How Did Singer-Musician Ray Charles Become Blind?

Ray Charles
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Legendary soul musician Ray Charles (1930-2004) was considered a musical genius, blending various styles of music to create his distinct sound that led to the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He achieved all of this while blind.

Blind in Childhood

Although the young Ray Charles—born Ray Charles Robinson—began to lose his sight at the age of 5, not long after witnessing his brother's drowning, his eventual blindness was medical, not traumatic. At the age of 7, he became completely blind when his right eye was removed due to intense pain. Most medical experts agree glaucoma was the culprit, although growing up in Charles' time and place, not to mention economic background, no one will ever be able to say for sure.

Still, Ray Charles' blindness never stopped him from learning to ride a bike, play chess, use stairs, or even fly an airplane. Charles merely used his other senses; he judged distances by sound and learned to sharpen his memory. He refused to use a guide dog or a cane, although he did require some help from his personal assistant on tour.

Charles credited his mother for encouraging his fierce independence. According to Smithsonian, Charles quoted his mother as saying, "You’re blind, you ain’t dumb; you lost your sight, not your mind." He refused to play guitar—piano and keyboards became his main instruments—because so many blind blues musicians played that instrument. He said he associated the guitar, a cane and a dog with blindness and helplessness.

Early Musical Talent to Stellar Career

Born in Georgia, Ray Charles was raised in Florida and began to show an interest in music from a young age. He first performed in a local cafe at 5 years old. After going blind, he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind where he learned to play several instruments as well as how to write music in Braille and compose music.

At age 15, he began touring on what was known as the Chitlin' Circuit.

His first single was "Confession Blues," released in 1949 with the Maxin Trio. In 1954, Charles had his first No. 1 record on the R&B charts, "I Got a Woman." In 1960, he won his first Grammy Award for "Georgia on My Mind," and the next year won for the song "Hit the Road, Jack." He would go on to win many more. He showed his versatility and crossover appeal when, in 1962, "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music" was his first album to sit atop the Billboard 200.

Ray Charles' last album was "Genius Loves Company" and was released just months after his death. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, the late Ray Charles won eight awards, including album and record of the year.

Over the years, he won or was nominated for Grammys in a wide range of categories—rhythm and blues, gospel, pop, country, and jazz.