The 1998 Polar Music Prize goes to pianist, singer, arranger and composer Ray Charles, one of the leading figures of soul music and an important stylistic innovator with an unusual diversity of musical roots – tapping the principal genres of American music. Ray Charles has inspired and guided succeeding generations of musicians in a way which few can rival. The importance of his artistry can be summed up in many ways: compelling, expressive and versatile singer and pianist, charismatic stage artist and crowd-puller, ingenious music-maker….But no epithet, probably, could be more accurate and profoundly honourable than that which he has personified throughout his career, namely “Father of Soul.”

Chapter: Man of soul, jazz, blues, pop, country

Man of soul, jazz, blues, pop, country

Ray Charles was a pioneer in developing soul music – by bringing together blues, gospel and country, the big-band arrangements of jazz and the rhythms of all of them, making music that was both sophisticated and spontaneous. He came out of poverty, became blind as a child, but lifted himself with music and great talent. His voice was among the most emotional and easily identifiable of the 20th century. He was a superb keyboard player, arranger and bandleader. Although his greatest musical achievements were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, his brilliant career spanned over six decades.

“I was born with music inside me. That’s the only explanation I know.”

Ray Charles
Ray Charles' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, given to him in 1981 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/JGKlein)
Ray Charles performing his #1 hit from 1961, "Hit the Road Jack", on London Weekend Television's Saturday Live, 1996
Chapter: A tough start

A tough start

Ray Charles Robinson was born on February 21, 1930, in Albany Georgia, the son of Aretha, a sharecropper, and Bailey Robinson, a mechanic and handyman. When Ray was an infant his family moved to the poor black community on the western side of Greenville, Florida. His musical curiosity was sparked at Red Wing Café, where owner Mr. Wiley played boogie woogie on an upright piano. Charles started playing the piano before he was five. He contracted glaucoma, which went untreated and left him blind at seven. He attended school at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine from 1937 to 1945 where he developed his musical talent.

Among others, Ray Charles played with young Nat and Julian (Cannonball) Adderley in Tallahassee, Florida in 1943. This picture of the two brothers is from 1966. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/John Levin Enterprises management, Photo: Bruno of Hollywood)

He studied composition, writing music in Braille, and learned to play the alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and organ. His father died when he was 10, his mother five years later, and he left school to work in dance bands around Florida – dropping his last name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

At Ritz Theatre in LaVilla, Jacksonville, fifteen-year-old Ray Charles Robinson played the piano for the bands, earning 4$ a night, in 1946. (Photo: Craig ONeal, via Wikimedia Commons)
Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, where young Ray studied 1937-1945 and developed as a musician. Picture from 2008 (of the Ray Charles Center and the Theodore Johnson Center of the school). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ebyabe)
Quincy Jones talks about getting to know Ray Charles in Seattle in 1947. Quincy was 14, Ray 16. Source: Academy of the Achievements (Creative Commons License), All rights reserved
Chapter: First recordings

First recordings

In 1947, 16 years old and having lived and played in most cities and towns around Florida, Charles decided to use his savings and move elsewhere in the U.S. But he thought Chicago and New York were too big, so he chose Seattle, Washington. There he met Quincy Jones, 14 at the time, and many other musicians on the city’s hot and lively jazz scene. They played the supper clubs during the early evenings and the clubs, like Rocking Chair, the Black & Tan and the Washington Educational & Social Club, later at night. Ray started recording, first with a trio for Down Beat label, where he got his first hit “Confession Blues” which soared to number two on the national R&B charts in 1948.

“Confession”, Ray Charles first record and R&B hit (#2 on the US R&B charts), recorded in Seattle, Feb 1949. Ray Charles Video Museum/Bob Stumpel/Down Beat/Collection Mark Cederquist.

Down Beat turned into Swing Time Records and “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” (1951) reached no.5 and “Kissa Me Baby” (1952) no. 8 on the R&B charts. The following year, Swing Time folded and Ahmet Ertegün signed Ray Charles to Atlantic Records.

Ray Charles' first recordings and R&B hits, 1949-1952
Streetview in Seattle, 1948 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jmabel)
Quincy Jones and Ray Charles, friends from the late ’40s in Seattle. Ebony Magazine/Academy of Achievements
Chapter: The Atlantic years

The Atlantic years

It was at Atlantic Records that Ray Charles truly found his voice. His sound started to toughen in the early ‘50s as he toured nationwide with blues singer Lowell Fulson, went to New Orleans to work with Guitar Slim and got a band together for R&B star Ruth Brown. The song “I Got A Woman,” performed with a seven-piece band fronted by Ray’s pounding gospel piano and new raspy, exuberant vocal sound, became his first national hit.

Legendary co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun (left, 1923-2006), and brother Nesuhi (right). Photo from the 1940s (Photo: William P. Gottlieb Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Ray Charles' first album for Atlantic Records, released in 1957 (Photo: Atlantic Records/Warner Music)
The Great Ray Charles, album cover, 1957 (Photo: Atlantic Records/Warner Music)
Ray Charles on record, the Atlantic years, 1953-1959
Chapter: Crossover Success


Throughout the decade he appeared regularly on the R&B charts as he synthesized more and more styles and was nicknamed the “Genius.”

The Genius Hits the Road, Ray Charles first album for ABC Records, 1960. ABC-Paramount/Universal Music

It wasn’t called “soul” at the time, but he paved the way for soul by presenting a form of R&B that was sophisticated without sacrificing any emotional grit. He had a number of hits, but it wasn’t until “What’d I Say” in 1959 that he really captured the pop audience. It was a wild blues/gospel/latin mix and became Ray Charles’ first million seller. Shortly after that he left Atlantic for ABC.

"Hit the Road Jack" live on TV
"Georgia on My Mind" live on TV
Chapter: Going country


In 1962, he surprised the pop world by turning his attention to country & western music, topping the charts with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and making the hugely popular album Modern Sounds in Country and Western.

The two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, 1962. ABC-Paramount/EMI

But Ray Charles had always been eclectic. He recorded straight jazz music at Atlantic in the late ‘50s, records that were released in the early sixties. In 1963 he had major pop hits with “Busted” and “Take This Chain From My Heart” and in 1965 with “Crying Time.” But by then younger soul performers like James Brown, Otis Redding and Motown singers such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had appeared. From the mid ‘60s, Ray focused less on rock and soul music and more on pop tunes, often with string arrangements. In 1965 he got arrested a third time for heroin, and agreed to go to rehab to avoid jail time.

Working with producer Sid Feller in the studio 1962 working on Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)
Ray Charles on record, the ABC years, 1960-1972
Ray Charles at Hamburger Musikhalle, Germany, September 1971 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Heinrich Klaffs)
Chapter: At the top

At the top

Ray Charles continued to be a concert draw through the late ‘60s and ‘70s and for the rest of his career. But his albums were not big sellers and he wasn’t played much on the radio. That was partly due to the rise of psychedelic, harder rock, modern soul and new artists, but also because of his choice of style and repertoire. He recorded pop standards and covers of then-modern day rock and soul hits. He didn’t write new material, maybe because he owned his own masters and earned a lot from them.

The album Friendship, 1984 Columbia/Sony Music

Also, his love of jazz and country was evident. But he was still, and continued to be, a major influence on other artists. His reputation was at the top. In 1984 he had a hit with the song “Seven Spanish Angels” – a country duet with Willie Nelson. In 1985 he participated in the USA for Africa recording “We are the World” (together with Polar Music Prize Laureates Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Bob Dylan, Sting and Paul Simon) and in 1990 he returned to the R&B charts with “I’ll Be Good To You” – a duet with his lifelong friend Quincy Jones and singer Chaka Khan.

With Richard M. Nixon in the oval office, The White House, September 1972 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Photo by Oliver F. Atkins)
Ray Charles on record, 1974-2004
With Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 1984 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/The Reagan Library)
Chapter: 90s-00s


During the ‘90s Ray Charles recorded three albums for Warner Bros. In 2002 he released Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again on his own label Crossover.

Rehearsing for the Grammy Awards, Los Angeles, 1990 (Wikimedia Commons/Alan Light)

In 2003 he started recording an album of duets, featuring BB King, Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald and James Taylor. The recordings were interrupted because of a hip replacement surgery. He scheduled a tour the following summer but was forced to cancel an appearance in March 2004. Three months later, on June 10, 2004, he died of a liver disease at his home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 75. The duets album, Genius Loves Company was released two months after his death.

Bronze statue i Greenville, FL (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ebyabe)
Ray Charles live at Olympia in Paris, 2000, singing "I Got a Woman", his #1 R&B hit from 1955
Chapter: Polar Music Prize

Stockholm May 1998

Polar Music Prize Laureates 1998; Ray Charles and Ravi Shankar, arrive at the press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Stockholm, Sweden (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Press conference in Stockholm (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
At the press conference (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
At the press conference (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Lisa Nilsson sings “Halleluja, I Love Him So” at the prize ceremony (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Swedish singers and musicians celebrate Ray Charles. Singers: Claes Jansson, Meta Roos, Lisa Nilsson, Nils Landgren (also on trombone), Roger Pontare and Caecilie Norby - with Bengt-Arne Wallin's Big Band
Ray Charles performs and gives a speech at the banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm.
On stage at the ceremony with HM the King (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)