Black History Month - Entertainment

This year to celebrate Black History Month, M. H. West & Co., Inc. will be highlighting notable African-Americans in selected fields each week. This week the field is entertainment. Please check back next week to view notable African-Americans in business.

Past Black History Month Fields

African-American Entertainers

Hattie McDaniel
Hattie McDaniel

06.10.1893 – 10.26.1952

Actress and radio performer Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940, for her supporting role as Mammy in 'Gone With the Wind.'

Synopsis

Actress Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas. By the mid-1920s, she became one of the first African-American women on the radio. In 1934, she landed her on-screen break in the film Judge Priest. She then became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940, for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Then in 1947, after her career took a downturn, she starred on CBS radio's The Beulah Show. She died on October 26, 1952, in Los Angeles, California.

Early Life and Background

Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas, with some sources listing her year of birth as 1895. She was her parents' 13th child. Her father, Henry, was a Civil War veteran who suffered greatly from war injuries and had a difficult time with manual labor. (Henry was later described by one of his sons as a minister, though this was a fictionalized account.) Her mother, Susan Holbert, did domestic work.

In 1901, McDaniel and her family moved to Denver, Colorado. There she attended the 24th Street Elementary School, where she was one of only two black students in her class. Her natural flair for singing—in church, at school and in her home—was apparent early on and gained her popularity among her classmates.

Career in Song and Dance

While at East River High School, McDaniel started professionally singing, dancing and performing skits in shows as part of The Mighty Minstrels. In 1909, she decided to drop out of school in order to more fully focus on her fledgling career, performing with her older brother's own troupe. In 1911, she married pianist Howard Hickman and went on to organize an all-women's minstrel show.

By the 1920s, McDaniel worked with Professor George Morrison's orchestra and toured with his and other vaudeville troops for the next five years. By mid-decade, she was invited to perform on Denver's KOA radio station.

Following her radio performance, McDaniel continued to work the vaudeville circuit and established herself as a blues artist, writing her own work. When projects weren't coming in, she took on attendant work to supplement her income. Much to her relief, in 1929 McDaniel landed a steady gig as a vocalist at Sam Pick's Suburban Inn in Milwaukee.

Acclaimed Actress

A year or so later, McDaniel's brother, Sam, and sister, Etta, convinced her to move to Los Angeles, where they had managed to procure minor movie roles for themselves. Sam was also a regular on a KNX radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nuts. Not long after arriving in L.A., McDaniel had a chance to appear on her brother's program. She was a quick hit with listeners and was dubbed "Hi Hat Hattie" for donning formal wear during her first KNX performance.

In 1931, McDaniel scored her first small film role as an extra in a Hollywood musical. Then in 1932, she was featured as a housekeeper in The Golden West. McDaniel continued to land parts here and there. But, as roles for black actors were hard to come by, she was once again forced to take odd jobs to make ends meet.

McDaniel landed a major on-screen role in 1934, singing a duet with Will Rogers in John Ford's Judge Priest. The following year, she was awarded the role of Mom Beck, starring opposite Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore in The Little Colonel. The part gained McDaniel the attention of Hollywood directors, and was followed by a steady stream of offers, including the part of Queenie in the 1936 film adaptation of Showboat, with Irene Dunne. (McDaniel had previously toured with the stage version of the Kern and Hammerstein musical as well.)

Academy Award Winner

In 1939, McDaniel was widely seen in a film that would mark the highlight of her entertainment career. As Mammy, the house servant of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) in Gone With the Wind, McDaniel earned the 1940 Academy Award for best supporting actress—becoming the first African American to win an Oscar. Yet all of the film's black actors, including McDaniel, were barred from attending the film's premiere in 1939, aired at the Loew's Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia.

Controversy

Through the mid-1940s, McDaniel appeared in additional films, primarily playing roles that members of the post-war progressive black community were beginning to cite as offensively old-fashioned. Since playing Mom Beck in The Little Colonel, McDaniel had been attacked by the media for taking parts that perpetuated a negative stereotype of blacks; she was criticized for playing servants and slaves who were seemingly content to retain their role as such.

Walter White, then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pleaded with African-American actors to stop accepting such stereotypical parts, as he believed they degraded their community. He also urged movie studios to start creating roles that portrayed blacks as capable of achieving far more than cooking and cleaning for white people.

In her defense, McDaniel responded by asserting her prerogative to accept whatever roles she chose. She also suggested that characters like Mammy proved themselves as more than just measuring up to their employers.

Later Life and Death

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, the sort of roles for which McDaniel was typecast began to gradually disappear and she was no longer a popular choice for films. Movie offers eventually stopped coming altogether.

McDaniel reacted to the decline in her acting career by making a strategic return to radio. In 1947, she took on the starring role for CBS radio’s The Beulah Show. Although McDaniel was once again playing a maid, she managed—with the NAACP's approval—to use her talents to break racial stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

In 1951, McDaniel started filming for the television version of The Beulah Show. Unexpectedly, she suffered a heart attack around the same time. McDaniel was later diagnosed with breast cancer in 1952, and actress Louise Beavers stepped in to assume her role on the TV show, which had initially been played by Ethel Waters.

Hattie McDaniel lost her battle with cancer in Los Angeles, California, on October 26, 1952. Since her death, McDaniel has been posthumously awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Additionally, in 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. A well-received biography on her life was published in 2005—Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, by Jill Watts. The following year, she was

honored with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/hattie-mcdaniel-38433

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington

12.28.1954 –

Former star of the hit TV drama 'St. Elsewhere,' actor/director Denzel Washington has earned popular and critical acclaim for his roles in an array of feature films, including 'Glory,' 'Malcolm X,' 'Training Day,' 'American Gangster' and 'Flight.'

Synopsis

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, on December 28, 1954, Denzel Washington first studied journalism at Fordham University but then discovered an interest in acting. He made his feature film debut in the comedy A Carbon Copy (1981) and was cast on the hit TV medical drama St. Elsewhere (1982-8). He went on to appear in several hit movies, including Philadelphia, Man on Fire, The Book of Eli, American Gangster and Flight, and won Oscars for his roles in Glory and Training Day. He received an Oscar nomination for his starring role in Fences (2016), the film adaptation of August Wilson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Early Life

Actor Denzel Hayes Washington was born on December 28, 1954, in Mount Vernon, New York. Washington is considered to be one of the most engaging leading men of our time. He is the son of a Pentecostal minister and a beauty shop owner and has two siblings. Washington first took the stage around the age of 7 or 8, appearing in a talent show at his local Boys & Girls Club. The club provided him with a safe place to be and to help keep him out of trouble. When he was 14, his parents' marriage broke down and he and his older sister were sent away to boarding school.

Washington went to Fordham University, but he proved to be a poor student initially. After taking some time away from college, he returned to the university with a new interest in acting. Washington later won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and afterwards worked with the Shakespeare in the Park ensemble.

Oscar Wins and Directorial Debut

Washington made his feature film debut in the comedy A Carbon Copy (1981). He also appeared in a number of off-Broadway productions and in television movies before being cast in a starring role in the hit television medical drama St. Elsewhere (1982–88). Washington grabbed his first of five Oscar nominations for Cry Freedom (1987) as real-life South African apartheid martyr Steve Biko. He later won a best supporting actor Oscar for Glory (1989).

Washington proved time and again he could disappear into a role and mesmerize audiences. He appeared in several notable films throughout the 1990s, including Spike Lee collaborations like the jazz outing Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and biopic Malcolm X (1992; in another Oscar-nominated performance). Other projects from this era included The Pelican Brief (1993), Philadelphia (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), Courage Under Fire (1996) and The Hurricane (1999), for which he received a Golden Globe for best actor and another Oscar nomination.

In 2001, Washington received his second Oscar (this time in a leading role) for the cop thriller Training Day. The following year, he directed his first film, the drama Antwone Fisher, in which he also co-starred. Washington would once again step behind the camera for the historical The Great Debaters (2007), which profiled a winning African-American debate team.

Action Hits and 'Flight'

Several hits followed, including Man on Fire (2004), The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and Lee's Inside Man (2006), which co-starred Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. Washington also starred as Frank Lucas, a real-life heroin kingpin from Harlem, in the 2007 film American Gangster, opposite Russell Crowe. In 2009, Washington starred as MTA Dispatcher Walter Garber in the remake of the classic film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, co-starring John Travolta.

In more recent years, Washington has continued to explore a range of roles. He starred in the 2010 futuristic tale The Book of Eli. That same year, Washington won a Tony Award for his work in Fences, a revival of the August Wilson classic drama. He landed a $20 million payday for the 2012 action thriller Safe House, in which he played a CIA agent gone rogue, and the film grossed more than $200 million worldwide. Washington next appeared in the comparatively low-budget drama Flight (2012), earning accolades and his sixth Oscar nomination for his performance as a pilot with substance abuse problems. He then teamed up with Mark Wahlberg for the 2013 crime drama 2 Guns and had another action hit in 2014 with The Equalizer.

In early 2016, Washington received the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association at its annual Golden Globe telecast. Later that year he directed and starred in Fences, a drama adapted from a play written by August Wilson. For his onscreen role in the film, he was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actor.

Personal Life

Denzel Washington married actress Pauletta Pearson in 1983; they have four children. Their oldest son, John David, was drafted in 2006 by the NFL's St. Louis Rams. He now plays for the Sacramento Mountain Lions in the United Football League. Their other children are daughter Katia and twins Olivia and Malcolm.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/denzel-washington-9524687

John Legend
John Legend

12.28.1978 –

Singer-songwriter John Legend won his first Grammy Award with 2004's Get Lifted. The album went platinum, thanks in part to the hit single "Ordinary People."

Synopsis

John Legend was born on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio. He became an in-demand session musician and songwriter, working with such artists as Alicia Keys, Twista and Janet Jackson. He was soon introduced to up-and-coming hip-hop artist Kanye West, and the two musicians collaborated on one another's demos. Legend's debut album, 2004's Get Lifted, won three Grammy Awards. After two more solo albums, he released his collaboration with the Roots, Wake Up!, in 2010. Legend also appeared on the TV competition Duets as a coach before dropping his next album, 2013's Love in the Future.

Early Life and Career

Long before earning a famous reputation as a multiple Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, John Legend was born John Roger Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio. A child prodigy, Legend's grandmother taught him how to play the piano, and he grew up singing in the church choir. He went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he directed a coed a cappella group. After graduation, he switched gears and worked for Boston Consulting Group but continued to perform in nightclubs in New York City.

Legend became an in-demand session musician and songwriter, working with such artists as Alicia Keys, Twista and Janet Jackson. He was soon introduced to up-and-coming hip-hop artist Kanye West, and the two musicians collaborated on one another's demos.

Career Breakthrough

Legend's debut album, 2004's Get Lifted, went platinum thanks in part to the hit single "Ordinary People," a song that he originally penned for the Black Eyed Peas. He went home with three Grammy Awards for Get Lifted: for best R&B album, best R&B male vocal performance and best new artist. Legend's sophomore effort, Once Again, was released in 2006.

Legend's musical talent has made him a mainstream star. In 2006, he performed at Super Bowl XL in Detroit, the NBA All-Star Game, and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. He soon released several new albums, including Evolver (2008). Evolver featured "Green Light," a collaboration with André 3000. This song proved to be a modest hit, and the album itself reached the top of the R&B/hip-hop charts. That same year, Legend stepped in front of the cameras. He had a supporting role in the 2008 comedy Soul Men, starring Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson.

Recent Projects

In 2010, Legend released Wake Up!, which he recorded with the Roots. The album received raves from music critics and tackled tunes made famous by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. The Curtis Mayfield-penned "Hard Times" was one of the record's main singles; another hit, "Shine," Legend's own composition, earned him a Grammy Award. He and the Roots also won a Grammy for best R&B album in 2011.

Legend tried his hand at reality television with the singing competition Duets during the summer of 2012. He worked alongside Kelly Clarkson, Robin Thicke and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. The musical stars coached and performed with the contestants on the show. Later that year, Legend contributed a new track to Quentin Tarantino's 2012 film Django Unchained.

2013 saw Legend releasing his next solo album Love in the Future, which featured the No. 1 ballad "All of Me" as well as tracks like "Made to Love" and "You & I (Nobody in the World)." And in 2015, the songwriter, along with rapper Common, won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song—"Glory"— from the film Selma. The tune also won an Academy Award, with both artists using their Oscar acceptance speeches to highlight contemporary issues that connect to the Civil Rights Movement.

Personal Life

Outside of music, Legend is involved in numerous social and charitable causes. He is a supporter of the Harlem Village Academies, a New York City organization that runs several charter schools. Legend serves as a vice chairman on the HVA board. He explained to Black Enterprise magazine why education is such an important issue to him. "I come from a city where 40 percent to 50 percent of our kids drop out of high school. I did well in high school and then went to an Ivy League school, but I was the exception. We need to do more to make sure every kid has a quality education."

Continuing with his commitment to education reform, Legend lent his song "Shine" to the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. The film takes a critical look at the nation's public school system.

Legend became engaged to model Chrissy Teigen while the couple was on vacation in the Maldives in late 2011. They tied the knot in September 2013 in Italy. On April 14, 2016, the pair welcomed their first child, a daughter named Luna Simone.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/john-legend-201302

Beyoncé Knowles
Beyoncé Knowles

09.04.1981 –

Beyoncé Knowles is a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning recording artist who's acclaimed for her thrilling vocals, videos and live shows.

Synopsis

Born on September 4, 1981, in Houston, Texas, Beyoncé Knowles first captured the public's eye as lead vocalist of the R&B group Destiny's Child. She later established a solo career with her debut album Dangerously in Love, becoming one of music's top-selling artists with sold-out tours and a slew of awards. Knowles has also starred in several films, including Dream Girls. She married hip-hop recording artist Jay-Z in 2008. In December 2013, she surprised audiences by releasing her fifth studio album, self-titled Beyoncé, and has twice performed at the Super Bowl. In April 2016, she released her sixth studio album Lemonade after the airing of an HBO special.

Early Life

Singer and actress Beyoncé Giselle Knowles was born on September 4, 1981, in Houston, Texas. She started singing at an early age, competing in local talent shows and winning many of these events by impressing audiences with her singing and dancing abilities.

Destiny's Child and Other Endeavors

Teaming up with her cousin, Kelly Rowland, and two classmates, Beyoncé formed an all-female singing group. Her father, Matthew Knowles, served as the band's manager. The group went through some name and line-up changes before landing a record deal in 1997 with Columbia Records. Destiny's Child soon became one of the most popular R&B acts, with the release of their first, self-titled album. Gaining momentum, the group scored its first No. 1 single on the pop charts with "Bills, Bills, Bills," off their second album. The recording also featured another smash hit, "Say My Name."

While enjoying her group's success, Beyoncé began exploring other projects. She made her acting debut in 2001 with a starring role in MTV's Carmen: A Hip Hopera. She then co-starred with Mike Myers in the Austin Powers spy parody Goldmember the following year. On the musical front, Beyoncé took center stage as a solo artist, releasing her first album, Dangerously in Love, in 2003. The recording became a huge success for her both commercially and critically. It sold millions of copies and won five Grammy Awards. On the album, Beyoncé worked with a number of different artists, including Missy Elliott, Sean Paul and Jay-Z. She was rumored to be dating Jay-Z around this time, but the couple did not publicly acknowledge their relationship.

Destiny's Child released their last studio album, Destiny Fulfilled, in 2004, and officially broke up the following year.

Solo Career

On her own, Beyoncé continued to enjoy great success. Her second studio album, 2006's B'Day featured such hits as "Irreplaceable" and "Deja Vu." On the big screen, she starred opposite Jennifer Hudson, Jaime Foxx and Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls. The film was adapted from the hit Broadway musical of the same name.

In 2008, Beyoncé married rapper and music mogul Jay-Z in a small, private ceremony in New York City. Among the guests sighted at the wedding were Beyoncé's mother Tina Knowles; her father and manager Matthew; her sister Solange; Destiny's Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams; and friend Gwyneth Paltrow.

The newlywed continued to work as hard as ever, promoting her latest effort, I am ... Sasha Fierce (2008). Beyoncé scored two big hits off the album—"Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and "If I Were a Boy." She also returned to the big screen that year, starring as R&B legend Etta James in Cadillac Records. The following January, Beyoncé sang James' trademark song, "At Last," for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at his inaugural ball.

In addition to acting and performing, Beyoncé ran a clothing line called House of Dereon with her mother. She also launched her own fragrance, Heat, in 2010. Throughout her career, Beyoncé has served as a spokesperson and model for several other brands, including L'Oreal and Tommy Hilfiger.

Beyoncé found herself under fire after performing a private concert for Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi on New Year's Eve in 2010. She later donated her fee from the event to help victims of the Haitian earthquake. According to some reports, Beyoncé said that her father had been responsible for arranging the Libyan concert. She decided to drop her father as her manager in March 2011. Later that year, Beyoncé reached the top of the album charts with her latest solo release, 4.

In January 2013, Beyoncé generated some negative headlines for her performance at President Obama's second inauguration in Washington, D.C. She was criticized for reportedly pre-recording a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and lip-syncing to her own track during the outdoor ceremony. Despite wide media coverage, in the days following the incident, Beyoncé did not publicly address the controversy.

Not long after, prior to her appearance at Super Bowl XLVII, Beyoncé performed the song live at a press conference. She explained to reporters that she had used a "backing track" at the inauguration, adding that she would "absolutely be singing live" at the NFL's biggest event of the year, according to The Huffington Post.

Indeed, Beyoncé more than redeemed herself in the public eye at the Super Bowl on February 3, 2013. During the event's halftime show, she took the stage and wowed the crowd, joined by her former Destiny's Child bandmates Rowland and Williams for parts of her performance. Beyoncé also announced that her next major tour would start in the spring of 2013.

Awards, Accolades and Surprise Album

At the 2010 Grammy Awards, Beyoncé walked away with six honors—the most wins in a single night by a female artist. Her record was matched two years later by pop/soul artist Adele. In 2010, she also tied the record for most No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, which is based on radio airplay. In 2011, she made the Forbes Top 10 list of entertainment's highest-earning women. By 2013, Beyoncé had won 16 Grammys.

Beyoncé broke records once again on December 13, 2013, with her fifth studio album, self-titled Beyoncé. The album surprised fans and critics alike, as no promotion for the album had been announced prior to its release. The record, which Beyoncé called a "visual album," was released exclusively on iTunes, with physical discs available for purchase after December 18. The record-breaking album sold more than 800,000 copies throughout the weekend it was released alone. The collection—which was the fastest-selling album ever distributed by iTunes—also marked Beyoncé's fifth studio album to debut at No. 1, making her the first woman to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with her first five albums. She released the Platinum Edition of the album in 2014, and the following year won three additional Grammys, including a Best R&B Performance award for "Drunk in Love."

Second Super Bowl and 'Lemonade'

In February 2016, Beyoncé returned to the Super Bowl stage, once again earning raves for her performance. This time around she appeared with Bruno Mars and Chris Martin of the band Coldplay, highlighting her new single "Formation" and subsequently announcing a world tour. The tune, its video and accompanying half-time show have also garnered a wave of attention for politicized lyrics and imagery touching on everything from black power to Hurricane Katrina.

Just two months later, HBO aired an hourlong Beyoncé conceptual film, Lemonade, which presented tracks from the album of the same name released immediately afterwards. The cable special showcased the singer reeling from the romantic and sexual betrayal of her partner while acknowledging the strength found in communities of African-American women. Tennis star Serena Williams and young actress Quvenzhané Wallis also made appearances in the New Orleans-based project, which was helmed by a variety of directors and featured poetry from Warsan Shire.

Lemonade the album was only initially available via Tidal, the online streaming service backed by Beyoncé's spouse Jay-Z, and then shortly became available on iTunes and Amazon with its accompanying film. Musical contributors to the project, which has quickly garnered acclaim, include Jack White, The Weeknd, James Blake and Kendrick Lamar. Lemonade debuted at No. 1, making Beyoncé the only artist in history to have all of her first six studio albums reach the top of Billboard's album charts.

Personal Life

Married to Jay-Z since 2008, Beyoncé was the subject of many pregnancy rumors over the years. In 2011, however, the notoriously private couple went public with the news of their impending new arrival. Beyoncé showed off her growing baby bump at the MTV Video Music Awards that August.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z welcomed a baby daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, on January 7, 2012. The couple spared no expense to maintain their privacy during this special time, renting out a floor of New York's Lenox Hill Hospital.

In February 2017, Beyoncé announced on Instagram that she and Jay-Z are expecting twins.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/beyonce-knowles-39230

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald

04.25.1917 – 06.15.1996

Ella Fitzgerald, known as the "First Lady of Song" and "Lady Ella," was an American jazz and song vocalist who interpreted much of the Great American Songbook.

Synopsis

Following a troubled childhood, Ella Fitzgerald turned to singing and debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Discovered in an amateur contest, she went on to became the top female jazz singer for decades. In 1958, Fitzgerald made history as the first African-American woman to win a Grammy Award. Due in no small part to her vocal quality, with lucid intonation and a broad range, the singer would go on to win 13 Grammys in total and sell more than 40 million albums. Her multi-volume "songbooks" on Verve Records are among America's recording treasures. Fitzgerald died in California in 1996.

Early Years

Born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, singer Ella Fitzgerald was the product of a common-law marriage between William Fitzgerald and Temperance "Tempie" Williams Fitzgerald. Ella experienced a troubled childhood that began with her parents separating shortly after her birth.

With her mother, Fitzgerald moved to Yonkers, New York. They lived there with her mother's boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva. The family grew in 1923 with the arrival of Fitzgerald's half-sister Frances. Struggling financially, the young Fitzgerald helped her family out by working as a messenger "running numbers" and acting as a lookout for a brothel. Her first career aspiration was to become a dancer.

After her mother's death in 1932, Fitzgerald ended up moving in with an aunt. She started skipping school. Fitzgerald was then sent to a special reform school but didn't stay there long. By 1934, Ella was trying to make it on her own and living on the streets. Still harboring dreams of becoming an entertainer, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. She sang the Hoagy Carmichael tune "Judy" as well as "The Object of My Affection," wowing the audience. Fitzgerald went on to win the contest's $25 first place prize.

First No. 1: "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"

That unexpected performance at the Apollo helped set Fitzgerald's career in motion. She soon met bandleader and drummer Chick Webb and eventually joined his group as a singer. Fitzgerald recorded "Love and Kisses" with Webb in 1935 and found herself playing regularly at one of Harlem's hottest clubs, the Savoy. Fitzgerald also put out her first No. 1 hit, 1938's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which she co-wrote. Later that year Ella recorded her second hit, "I Found My Yellow Basket."

In addition to her work with Webb, Fitzgerald performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She had her own side project, too, known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. Following Webb's death in 1939, Ella became the leader of the band, which was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. (Some sources refer to the group as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.) Around this time, Fitzgerald was briefly married to Ben Kornegay, a convicted drug dealer and hustler. They wed in 1941, but she soon had their union annulled.

Rising Star

Going out on her own, Fitzgerald landed a deal with Decca Records. She recorded some hit songs with the Ink Spots and Louis Jordan in the early 1940s. Fitzgerald also made her film debut as Ruby in 1942's comedy western Ride 'Em Cowboy with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Her career really began to take off in 1946 when she started working with Norman Granz, the future founder of Verve Records. In the mid-1940s, Granz had started Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of concerts and live records featuring most of the genre's great performers. Fitzgerald also hired Granz to become her manager.

Around this time, Fitzgerald went on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and his band. She started changing her singing style, incorporating scat singing during her performances. Fitzgerald also fell in love with Gillespie's bass player Ray Brown. The pair wed in 1947, and they adopted a child born to Fitzgerald's half-sister whom they named Raymond "Ray" Brown Jr. The marriage ended in 1952.

Queen of Jazz

The 1950s and '60s proved to be a time of great critical and commercial success for Fitzgerald, and she earned the moniker "First Lady of Song" for her mainstream popularity and unparalleled vocal talents. Her unique ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularize the vocal improvisation of scatting, which became her signature technique.

In 1956, Fitzgerald began recording for the newly created Verve. She made some of her most popular albums for the label, starting out with 1956's Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. At the very first Grammy Awards in 1958, Fitzgerald picked up her first two Grammys—and made history as the first African-American woman to win the award—for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance for the two songbook projects Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book, respectively. (She worked directly with Ellington on the former album.)

A truly collaborative soul, Fitzgerald produced great recordings with such artists as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. She also performed several times with Frank Sinatra over the years as well. In 1960, Fitzgerald broke into the pop charts with her rendition of "Mack the Knife." She was still going strong well into the '70s, playing concerts across the globe. One especially memorable concert series from this time was a two-week engagement in New York City in 1974 with Sinatra and Basie.

Later Years and Death

By the 1980s, Fitzgerald experienced serious health problems. She had heart surgery in 1986 and had been suffering from diabetes. The disease left her blind, and she had both legs amputated in 1994. She made her last recording in 1989 and her last public performance in 1991 at New York's Carnegie Hall. Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, at her home in Beverly Hills.

In all, Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums and some 2,000 songs in her lifetime. Her total record sales exceeded 40 million. Her many accolades included 13 Grammy Awards, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

While some critics complained that her style and voice lacked the depth of some her more bluesy counterparts, her success and the respect she garnered from the biggest names in the music industry showed that Fitzgerald was in a class all her own. Mel Torme described her as "the High Priestess of Song" and Pearl Bailey called her "the greatest singer of them all," according to Fitzgerald's official website. And Bing Crosby once said, "Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all."

Since her passing, Fitzgerald has been honored and remembered in many ways. The United States Postal Service honored the late singer with an Ella Fitzgerald commemorative stamp celebrating the 90th anniversary of her birth. That same year, the tribute album We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song featured such artists as Gladys Knight, Etta James and Queen Latifah performing some of Fitzgerald's classics.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/ella-fitzgerald-9296210

Tyler Perry
Tyler Perry

09.13.1969 –

Writer, actor, producer, and director Tyler Perry has built an entertainment empire that consists of successful films, plays, and a best-selling book.

Synopsis

Tyler Perry was born September 13, 1969, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had a difficult childhood, suffering years of abuse. In 1992 he directed, produced, and starred in the musical I Know I've Been Changed. His 2000 play, I Can Do Bad All by Myself brought to life the character Madea, who would later appear in several successful films. Perry has also developed several television shows, including House of Payne, and acted in such recent films as Gone Girl (2014).

Early Life

Writer, actor, producer, director. Born Emmitt Perry Jr. on September 13, 1969, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tyler Perry has forged his own way in the entertainment industry, building an empire that consists of successful films, plays, and even a best-selling book. One of four children, he had a difficult childhood, suffering years of abuse at the hands of his carpenter father. He once described his father as a man "whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you."

At one point, Perry even attempted suicide in an effort to escape his difficult situation. At 16, he changed his first name to Tyler to separate himself from his father. Perry dropped out of high school, but he eventually earned a general equivalency diploma, or GED, later. Trying to find his way professionally, he held a series of unfulfilling jobs before discovering his true passion.

Watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey's talk show, Perry was inspired by a comment on the program about how writing about difficult experiences could lead to personal breakthroughs. He started a series of letters to himself, which became the basis for the musical I Know I've Been Changed. While the show tackled such tough subjects as child abuse, it also touched on forgiveness, a theme has remained central in many of his works and reflects his deep connection to his Christian faith. After saving up $12,000, Perry debuted the show—which he directed, produced, and starred in—at an Atlanta theater in 1992. The musical's run lasted only one weekend and drew a measly 30 people to see the show.

Acting Career

Disappointed yet determined, Perry continued to work odd jobs while reworking the show. He staged the show in several other cities, but success still eluded him. Broke, Perry was living out of his car for a time. "Can you imagine a six-foot-five man sleeping in a Geo Metro?" he once told Essence magazine. In 1998, Perry tried one more time to win over theater audiences. He rented out the House of Blues in Atlanta for another production of I Know I've Been Changed. Soon Perry was performing to sell out crowds and the musical was moved to a larger theater. After so many years of hard work, he finally earned critical acclaim as well as commercial success.

For his next project, Perry worked on an adaptation of evangelist T. D. Jakes's book Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which proved to be quite popular. His next effort, however, brought to life his most famous character Madea. The gun-toting, sharp-tongue grandma first appeared in his 2000 play, I Can Do Bad All by Myself. Basing Madea on his mother and several other mature women in his life, Perry played the eccentric character himself wearing drag. She next appeared in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2001).

Developing quite a following, Madea has starred in a number of plays, including Madea's Family Reunion (2002) and Madea's Class Reunion (2003). Perry toured extensively with his shows. According to his website, 35,000 people a week saw one of his shows in 2005.

Big Screen Success

That same year, Perry proved himself to be a box office powerhouse with the release of his debut film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, starring Kimberly Elise as the scorned wife and Steve Harris as the adulterous husband. Perry appeared as three different characters in the film, including the legendary Madea. Eventually grossing more than $50 million, the film's success showed Hollywood that there was a market for urban African American comedies.

Perry's plays continued to make a successful leap to the big screen. He took on the leading role in Madea's Family Reunion (2006), which he also directed and produced, which scored well with movie goers bringing in more than $63 million. Now a major media figure, Perry established his own movie and acting studio in Atlanta that year. He also launched his first television series, House of Payne, on the TBS cable network. Starring Cassi Davis and LaVan Davis, both of whom have worked with Tyler previously, this sitcom features a multigenerational African American family.

Adding to his already dynamic career, Perry wrote the 2006 best-selling book, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life. The book went on to win two Quill Awards—Book of the Year and Best in Humor.

Recent Projects

Back on the big screen, Perry continued making films about family, morals, and overcoming adversity. Daddy's Little Girls starred Idris Elba as a father who fights regain custody of his three daughters with help from a lawyer played by Gabrielle Union. In Why Did I Get Married?, Tyler explores the relationships of several married couples. The large cast included singers Jill Scott and Janet Jackson as well as Perry sans his Madea costume. Examining the struggles of a single mother, Meet the Browns (2008) starred Angela Bassett who takes her two children to meet her father's family after his death. In August 2008, it was announced that the film is being adapted into a television sitcom, which premiered in January 2009.

Perry's next film release, The Family That Preys (2008), features two talented veteran performers, Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodward, as two longtime friends who try to heal their broken families. Next up for Perry, another film installment featuring one of America's best-known grandmothers, Madea Goes to Jail, which is slated for release in 2009. He also had a role in the latest big screen volume of the Star Trek saga—another 2009 release.

On the small screen, Perry has launched several new series in recent years, including Love Thy Neighbor, The Haves and the Have Nots, For Better or Worse and If Loving You Is Wrong. He has also enjoyed a thriving career as an actor. In addition to working on his own projects, Perry starred in the crime drama Alex Cross (2012) as the title character. He also had a supporting role in the thriller Gone Girl (2014) starring Ben Affleck.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/tyler-perry-361274

Shonda Rhimes
Shonda Rhimes

01.13.1970 –

Award-winning writer/director/producer Shonda Rhimes created the hit TV shows 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Private Practice, 'Scandal,' and 'How to Get Away With Murder.' She's also penned several film screenplays.

Synopsis

Shonda Rhimes, born January 13, 1970, in University Park, Illinois, is the first African-American woman to create and executive produce a Top 10 network series—the medical drama Grey's Anatomy. She is also the creator of its spin-off, Private Practice, the political thriller Scandal and the legal whodunit How to Get Away With Murder. Before these series, Rhimes penned such film screenplays as Crossroads and HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

Early Years

Shonda Rhimes was born on January 13, 1970, in the suburban University Park area of Illinois. She is the youngest of six siblings. Her father is a university administrator and her mother a college professor who earned two doctorates after her children were grown. (Rhimes' mom is supposedly the role model for Grey's Anatomy character Miranda Bailey.) An academic overachiever growing up, Rhimes received her BA from Dartmouth College in English literature and creative writing. After a short stint in advertising, she enrolled in the writing for screen and television program at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, earning her MFA. She excelled there too, earning a writing fellowship.

Writing Screenplays

Soon after grad school, Rhimes sold her first screenplay, Human Seeking Same, about an older black woman looking for love in the personals. The film never got made. But it did lead to her writing the 2002 feature film Crossroads, starring Britney Spears, Zoe Saldana and Taryn Manning, and 2004's The Princess Diaries 2, starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. Having completed the teleplay for HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which was made into a 1999 movie starring Halle Berry as the titular screen star, also elevated Rhimes's status in the business.

'Grey's Anatomy'

After 9/11, Rhimes found herself thinking more about motherhood than movies and within a year adopted baby girl Harper Lee. The new mom took in a lot of TV while staying home with her infant, prompting her to take a crack at writing a pilot. The result was Grey's Anatomy, a drama about a bunch of sexy young doctors in a Seattle hospital. Some of her inspiration for writing a medical show came from her enjoyment of watching real-life surgeries on TV and nostalgia for her time working as a candy striper in adolescence. Premiering in 2005, the show is going into its 12th season in 2015 and won a Golden Globe for Rhimes for Best Television Series—Drama. It also led in 2007 to Rhimes creating the spin-off Private Practice, which lasted for six seasons.

'Scandal' and Other Series

2012 was a big year for Rhimes, as she adopted a second baby girl, Emerson Pearl, and launched another hit show, Scandal, on April 5, 2012. The show stars Kerry Washington as a fixer in a Washington, D.C., crisis management firm and has plenty of political twists and turns. It became a ratings hit that created much weekly social-media buzz while generating praise for its forward thinking vision.

Rhimes's efforts have garnered much recognition, including several GLAAD Media and NAACP Image Awards for her tackling of important issues in terms of race and sexuality. After the success of Scandal, Rhimes and her production company, ShondaLand, worked on developing the series Lawless for ABC. The show revolves around an attorney who returns to her hometown and is based on the story of trucker-turned-lawyer Wynona Ward, who provides free services to domestic violence victims.

While that show has yet to make to the small screen, Rhimes had better luck with How to Get Away with Murder. The mystery drama stars Viola Davis as Professor Annalise Keating and joined ABC's lineup for fall 2014. The series has been embraced by critics, continuing into a second season, and the acclaimed Davis won a lead actress Emmy for her role, the first African-American woman to do so.

Rhimes has said she continues to enjoy penning series like Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. "I really try to make a show that I would want to watch," Rhimes said to shemadeit.org. "If I don't want to watch it…it doesn't go in the show." In autumn 2015 the screenwriter/producer released the book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/shonda-rhimes-21292767

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

06.03.1906 – 04.12.1975

Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism.

Synopsis

Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker spent her youth in poverty before learning to dance and finding success on Broadway. In the 1920s she moved to France and soon became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and '60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. After beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973, Josephine Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors.

Early Life

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman who had given up her dreams of becoming a music-hall dancer. Her father, Eddie Carson, was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after her birth. Carrie remarried soon thereafter and would have several more children in the coming years.

To help support her growing family, at age 8 Josephine cleaned houses and babysat for wealthy white families, often being poorly treated. She briefly returned to school two years later before running away from home at age 13 and finding work as a waitress at a club. While working there, she married a man named Willie Wells, from whom she divorced only weeks later.

The Path to Paris

It was also around this time that Josephine first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances, and by 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, Josephine married a man named Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Along as a member of the chorus, and the comic touch that she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to parlay these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favorite.

In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker traveled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt.

However, it was the following year, at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era, that Baker’s career would reach a major turning point. In a performance called La Folie du Jour, Baker danced wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe, having the admiration of cultural figures like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings and earning herself nicknames like “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” She also received more than 1,000 marriage proposals.

Capitalizing on this success, Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. The money she earned from her performances soon allowed her to purchase an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the southwest of France. She named the estate Les Milandes, and soon paid to move her family there from St. Louis.

Racism and Resistance

In 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was enjoying in France, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfield Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. However, she was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction and quickly returned to France, crestfallen at her mistreatment. Upon her return, Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her as one of its own.

When World War II erupted later that year, Baker worked for the Red Cross during the occupation of France. As a member of the Free French forces she also entertained troops in both Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps most importantly, however, Baker did work for the French Resistance, at times smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music and even in her underwear. For these efforts, at the war’s end, Baker was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honors.

Following the war, Baker spent most of her time at Les Milandes with her family. In 1947, she married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and beginning in 1950 began to adopt babies from around the world. She adopted 12 children in all, creating what she referred to as her “rainbow tribe” and her “experiment in brotherhood.” She often invited people to the estate to see these children, to demonstrate that people of different races could in fact live together harmoniously.

Return to the U.S.

During the 1950s, Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend her support to the Civil Rights Movement, participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963, Baker participated, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in the March on Washington, and was among the many notable speakers that day. In honor of her efforts, the NAACP eventually named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.”

After decades of rejection by her countrymen and a lifetime spent dealing with racism, in 1973 Baker performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and was greeted with a standing ovation. She was so moved by her reception that she wept openly before her audience. The show was a huge success and marked Baker’s comeback to the stage.

Personal Life

In April 1975, Josephine Baker performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, in the first of a series of performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut. Numerous celebrities were in attendance, including Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco, who had been a dear friend to Baker for years. Just days later, on April 12, 1975, Baker died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 69.

On the day of her funeral, more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to witness the procession, and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Baker the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/josephine-baker-9195959

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier

02.27.1927 –

Sidney Poitier became the first black Academy Award winner for Best Actor in 1964, receiving the honor for his performance in 'Lilies of the Field' (1963).

Synopsis

Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. After a delinquency-filled youth and a short stint in the U.S. Army, Poitier moved to New York to pursue an acting career. He joined the American Negro Theater and later began finding roles in Hollywood. In 1964, he became the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor. He also directed several films, including Stir Crazy and Ghost Dad.

Early Life

Actor and director Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. He arrived two and a half months prematurely while his Bahamian parents were on vacation in Miami. As soon as he was strong enough, Poitier left the United States with his parents for the Bahamas. There Poitier spent his early years on his father's tomato farm on Cat Island. After the farm failed, the family moved to Nassau, when Poitier was around the age of 10.

In Nassau, Poitier seemed to have a knack for getting himself into trouble. As a result, his father decided to send the teenager to the United States for his own good and Poitier went to live with one of his brothers in Miami. At age 16, Poitier left the South for New York City, where he worked menial jobs to support himself, until he found his life's passion.

Acclaimed Actor

Poitier made a deal with the American Negro Theater in New York City to receive acting lessons in exchange for working as a janitor for the theater. He eventually made his way to the ANT stage, filling in for Harry Belafonte in their production of Days of Our Youth. In 1946, Poitier appeared in a Broadway production of Lysistrata to great acclaim. His success in that role landed him another in the play Anna Lucasta, and for the next few years Poitier toured the country performing in the all-black production.

Moving beyond the stage, in 1950 Poitier made his Hollywood debut in the feature film No Way Out. The following year he appeared in Cry, the Beloved Country, a drama set in South Africa during the time of apartheid.

Cast mainly in supporting roles, Poitier had a career breakthrough with the popular film Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which he portrayed a student at an inner-city school. His success as an actor reached new heights when he scored his first Academy Award nomination, for the 1958 crime drama The Defiant Ones, with Tony Curtis, and the following year, Poitier lit up the screen as a leading man in the musical Porgy and Bess, co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge. Both this film and his impressive turn in the 1961 film adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun helped make Poitier a top star.

In 1964, Poitier won an Academy Award (best actor) for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963)—marking the first Oscar win by an African American actor. This accolade helped make Poitier cinema's first Caribbean-American superstar, one who consciously defied racial stereotyping.

Handsome and unassuming, Poitier brought dignity to the portrayal of noble and intelligent characters. In 1967, he gave three very different yet equally strong performances. He played Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs in the Southern crime drama In the Heat of the Night. In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner he played a black man engaged to a white woman in this groundbreaking look at interracial marriage. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy played his fiancée's parents in the film. He also starred as inner-city teacher Mark Thackeray in the British film To Sir, with Love. The film finds Thackeray navigating racial and socioeconomic friction between rebellious and unruly students and winning their respect in the end.

Later Career

While he helped break down the color barrier in film, Poitier found himself under fire for not being more politically radical in the late 1960s. He was especially upset by a harsh article about him in The New York Times and decided to step out of the spotlight, choosing to live in the Bahamas for a time before making his return to Hollywood.

In 1972 Poitier teamed up with friend Harry Belafonte for the western Buck and the Preacher, which also marked Poitier's directorial debut. The pair appeared in the comedy Uptown Saturday Night with Bill Cosby in 1974. In 1980, Poitier directed the successful Richard Pryor–Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy.

After a roughly 10-year absence from the big screen as an actor, in 1988 Poitier returned with a pair of dramas—Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. Other notable later films include Sneakers (1992) and One Man, One Vote (1997). On the small screen, Poitier earned accolades for portraying some of history's famous men. He played U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Separate but Equal in 1991 and opposite Michael Caine as South African leader Nelson Mandela in Mandela and De Klerk in 1997.

Now retired from acting, Poitier has turned his attention to sharing his many personal experiences. He penned The Measure of a Man, which was billed as a spiritual autobiography and published in 2000. That same year, Poitier picked up a Grammy Award for best spoken word album for the audio version of the book. He shared his years of wisdom for future generations with 2008's Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.

Poitier has received numerous honors during his legendary career. In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Poitier was also feted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2011, earning the organization's Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award.

Personal Life

Poitier was married to Juanita Hardy from 1950 to 1965, and together they had four children: Beverly Poitier-Henderson, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier and Gina Poitier. He is currently married to Canadian-born actress Joanna Shimkus, and they have two children, Anika Poitier and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.

Poitier was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, which entitles him to use the title "sir," though he chooses not to do so. He has also served as non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/sidney-poitier-9443345

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

09.23.1930 – 06.10.2004

Ray Charles was a pioneer of soul music, integrating R&B, gospel, pop and country to creat hits like "Unchain My Heart," "Hit the Road Jack" and "Georgia on My Mind." A blind genius, he is considered one of the greatest artists of all time.

Synopsis

Born in Georgia in 1930, Ray Charles was a legendary musician who pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s. Often called the "Father of Soul," Charles combined blues, gospel and jazz to create groundbreaking hits such as "Unchain My Heart," "Hit the Road Jack" and "Georgia on My Mind." He died in 2004, leaving a lasting impression on contemporary music.

Early Life

Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a sharecropper, moved the family to Greenville, Florida when he was an infant. One of the most traumatic events of his childhood was witnessing the drowning death of his younger brother.

Soon after his brother's death, Charles gradually began to lose his sight. He was blind by the age of 7, and his mother sent him to a state-sponsored school, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, Florida—where he learned to read, write and arrange music in Braille. He also learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet and trumpet. The breadth of his musical interests ranged widely, from gospel to country, to blues.

Musical Evolution

Charles's mother died when he was 15, and for a year he toured on the "Chitlin' Circuit" in the South. While on the road, he picked up a love for heroin.

At the of age 16, Charles moved to Seattle. There, he met a young Quincy Jones, a friend and collaborator he would keep for the rest of his life. Charles performed with the McSon Trio in 1940s. His early playing style closely resembled the work of his two major influences—Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. Charles later developed his distinctive sound.

In 1949, he released his first single, "Confession Blues," with the Maxin Trio. The song did well on the R&B charts. More success on the R&B charts followed with "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" and "Kissa Me Baby." By 1953, Charles landed a deal with Atlantic Records. He celebrated his first R&B hit single with the label, "Mess Around."

Critical Acclaim

A year later, Charles's now classic song, "I Got a Woman," reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. The song reflected an advance in his musical style. He was no longer a Nat King Cole imitator. His fusion of gospel and R&B helped to create a new musical genre known as soul. By the late 1950s, Charles began entertaining the world of jazz, cutting records with members of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Fellow musicians began to call Charles "The Genius," an appropriate title for the ramblin' musician, who never worked in just one style, but blended and beautified all that he touched (he also earned the nickname "Father of Soul"). Charles's biggest success was perhaps his ability to cross over into pop music too, reaching No. 6 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart with his hit "What'd I Say."

The year 1960 brought Charles his first Grammy Award for "Georgia on My Mind," followed by another Grammy for the single "Hit the Road, Jack." For his day, he maintained a rare level of creative control over his own music. Charles broke down the boundaries of music genres in 1962 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. On this album, he gave his own soulful interpretations of many country classics. While thriving creatively, Charles struggled in his personal life. He continued to battle with heroin addiction. In 1965, Charles was arrested for possession.

Later Career

Charles avoided jail after his arrest for possession by finally kicking the habit at a clinic in Los Angeles. His releases in the 1960s and '70s were hit-or-miss, but he remained one of music's most respected stars. Charles won a Grammy Award for his rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." Three years later, he released his autobiography Brother Ray.

In 1980, Charles appeared in the comedy The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. The music icon received a special honor a few years later as one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Charles was recognized for his contributions to the genre alongside such fellow luminaries as James Brown, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly.

Charles returned to the spotlight in the early 1990s with several high-profile appearances. He also recorded commercials for Pepsi-Cola, singing "You Got the Right One, Baby!" as his catchphrase, and performed "We Are the World" for the organization USA for Africa alongside the likes of Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson.

Death and Legacy

In 2003, Charles had to cancel his tour for the first time in 53 years. He underwent hip replacement surgery. While that operation was successful, Charles soon learned he was suffering from liver disease. He died on June 10, 2004, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. During his lifetime, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and performed more than 10,000 concerts.

Longtime friend Quincy Jones was just of many who mourned the passing of Charles. "There will never be another musician who did as much to break down the perceived walls of musical genres," Jones stated, according to The New York Times. "Ray used to say that if he had a dime, he would give me a nickel. Well, I would give that nickel back to have him still be here with us, but I know that heaven has become a much better place with him in it." More than 1,500 people came to say goodbye to the musical legend at his funeral. B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder were among those who performed at the service.

Charles's final album, Genius Loves Company, released two months after his death, consists of duets with various admirers and contemporaries. His life story became a hit film entitled Ray later that year. Jamie Foxx starred as the legendary performer, and he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charles.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/ray-charles-9245001