Ray Charles (born Charles Raymond Offenberg, September 13, 1918, Chicago, Illinois, United States) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, vocal arranger and conductor who is best- known as organizer and leader of The Ray Charles Singers. The Ray Charles Singers were featured on Perry Como's records, radio shows and television shows for 35 years. The Ray Charles Singers are also known for a series of 30 choral record albums produced in the 1950s and 1960s for Essex, MGM, Decca and Command labels.
As a vocalist, Charles, along with Julia Rinker Miller, is known for singing the theme song to the television series Three's Company ("Come and Knock on Our Door"). As a songwriter, Charles is best known for the choral anthem "Fifty Nifty United States," in which he set the names of the states to music in alphabetical order. It was originally written for The Perry Como Show. He is also known for "Letters, We Get Letters," also originally written for The Perry Como Show and later used on Late Show with David Letterman.
At the age of 94 years, he continues to serve as a musical consultant to television programs, most notably for the last 29 years on the Kennedy Center Honors. Charles is acknowledged as an authority on American popular music.
At the age of 13, Chuck Offenberg (as he was known then), won a contest to sing on the radio in Chicago. At 16, while still at Hyde Park High School, he had his own 15 minute radio program on WENR and won a vocal scholarship to the Chicago Musical College.
After graduation, he attended Central YMCA College, where he met fellow future choral director Norman Luboff, who was to become a lifelong friend. In 1936, Offenberg joined the Federal Theater show O Say Can You Sing, sharing a dressing room with the young Buddy Rich. In 1942, Offenberg, with his wife, Bernice and son, Michael, came to New York City and he started getting work, singing on the radio for Lyn Murray, Ray Bloch and other choral directors. By 1944, he was doing 10 radio shows a week. In May 1944, Chuck Offenberg changed his name to Ray Charles. It would be 10 more years until the "other" Ray Charles changed his name from "Ray Charles Robinson" to Ray Charles.
Close harmony was all the rage and Charles became the arranger and tenor for the "Double Daters," a quartet featured on Million Dollar Band.
Drafted into the Navy in 1944, Charles was assigned to Hunter College, where he created an entire new music library for the WAVE choruses and trained the "Singing Platoons", three choruses of 80 WAVES each, on six week training cycles that sang on the radio, bond rallies and at local veterans hospitals. He also conducted the band on their two CBS weekly shows.
Discharged in 1946 Charles sang on New York radio ("Um Um Good" for Campbell's soups, among other gigs) and on many record dates. In 1947, he was the conductor for the Broadway hit Finian's Rainbow, and conducted the original cast recording. Charles initially became associated with Perry Como in 1948 through being part of the vocal group "The Satisfiers". The group performed on Como's The Chesterfield Supper Club. From 1949 to 1951, he was choral arranger-conductor on "The Big Show", the last big radio variety show with Tallulah Bankhead and Meredith Willson.
Before the war, he had been a singer on Your Hit Parade. In 1950, when the show came back to New York, he became the arranger and conductor of the Hit Paraders, the choral group on the show, first on radio and later when it went to television, for seven years. Simultaneously, the Ray Charles Singers became a fixture on The Perry Como television show for the next 35 years. It was a busy time with television’s top variety shows, records and commercial jingles.
Charles and his singers rejoined Como on television in 1954, while the singer was still doing The Perry Como Chesterfield Show for CBS three times a week. In 1955, the 15 minute Perry Como Show moved back to NBC and became an hour-long program; Charles had an opportunity to work with and write special material for some of the great entertainers of the age: Ethel Merman, Kay Thompson, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, as well as composers Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren and others. Charles also worked with Nick Vanoff, Gary Smith, Dwight Hemion, Peter Matz, and Peter Gennaro. The talent that worked on The Perry Como Show at one time or another in its long history is remarkable. Charles also wrote special material and did the choral work on Caesar's Hour with Sid Caesar, the successor to Your Show of Shows. In 1959, Charles produced the summer replacement for The Perry Como Show. Allan Sherman ("Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh"), a friend of Charles', was the head writer. Also on the staff was Andy Rooney. The stars were Tony Bennett (his first series), Teresa Brewer and The Four Lads. It was here where he met the "other" Ray Charles and was able to convince the entertainer to perform "America the Beautiful" before it was heard at the 1984 Republican Convention. The Screen Actors Guild, which normally does not allow two members to have the same name, made an exception for Charles the composer and Charles the performer. Saying the case was "unique", both men were allowed to become members without either changing his name.
The Ray Charles Singers
In June 1959 The Ray Charles Singers—a name bestowed on them by Perry Como -– were chosen by record producer Jack Hansen to provide backing vocals for Buddy Holly's last songs, which Holly composed and recorded shortly before his death in February 1959. The singers' close harmonies behind Holly's lead vocals simulated the sound of Holly's hit records with The Crickets. Six songs resulted from the Hansen sessions, led by the 45-rpm single "Peggy Sue Got Married"/"Crying, Waiting, Hoping".
While Charles and his singers were comfortable with Holly's brand of rock and roll, their repertoire moved into new directions. Due to advances in recording technology, they were able to create a softer sound than had been heard before and this was the birth of what has been called "easy listening". In 1964, on a cruise, Charles heard a Mexican song called "Cuando Caliente el Sol." He liked it, recorded it, under the English title "Love Me with All Your Heart", and his recording became a hit, riding to #3 on Billboard, #2 on Cashbox. This was followed by "Al Di La", also a very popular recording. The Ray Charles Singers were not one group of vocalists. They were different combinations of singers on records, tours and TV shows. What made them the Ray Charles Singers was the conducting and arranging of Ray Charles. The Ray Charles Singers also were the voices behind many commercial jingles.
Charles decided to produce a "live" performing group to send on the road with Perry Como. The group of 12 singers opened in Las Vegas at the International Hotel and also opened the show for Mr. Como at Harrah's in South Lake Tahoe.
He wrote the music and lyrics for an album produced by the Continental Insurance Company for the New York World's Fair in 1964, titled Cinema '76. It was a companion piece to a 30-minute show about unsung heroes of the American Revolution.
- "Al-Di-La" Command-33-870/SD-870 1964
- "Songs For Latin Lovers" Command-33-886/SD-886 1965
- "A Special Something..." Command-33-914/SD-914 1967
- "MacArthur Park" Command-SD-936 1969
- Command-4049---Al-Di-La/Till The End Of Time---1964
- Command-4090---Don't Cry-There's No Place Like Home---1967
Memories of a Middle-Aged Movie Fan
While Charles has always sung, he has only recorded one solo album, Memories of a Middle-Aged Movie Fan on Atlantic Records. It comprises songs from movies released in 1936. He gathered a group of his musician friends together: Nick Perito on accordion, Tony Mottola on guitar, Bob Haggart on bass, Dick Hyman on keyboards, Toots Theilemans, Doc Severinsen, Phil Bodner and his brother-in-law Bobby Rosengarden on drums. A labor of love for all, Charles' tenor voice does justice to "You’d Be So Easy To Love", "Did I Remember", "Pennies From Heaven" and other classics from that year.
Charles has also worked on film projects: Funny Lady and Running With the Moon.
West Coast television
After years of television, hundreds of jingles and countless record dates, Charles started going out to the West Coast for work. The television industry was changing, migrating to Los Angeles. After a couple of years commuting, in 1968, Charles and his family relocated to Los Angeles, where he produced a Bing Crosby Special and worked on The Hollywood Palace. By 1968, The Perry Como Show was now doing specials, so Charles could continue with Como while located in California. Then Charles wrote and arranged for two seasons of the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Charles worked on the first Julie Andrews TV special, with Andrews and Gene Kelly.
Charles became the musical guru to Sha Na Na and guided that show through three seasons. His son, Jonathan, and daughter, Wendy, also worked on the show with their father.
The Muppets and Kennedy Center
Charles eventually went to London to help on The Muppet Show. Writing special material for Carol Burnett and Brooke Shields, among others and working with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, Charles shared an office with Jim Henson, who Charles considered ”a genius”.
In 1982, Charles became the musical consultant of the "Kennedy Center Honors" and later performed the same function for the "Fourth of July" and "Memorial Day" concerts on PBS for 14 years.
Ray Charles has won two Emmy Awards for special musical material, music and lyrics for two comedy specials: The Funny Side of Marriage and The First Nine Months. His choral anthem, "Fifty Nifty United States," in which he set the names of the states to music in alphabetical order, is now a staple of school choirs.
He self-deprecatingly now bills himself as "the other Ray Charles" in a humorous tribute to the blues singer with whom he worked on several occasions.
- Ray Charles (1918– )
- Wife: Bernice (1916–2002)
- Son: Michael (1941–present)
- Son: Jonathan (1946–present)
- Daughter: Wendy (1950–2004)
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Image from Discogs