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Hit the Road Jack! The Undercover Drug Arrest of Ray Charles

Ian Harvey
Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich CC By 3.0

Ray Charles, a much loved and respected musical genius, had a long career as a musician that was almost cut short by his heroin addiction.

In November of 1961, the singer was arrested at the Sheraton-Lincoln Hotel in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

Shortly after he checked in, he received a call from a man wanting to sell him drugs. When the man arrived, Charles bought a dozen three dollar capsules filled with heroin.

Ray Charles. Photo by Mallory1180 CC BY-SA 4.0

Ray Charles. Photo by Mallory1180 CC BY-SA 4.0

He and his band traveled to Anderson, Indiana just northeast of Indianapolis for a concert the next day, and returned to Indianapolis.

The plan was to go to a local club to hear Aretha Franklin sing, but Charles stayed behind.

Photo of Ray Charles in one of his classic poses at the piano.

Photo of Ray Charles in one of his classic poses at the piano.

The next morning a knock on the door of his suite woke Charles and when he asked who was at the door the reply was “Western Union” — but in fact, it was the Indianapolis police.

They pushed their way in without a search warrant and searched the room with Charles not knowing what was happening.

Ray Charles exiting the stage

Ray Charles exiting the stage

They seemed to know just where to look and found a needle and ten of the heroin capsules empty with residue still remaining.

Ray was arrested and hustled out the door with no respect for his privacy.

Ray Charles in Hamburg, 1971. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs CC BY SA 2.0

Ray Charles in Hamburg, 1971. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs CC BY SA 2.0

He was taken to the police station where the press was clamoring for a story, and the police staff let them into the room.

Although Charles was blind, he knew the familiar sound of camera shutters being clicked.

Trade ad for Ray Charles’ single “Yesterday.”

Trade ad for Ray Charles’ single “Yesterday.”

The reporters crowded around him and fired off embarrassing questions reducing the singer to tears.

The next day Charles was released on bond and headed to his hotel to meet up with his band, who had heard of the arrest on the radio.

Charles at the North Sea Jazz Festival, 1983.

Charles at the North Sea Jazz Festival, 1983.

They left for a gig in Evansville, Indiana across the Ohio River from the border of Kentucky.

When they arrived, the group was met by reporters who, again, encircled Charles pressing him with ridiculous questions.

Ray Charles at Grammy Awards – rehearsal – February, 1990. Photo by Alan Light CC By 2.0

Ray Charles at Grammy Awards – rehearsal – February, 1990. Photo by Alan Light CC By 2.0

When Charles returned to Indianapolis for his court appearance, a media circus greeted him at the courthouse.

They caused such a commotion that Judge Ernie S. Burke threatened to clear the building.

He set the date of the trial for January 1962. Charles posted his $1,000 bail bond and left Indiana for Nashville, Tennessee.

Charles meeting with President Richard Nixon, 1972. Photo by Oliver F. Atkins

Charles meeting with President Richard Nixon, 1972. Photo by Oliver F. Atkins

The concert tour was dogged by reporters who would not leave him alone. Repercussions of the arrest included a cancellation of an appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show, a venue that introduced many fledgling stars to the public including Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Several other concerts were canceled as well.

Ray Charles’ microphone. Photo by Andrew Russeth CC BY-SA 2.0

Ray Charles’ microphone. Photo by Andrew Russeth CC BY-SA 2.0

In January, Charles returned to Indianapolis for his trial at the courthouse which was packed with reporters and fans.

The judge heard his attorney’s arguments that the police entered under false pretenses and illegally searched the room.

Charles with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, 1984.

Charles with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, 1984.

Judge Burke set his response for three weeks later when he ruled that because of the illegal way the police tried to entrap Charles, the charges would be dismissed.

For many, the fiasco would have caused them to think twice about returning to drugs but the pull of addiction was too strong for Charles and he was arrested for heroin possession again in 1964.

Ray Charles monument in Montreux, Switzerland. Photo by Lysippos CC BY-SA 3.0

Ray Charles monument in Montreux, Switzerland. Photo by Lysippos CC BY-SA 3.0

Wisely, Charles checked himself into St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, California for addiction treatment.

After about five months in the hospital he emerged addiction free and was put on probation for five years. By 1966, his songs were climbing the music charts again.

Star honoring Ray Charles on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard.

Star honoring Ray Charles on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard.

Ray Charles, whose real surname was Robinson, died from liver disease in 2004 at the age of seventy three, in Beverly Hills, California.

He was entombed at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Over one thousand people attended his funeral at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some of his most beloved songs were performed at the service by Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, his longtime chess partner and songwriting collaborator and his son, the Rev. Robert Robinson Sr.

Read another story from us: Ozzy Osbourne Bit the Head Off a Live Bat and Snorted a Line of Ants

During his lifetime Ray Charles won twelve Grammy Awards and according to biography.com he performed more than ten thousand concerts and put out over sixty records.