold and incredibly talented musician, was also a shrewd negotiator and an excellent businessman.

[00:11:56] He would negotiate his own contracts, he owned his own music, he had his own music studio, he later on even started his own record label.

[00:12:07] He was blind, but he saw more clearly than most the commercial advantages of having control over your own music and your own destiny - at the time most other musicians would have had their record labels manage all of this for them.

[00:12:23] And although he was completely blind, and his eyes had literally been removed from his body, he was incredibly independent.

[00:12:32] He never used a stick and he never had a dog to guide him. He walked on his own, confidently, feeling his way over to where he needed to go. So much so that people would often doubt that he was really blind at all.

[00:12:49] This bravery is believed to have partly come from his mother, who would tell him “you’re blind, you ain’t stupid”. 

[00:12:59] From a young age, Ray Charles was taught that there was no point feeling sorry for yourself. 

[00:13:04] Yes, he had had a very tough start to life - he had grown up poor, blind, and black in a racist country. 

[00:13:13] But this shouldn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted in life. 

[00:13:18] And by the mid 1960s, Ray Charles was certainly a huge success by anyone’s standards.

[00:13:26] However, there was a darker element to his life that was of his own making.

[00:13:32] He had been addicted to heroin since he was 18 years old. 

[00:13:37] Obviously, being addicted to hard drugs is not a sensible life choice for anyone, but in the late 1940s and 50s, especially in the circles he was in, of jazz and blues musicians, it was nothing completely unordinary

[00:13:55] Other jazz musicians took heroin very happily, including lots of people that Ray Charles looked up to. 

[00:14:02] He thought it was a way of relaxing and it helped creativity, and he had been a full-on addict since he was 18.

[00:14:11] Although he was deeply addicted to the drug, he managed to function semi-normally. It was still an illegal drug though, and after being arrested several times in the 1950s for possession, and then finally again in 1964, he decided to go to rehab and he managed to kick his addiction once and for all.

[00:14:35] There was one more addiction, another vice, or perhaps we should just say another part of Ray Charles’ character, that he never really managed to overcome.

[00:14:46] His love of women. 

[00:14:49] He was married twice, for a total of 23 years, but had numerous other relationships and is known to have fathered 12 different children, only three of whom came from his marriages.

[00:15:01] He would sleep with his band members, with fans, with women he met on his tours. And there was no shortage of women who were attracted to Ray Charles.

[00:15:13] Despite not being able to see, Ray Charles was reportedly a keen admirer of female physical beauty. When he met a woman he would take her hand and arms, run his hand over them, to get a feel of whether this was a woman that he was attracted to. 

[00:15:32] You can perhaps tell this from Ray Charles’ music, but he was an incredibly sensual person. Of course, if you do not have the luxury of being able to see, your other senses become heightened, and it seems that for Ray Charles it was his sense of touch and of hearing that compensated for the lack of vision.

[00:15:55] Musically, he went on to become a national and global sensation. He made more than 60 albums, won countless awards, and has had a profound influence on the generation of musicians who followed him. 

[00:16:12] He died at his home in Beverly Hills in 2004, aged 73, after complications from liver surgery, leaving behind an incredible back catalogue and a completely new and unique sound.

[00:16:28] Despite all of the odds, despite the deck being stacked against him, he went on to be one of the defining voices of his generation. He never felt that people should be sympathetic towards him, or that he was unlucky in life. 

[00:16:44] He never let his blindness stop him from doing anything, he was a truly determined and evidently a very brave man.

[00:16:53] And perhaps there is no greater compliment of Ray Charles than how another musical icon, Frank Sinatra was to describe him - he called him “The only true genius in our business”.

[00:17:08] OK then, that is it for today’s episode, The Amazing Life of Ray Charles. 

[00:17:14] As a reminder, this was part one of a three-part mini-series. Next up will be Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, then part three is going to be on Elvis Presley.

[00:17:27] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:17:31] For the Ray Charles fans out there, what is your favourite of his songs, and why? 

[00:17:37] Where else can you see the influences of Ray Charles?

[00:17:41] And what other examples can you think of people who did not let obstacles get in their way?

[00:17:47] I would love to know.

[00:17:49] So, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:58] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:18:03] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]