Shadow of a legend

Iconic musician Ray Charles’ daughter forgave her father behind prison bars

Sheila Raye Charles
Sheila Raye Charles

Most know blind musical genius Ray Charles as the father of soul music, but to Sheila he was the absent father of 12 kids who left her searching for identity in the grip of illicit addictions.

Even after meeting her father for the first time in her teen years, Sheila sadly recalls her personal confusion remained.

"I went through a lot of pain trying to figure out who I was. The world knew Ray Charles and I was always introduced as his daughter, never just Sheila," she shared in an interview on CBN.

"In order to find my identity I created people and made up things in my life that I would pretend that I was."

Abuse as a child, an alcoholic mother and the disheartening blow of "having to make an appointment" for her first meeting with her father, combined to lead Sheila down a path from which she thought there was no return.

Although she dreamt of following in her father's footsteps through a career in the music industry, Ray was opposed to the idea.

His fears were realised as Sheila entered the world of drugs and a 20-year crack cocaine addiction. Three stints in federal prison followed and she hit rock bottom with the guilt of losing custody of her five children.

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

"It was the third time in prison that I was able to come back to my true self which was in Christ," she recalls.

Sheila read the Bible while incarcerated and, in the early hours one morning, remembers falling off her prison bunk and breaking down in uncontrollable tears.

"It was such a cry of pain and suffering that had culminated. I knew that my life as it was could never exist anymore, death was more [favourable] than continuing in the lifestyle I was living," she explains.

"I looked up at the ceiling and cried out and said 'God... they tell me you are the Author of life and death and if you have that much control then take me from this planet right now because... I can't do this!"

God did something supernatural in that moment: instead of death, Sheila found everlasting life.

"I am here at the lowest point humbly beseeching you, God," she cried out. "Fill my heart with your love, fill my mind with your wisdom and with your Spirit and with your grace."

Looking back on that moment, Sheila now confidently says: "There is no depth of hell that God can't reach down and pull you out of and I'm telling you that He reached down to a real deep one in my circumstances."

She quickly came to understand that God's "grace (undeserved love) was sufficient," and that He was telling her, "If you'll give me all that pain, suffering, hurt, abandonment issues...I will take you out of this [spiritual] captivity."

Sheila Raye Charles2
Sheila Raye Charles

"God is so amazing, that He sent His Son [Jesus] for people just like me," Sheila told

Understanding that God had forgiven her of all her past mistakes and sins helped Sheila forgive herself and her father as well.

"My father didn't have any parenting skills," she explains in retrospect. "He was raised in an institution for the blind, then was out on the road [on tour]."

She adds that one of her father's songs, "You Don't Know Me" reminds her of their relationship saying: "When I first heard him sing it, I cried and cried."

Ray passed away in June 2004 and Sheila chooses to remember him fondly as the incredibly talented "genius of soul".

"I love him with all of my heart. He left (his kids) an awesome legacy. I know he loved us truly in his own way."

Today, Sheila is often called upon to provide renditions of her father's best-known songs, from "Hit The Road Jack" to "Georgia", and takes every opportunity to tell her story of transformation.

"God revealed to me that it wasn't just a story for me, but a story to change people's lives – to take them out of darkness and into life," she told Herald Times.

Sheila now visits prisons, churches and recovery groups with her husband to perform and to share her message of hope.

Her memoir Behind the Shades is also available on, sharing through her experiences that "God is still in the business of doing modern-day miracles".

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