Recovery On Her Mind
Ray Charles’ seventh child opens up about her drug-fueled past, her sobriety, and a father who was never there for her.
Ray Charles wasn’t what anyone would call a dedicated family man. The father of 12 kids from nine different women, he released 60 albums throughout a career that spanned nearly 50 years, achieving 17 No. 1 singles before dying in 2004. One of those children, 48-year-old Sheila Raye Charles, pursued a singing career before finding herself, at 39, incarcerated and addicted to crack cocaine. Nine years later, she’s released an autobiography and two albums, is happily married, and is now touring churches and prisons across the US, performing the hits that her father made famous while offering her own testimony on her relationship with God. Her touring is almost entirely done as volunteer work—she merely asks for a “love offering” of a hotel room and money for gas. In an exclusive interview, Charles talks about her attempts to establish a relationship with her legendary father, the lowest points of her drug use and the moment that helped her break the cycle of addiction.
When people would introduce me, it was never as Sheila Raye. It was always as Ray Charles’ daughter.
Tell us about your childhood growing up and what it was like having Ray Charles as a father.
I didn’t really have my father around growing up because I didn’t see him for the first time until I was 14. I mainly grew up in Cambridge, Ohio and was raised by my mother. I didn’t have a stepdad. My mother was an awesome woman though. She was full of love and I was surrounded by a close-knit family of three brothers [Ray Jr., Bobby and David, all of whom were fathered by Della Robinson]. But we were all dealing with our own emotional issues. I dealt with sexual abuse in my childhood by family members, and didn’t understand the emotional abuse of not only having an absent father but also the pressure that came with being Ray Charles’ daughter. When people would introduce me, it was never as Sheila Raye. It was always as Ray Charles’ daughter. Their intentions were never to hurt me, but it felt like there was this disvalue they gave me as a human being. As a child, it’s impossible to know who you are and what your identity is. The whole world loved Ray Charles, but I barely knew him.
Did you ever reach out to your father growing up or make an effort to see him?
My mother had a relationship with him for most of my childhood, so I had a phone relationship with Ray. When I was 12, I was the youngest person ever to have been accepted to the Maurice Allard Academy in Los Angeles, so I told him that I wanted to go out there for that and wanted him involved in my life. He agreed to meet and I was so excited. I thought we were going to go to Disneyland and hold hands on the beach, that he would tell me he’d miss me.
When I got out there, I called the number he gave me and it was his secretary. I had to make an appointment to see him. That immediately shook me. I was coming to meet a man and not my father. He was very rough around the edges, but if you look at his own upbringing, he grew up black, blind, in the poorest part of the US and was raised largely by an institution for the blind. What parenting skills could he have learned?
I saw my father occasionally after that, but he would come into town really to see my mother. He loved the music, the women and then his children, and truly in that order.
Did he offer you any advice with your music career?
I decided to pursue a singing career when I was 19 and my fondest memories of Ray are from when he eventually brought me into his studio to record my songs. I’m the only one of his children that he ever brought in to do that. He said that I wrote well beyond my years. My father, until the day he died, said it was the best thing I did. But we did that project and it sat on the shelf. I don’t know if he wanted to keep the limelight on himself or just didn’t want to share that part of the entertainment business with me. I’ve just gotten that material back into my own possession though and I’m looking forward to releasing it at some point.
Eventually though, my addiction eventually took over my music career. I’d have all of these gigs and I just wouldn’t show up. I’d be at the crack house.
When did you start getting involved in drugs?
Like any other teenager, I took marijuana. I smoked pot for the first time when I was 11 and that day, I had heat stroke. I was convinced it was the pot, but it was really just because it was over 100 degrees outside. [Laughs] I started up again when I was 13 or 14, but the one thing that always stuck was cocaine though. And, after having postpartum depression after my second child, I started having flashbacks of my sexual abuse and began blaming myself for my father’s absence. That’s when I remembered the euphoric feeling cocaine provided. When I started doing crack cocaine, life was acceptable. Life was doable. That addiction lasted for 20 years.
Ray Charles had a fairly lengthy drug history as well. Was that something the two of you ever talked about or confided in?
Not really. My father had gotten out of his addiction in the 70s and I was just starting mine then. He downplayed his addictions pretty heavily when I tried to reach out to him about it. But I do know that he felt very responsible not only for my own problems with drugs, but also for those of some of his other children who perhaps aren’t quite as transparent with their stories as I’ve been. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my attorneys when I was arrested [first for larceny, then for two parole violations]. But eventually, my father stopped speaking to me because of my addiction.
Would you say that your arrests were the lowest point of your drug addiction?
There were a lot of low points. I was in federal prison on three separate occasions. I lost all five of my children, either through giving them up for adoption or having them taken away from me. I gave birth to three crack-cocaine addicted babies. I remember holding one of my children on my stomach in the hospital right before she was taken away because I was smoking crack all the way up to walking into the delivery room. I stole from my own mother.
What was the moment where you realized that something in your life had to change?
It was 3 AM during my last stint in prison [in 2002-2003]. I had fallen off my bunk while sleeping and hit my head against the ground. As I’m laying on the floor, a spirit of death came upon me and every negative thought you could possibly think of yourself came at once. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to be on this earth for another day. I cried out to God, but I didn’t cry out for salvation. I asked him to take me away or send me to hell because I was already there. A supernatural revelation occurred and I heard a voice I had never heard before. The voice said, “Get up and dust yourself off. I will heal you, but there’s a requirement.” God said, “Give me your pain and abandonment issues and everything else that holds you down. I’ll lift you up and then I’ll send you around the world to talk about it.” I thought, “Not only am I a crackhead, but I’m schizophrenic, too.” [Laughs] But it ended up being the most beautiful and loving experience of my life.
Does it feel fitting in a way since you wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps musically, and now you’re touring the country in the same way he did?
The world told me my career was washed up and I was blackballed in the music industry. I’ve always wanted to sing and now I get to sing. I get to sing tributes to my father, but then I get to provide my testimony and talk about how God saved me. It’s really cool how He helped bring everything full circle for me.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among other topics, for The Fix.