Five Things to Know About Ray Charles

February 2016
Painting of Ray Charles
by Regan Shrumm

Ray Charles’ voice could be as blues-y cool as it was achingly gospel, as confessionary country as it was brassy jazz. His groundbreaking style and sound reflected his diverse life experiences. While fans of the “father of soul” might be familiar with the basic rolodex of Charles’ life, here are five pieces of trivia that fill in a few more details about the piano man who did it all, from why he first started wearing his iconic shades to the game he played to fight insomnia.

How Ray Got His Ray-Bans

Ray Charles Robinson was just 18 years old when he moved to Seattle and started a band with his friends, guitarist Gossie McKee and bassist Milton S. Garret. The three began the McSon Trio, a combination of the two names McKee and Robinson. The trio even developed publicity photos for the group. But before the images were printed and distributed, McKee had an artist retouch the photos, painting sunglasses over Charles’s sightless eyes. Charles began to wear sunglasses while performing after this, and some authors even suggest that this began the trend for blind musicians to do the same.  

Ray Charles Never Saw Blindness as a Handicap

A Yamaha KX88 keyboard, owned by Ray Charles, complete with braille stickers
A Yamaha KX88 keyboard, owned by Ray Charles, complete with braille stickers, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Ray Charles did not lose his sight until he was about seven years old. Years later, doctors suggested that juvenile glaucoma had caused his blindness. But Charles always maintained that his visual impairment never hindered his career in any way. Charles once told the New York Times: “I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. I played music since I was three. I could see then. I lost my sight when I was seven. So blindness didn't have anything to do with it. It didn't give me anything. And it didn't take nothing.'' Charles had his keyboards marked with braille stickers, including the Yamaha KX88 keyboard now held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In 1994, the musician received a Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind for his determination “not to let his disability limit him.” However hearing loss or the inability to listen to music, Charles believed was a tragic impairment. After experiencing a temporary ear ailment, Charles began to fund research in cochlear implants and other electronic devices; and he often anonymously funded hearing aid implants for those who could not afford them.

The Blues Brothers Renewed Charles’ Popularity

In the 1980 John Landis film The Blues Brothers, Charles sang “Shake a Tail Feather”
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During the 1970s when disco was huge, Ray Charles’ career had bottomed out and his album sales hit an all-time low. Recently divorced and having suffered a number of setbacks after battling a long-time drug addiction, Charles’ fortunes changed with the release of John Landis’ feature film The Blues Brothers in 1980. Joining such performers as Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown, Charles took on a role as the owner of a down-and-out music shop. The film became a box office hit and sparked an R&B revival.

Ray Charles Was a Chess Fiend

It was while Ray Charles was enrolled in a rehabilitation program at St. Francis hospital, near Los Angeles in 1965 that the musician learned to play chess. Taught by his doctor at the clinic, Charles, fighting insomnia, often played throughout the night with other patients. Charles loved that winning at chess was not a matter of luck, but rather of skill. “We start with the same pieces in the same places,” he observed. “You’ve got to outwit, out-think, and out-maneuver the other person.”

Charles maintained a life-long passion for the game and even had his own chessboards made, one of which is now in the American History Museum. The musician’s board features squares of alternating height; the black squares are raised while the white squares are lowered. To help him identify the pieces by touch, the black pieces have sharper tops, while the white ones have round ones.

Ray Charles Could Fly

Ray Charles with his aircraft, Ray Charles
Ray Charles with his aircraft, "Ray Charles."

Charles had an interest in flying and was determined to buy his own airplane. During the early 1960s, he bought a five-passenger Cessna 310, which was piloted by Tom McGarrity, one of the very few black Air Force veterans. Often Charles would ask McGarrity questions about the plane, and would even help the pilot under the plane’s hood. On some nights, instead of McGarrity’s switching to autopilot, Charles would fly, listening to the hum of beam tones of the radar.

Regan Shrumm is an intern in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History. She recently finished her Masters in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria in Victoria, BC, Canada.