Ray Charles was an incredibly talented singer and composer of jazz, blues, gospel, and country music. He appeared at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and had many great hit songs such as “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack.” His “Georgia on My Mind” became the state song of Georgia. Frank Sinatra called him “the only true genius in show business.” The nickname “Genius” stuck and became part of many of his album titles. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
He died at age 73 of liver failure caused primarily by infection with the hepatitis C virus, which is very difficult to cure. His liver was also damaged by drugs, too much alcohol, and infections picked up through a lifetime of sexual exposure to many different women.
Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, into the extreme poverty that was common among blacks in the deep south during The Great Depression. His father, a handyman, deserted the family when he was an infant and his mother supported her two small boys by stacking boards in a sawmill. His brother drowned in a washtub at age four. Ray was not born blind but lost his vision at age seven. Doctors blamed glaucoma, but that means that nobody knows what caused his blindness. He still was able to ride a bike, play cards and climb stairs. During his life, he refused to use a seeing-eye dog or a cane. From age seven to 15, he went to the state school for the deaf and blind in St. Augustine, Florida, where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille and play the piano, organ, sax, clarinet, and trumpet. His father died when he was 10 and his wonderful mother died when he was 15.
At age 16, he joined a band called the Florida Playboys and began playing in clubs. He was smart enough to realize that in 1945 a blind, black musician had no chance to succeed in the south, so he moved to Seattle, Washington and started recording songs. He also realized that as Ray Charles Robinson, people would confuse him with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, so he dropped his last name and became Ray Charles. In 1949 he moved to Los Angeles and in 1953, he recorded “The Things That I Used to Do”, which sold more than a million copies. In 1954 he recorded “I Got A Woman” which became the top recording in the United States.
He was now rich and famous throughout the world and continued to produce hit songs year after year. In the 1960’s he appeared in films. He recorded duets with many other artists such as Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor.
Problems with Drugs
His early touring days took him into low-class nightclubs, where he started taking drugs. At age 31, he was arrested in an Indiana hotel room for possession of heroin and marijuana just before a performance. He told the police that he had been a drug addict since the age of 16. At age 34 he was arrested for drug possession in Philadelphia and in Boston. The following year, Los Angeles police caught him attempting to buy drugs from a street dealer. He was given a five-year suspended sentence for drug possession and sent to St. Francis Hospital drug rehabilitation center in Lynwood, California. He said that he never took heroin after that.
Charles was married twice and fathered 12 children with nine different women. At age 20, he had his first child with his girlfriend, Louise Mitchell. He married Eileen Williams when he was 21, but the marriage lasted for less than a year. He married Della Robinson when he was 25; they had three children and divorced after twelve years. He was living with a girl friend, Norma Pinella, at the time of his death.
Death From Liver Failure
Your liver processes the fuel that powers the cells of your body and cleans breakdown products from your bloodstream. If your liver can no longer perform these functions, you die. Your liver is damaged by:
• Alcohol. Your liver is the only organ that has the enzymes to break down alcohol, so almost all of the alcohol you drink must go to your liver to be removed from your body. Too much alcohol replaces liver cells with scar tissue to cause cirrhosis that can kill you. Recent research shows that no amount of alcohol is safe. It increases a person’s risk for heart attacks, diabetes, cancers and premature death.
• Drugs. The liver breaks down all types of drugs, both prescription medications and recreational drugs. Doctors monitor liver function in patients taking many types of prescription drugs, but most addicts are not aware of liver problems caused by their drug use until the damage is irreversible.
• Infections that involve the liver. Many different viruses go to the liver, stay there and often cause permanent damage, including the viruses that cause hepatitis A, B, C, D, E and so forth. They can be picked up from contaminated drug needles or through sexual contact. Having many different sexual partners increases your chances of acquiring viruses that can damage your liver.
Facts About Hepatitis C
• Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplantation and liver cancer in the United States
• 3.2 million North Americans are infected with chronic Hepatitis C
• Less than 50 percent of infected people know that they have it.
• Most people infected with Hepatitis C are between ages 50 to 70 and have had it for more than 20 years
• More people die of hepatitis C than die of AIDS, usually of liver failure (Ann Intern Med. 2012;156(4):271-278).
• Hepatitis C is difficult to cure.
• You can get hepatitis C from promiscuous sex, injecting illegal drugs, unchecked blood transfusions, HIV infection, and tattoos.
• To find out if you have it, get a blood test called Hepatitis C RNA
• You can have Hepatitis C and have no symptoms at all.
• If you have hepatitis C, avoid alcohol and medications that are broken down by the liver. Get a vaccination for hepatitis A and B.
September 23, 1930 to June 10, 2004