Ray Charles was born in Albany, Georgia and grew up there and in Greenville, Florida. He died in 2004 in Beverly Hills, California of liver failure caused by Hepatitis C.
Charles was raised in a strict Baptist home under the religious wing of his mother, Aretha. Church, like so many of the great musicians in the early days of rock 'n roll, was where Ray was first exposed to music–particularly the gospel, blues and jazz that defined his sound.
But a life on the road, drug addiction and 12 kids with nine different women indicate that Charles didn’t follow the letter of his religious roots. But he seems to have been a spiritual man in his own way. Of the soul, he said:
What is a soul? It’s like electricity–we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.
If there is a soul, then there must be a God, right? Charles thought so, but that was about as far as he was willing to take it:
I’m a firm believer in God himself, but that’s as far as I can go. I’m not any denomination. I’m not Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist or Jewish or Muslim. I’m none of those things. And I’m sure that’s just fine with God.
Charles is often associated with the civil rights movement and considered a champion of social justice. Much of this conception comes from the fact that Charles refused to play clubs that practiced racial segregation–most notably in the state of his birth, Georgia, which subsequently “banned him for life.” However, Georgia issued an official apology to Charles in 1977 and made his song, “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song.
But Charles sometimes chose money over principle when it came to racism. For example, he toured Apartheid South Africa in 1981, when most of the western world and the United Nations were in the midst of condemning and boycotting the country for its state-sponsored racism. When the UN asked Charles for an apology, he told them to “kiss the far end.” (That means his ass.)
Officially, Charles referred to himself as a “Hubert Humphrey Democrat,” meaning he considered himself slightly left-of-center. But he didn’t mind playing for Republicans if the price was right. He played Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration for $100,000. His longtime manager, Joe Adams, said:
For that kind of money we would have sung America The Beautiful at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Maybe a joke, but enough for one to question Charles’ conviction and wonder if all he cared about was jamming and making money.