Bill King is a jazz columnist and co-host of Soul Nation on JAZZ.FM91. This column was originally published by FYIMusicNews.

During the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, you could travel the back roads from California to Louisiana to upstate New York and sneak into just about any juke joint and hear a Ray Charles clone belt out a rendition of Georgia on My Mind. Few performers have wielded more considerable influence over a generation of aspiring musicians than Charles. Some would perhaps argue Frank Sinatra, but that’s like comparing Kawhi Leonard to Kobe Bryant.

The real test for evaluating the impact of a performer is by counting the number of imitators out there. In Charles’s case, they were too numerous to address. Charles did it with soul-wrenching phrases in songs like Mess Around, Goin’ Down Slow, I Got a Woman, What’d I Say, Hallelujah I Love Her So, Just for a Thrill, Unchain My Heart, I Can’t Stop Loving You and You Are My Sunshine.

I can positively say that rarely did those karaoke takes on Charles hold my attention, yet when looking out beyond the bandstand at the number of approving eyes in the audience, it did put a smile on the face of the impersonators — especially if they succeeded in mimicking a memorable Charles inflection. 

Charles had more than 70 top-10 singles to his credit, but to measure his success by tabulating the money-makers would be an insult. It’s really the volume of timeless recordings (which number in the hundreds) that make him an unforgettable icon.

For many, it’s all about the first years of discovery. The root that took hold and grew into a redwood. That moment when hands, heart and mind touched earth and birthed something new.

For successful artists, there seem to be certain traits or events that have shaped their lives. Often there are moments of quiet desperation, isolation, family upheaval and poverty. But above all, there is a fierce determination to overcome these obstacles. You can call it inner strength, but it’s something much more profound.

Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. A few months later the family moved to Greenville, a little town in northern Florida, 40 miles from the Georgia border. During these early years, he became acquainted with poverty. Charles has mentioned that even among the other black families in Greenville, they were at the bottom of the ladder. Nevertheless, his mother, Aretha, provided the family with a strict sense of values. Strong moral convictions upstaged her weak physical presence. Aretha didn’t drink, smoke or swear. And there were set rules — the most significant was no begging or stealing.

Early on, Charles was intrigued by the simple pleasures: country life and the wonders of nature; sun, thunder and lightning storms; and music. Charles recalls in his excellent autobiography, Brother Ray (written with David Ritz), that the love of music was there from the beginning:

“I heard it early, just as soon as I was seeing or talking or walking. It was always there – all shapes, all kinds, all rhythms. Music was the only thing I was really anxious to get out of bed for. I was born with music inside me. That’s the only explanation I know of since none of my relatives could sing or play an instrument. Music was like one of my parts. Like my ribs, my liver, my kidneys, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water. And from the moment I learned that there were piano keys to be mashed, I started mashing ‘em, trying to make sounds out of feelings.”