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Ray Charles and Heroin

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Ray Charles was one of the American pioneers of soul music in the 1950’s. Despite being blind from the age of seven, he learned how to read, write, play and sing music that would change the industry.

Ray Charles and heroin
Ray Charles FIJM 2003 – Victor Diaz Lamich, CC 3.0.

During his career, Ray became addicted to heroin, which he struggled with from the age of sixteen to his mid-thirties, when he finally enrolled himself in a recovery program and overcame his addiction.

Who Was Ray Charles?

Ray Charles was born September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia, but grew up mainly in Greenville, Florida. His family quickly became familiar with tragedy – Ray’s younger brother drowned when Ray was 5, and Ray, himself, progressively lost his vision until he became entirely blind at age 7.

Soon afterwards, Ray began school at St. Augustine’s Florida State School for the Deaf and Blind where he learned how to read, write and play music. Ray’s mother died when he was 15. Her death was not only a traumatic shock for Ray but also left him orphaned.1

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Shortly after his death, Ray moved to Seattle, Washington, where he began performing with his band “McSon Trio.” It was also at this time, at age 16, when he began using heroin.

Following his band’s success with the hit “Confession Blues,” Ray moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and signed on with Atlantic Records in 1952, which launched his professional career.1, 2

Ray won numerous Grammy Awards throughout his career, and his version of the song “Georgia on my Mind” was named Georgia’s official state song in 1979.3

Charles quickly made a national name for himself with his talent and unique sound. Eventually, he left Atlantic for ABC-Paramount Records in 1959, which afforded him more artistic control over his work.

The Heroin Addiction and Recovery of Ray Charles

Throughout his creative growth and success, Charles’ drug addiction ate away at his personal life. For seventeen years, Ray Charles had struggled with heroin abuse, beginning with his time with the McSon Trio.

Ray Charles: A memoir of his music and life (2:28 min)

Despite the blossoming of his artistic career, however, he could not overcome his addiction alone. Ray Charles’s heroin abuse continued, and he had already been arrested twice for possession of heroin when Los Angeles police busted him a third time in 1965. The court presented him the option of attending rehab instead of prison.

Fortunately, Ray chose rehab at a Los Angeles facility. There he began his recovery from a 17-year addiction, successfully completing treatment and embarking on his new sober life.1, 4

How Ray Charles Overcame His Heroin Problem

Because confidentiality is a vital part of proper treatment, very few details about Ray Charles’ recovery are known. It is important that every person seeking help with recovery feels safe and protected, and the facility that he stayed at did an excellent job protecting his privacy.

That said, recovery from heroin addiction generally involves similar treatment components:

Heroin Recovery Components

  • Detoxification – The body must first get rid of the heroin in order to begin healing. The detox process can take several hours to several days and may be uncomfortable, though medication assistance can help with the unpleasant withdrawal side effects. Detox is only the first stage of treatment; while detox clears the drug from the body, ongoing treatment helps address the actual psychological addiction.
  • Counseling and Therapy – Many programs, both inpatient and outpatient, implement both individual and group counseling to address underlying causes of addiction, practice coping skills and rehearse drug refusal scenarios. This aspect of treatment would have been an especially important part of treatment for Ray Charles, as the music industry is riddled with many pressures and temptations.
  • Self-Help Groups – Support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous can help former heroin users maintain abstinence in the face of a non-sober environment. In fact, active participation in these groups has been shown to improve abstinence rates following formal treatment.5

Life After Drug Rehab

Following treatment, Ray Charles’ subsequent sober career was spent creating more award-winning hits such as “Crying Time” and “A Song For You.” Soon after, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received ample recognition for his artistic genius, including multiple Lifetime Achievement Awards.3

During his life, Charles recorded more than 60 albums and won 12 Grammy Awards for his work.6 In 2004, Hollywood even produced a film about his life called, “Ray,” which featured an Oscar-winning performance by Jamie Foxx and was released just a few months after his death.

On June 10, 2004, right after filming had ended, Ray Charles died at age 73 in his home in Beverly Hills from liver disease complications. Ray’s heroin use, especially in conjunction with his alcohol consumption, was a recipe for liver damage.7, 8 One wonders how his life and gift to the world would have been further limited if he hadn’t sought treatment when he did.

How You or Your Loved One Can Start Your Own Road to Recovery

Fortunately, Ray Charles sought treatment before heroin took his life. Even though his rehab treatment was court-ordered, Charles invested in his recovery, which led to a fulfilling, sober life. Despite his celebrity status, Charles went through the same struggle against substance use that makes many people feel trapped. There was nothing special or outstanding about Ray’s heroin use when he went to recovery; yet he chose to engage and participate in treatment. You, too, can do the same.

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  1. Ray Charles Biography.
  2. Ray Charles Biography. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  3. Ray Charles Timeline. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  4. Ray Charles: Rare and Classic Photos of an American Genius, 1966. Time Magazine, 25 August 2014.
  5. Kissin, W., McLeod, C., & McKay, J. “The longitudinal relationship between self-help group attendance and course of recovery.” Evaluation and Program Planning 26 (2003): 311-323.
  6. Ray Charles. Infoplease.
  7. Riordan, S. M. & Williams, R. Liver disease due to illicit substance use. Addiction Biology, 3 (1998): 47-53.
  8. Jover, R., Ponsoda, X., Gomez-Lechon, M. J., & Cartrell, J. V. Potentiation of heroin and methadone hepatotoxicity by ethanol: an in vitro study using cultured human hepatocytes. Xenobiotica, 22 (1992): 471-478.

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