‘Georgia on My Mind’: What Ray Charles Was Thinking When He Recorded His Timeless Ballad

While Ray Charles started building a national following in the early 1950s, his reach became global with the ’59 hit “What’d I Say.” John Lennon recalled how many songs (including two by The Beatles) “What’d I Say” influenced over the years.

But “What’d I Say,” which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard pop charts, only marked the beginning of a long run of hit singles for Charles. In 1960, he reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with “Georgia On My Mind,” which remains one of Charles’ best-loved songs.

Though it sounds like a song Charles wrote from his heart, the great Hoagy Carmichael (along with lyricist Stuart Gorrell) penned the track way back in 1930 — the same year Charles was born in the city of Albany, in southwestern Georgia.

When Charles looked back at recording “Georgia on My Mind” for his LP The Genius Hits the Road (1960), the native of the Peach State said he didn’t have his birthplace on his mind.

Ray Charles said he didn’t sing ‘Georgia on My Mind’ thinking about the state or a woman

Ray Charles on stage in 1961
Ray Charles in 1961 | Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

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If you know some details of Charles’ biography, it could make sense to imagine him singing “Georgia on My Mind” while thinking of his earliest days. Charles was born in Georgia to a mother who had temporarily left her home in Greenville, Florida.

After Charles’ birth, his mother took him back to Greenville, where he spent his early years. So when Charles sang “In peaceful dreams I see / The road leads back to you” decades later, you’d be inclined to think he was tapping into nostalgia for his first days on earth.

That wasn’t the motivation for Charles’ moving rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” however. “I wasn’t dreaming of the state when I recorded the song, even though I was born there,” Charles said in his autobiography Brother Ray (1978).

Then maybe it was a woman, for whom he seems to yearn as “other arms reach out”? As he interpreted Carmichael’s lyrics, Charles wasn’t thinking along those lines either. “I’ve never known a lady named Georgia,” Charles said, noting the exception of one family friend.

Charles said he sang ‘Georgia on My Mind’ simply for its ‘beautiful, romantic melody’

Ray Charles in 1960
1960: Ray Charles (1930-2004) and Patricia in France | Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Gorrell, who wrote the lyrics to Carmichael’s music, said he thought up the words while thinking of warmer climes one frigid night as a young man in New York City. And he wouldn’t say if he was thinking of the arms of a woman or those of a hometown.

In other words, he was a writer at work with Carmichael, a masterful pop composer. And Charles was responding to the tune Carmichael wrote. “It was just a beautiful, romantic melody,” Charles said in Brother Ray, some 18 years after its recording. “And I still sing it most nights I’m performing.”

If you look at the track listing of The Genius Hits the Road, you see Charles didn’t only have Georgia on his mind those sessions. The LP consists entirely of place songs, from “Alabamy Bound” to “Mississippi Mud.” But Charles’ biographer noted the singer was in tears while recording “Georgia on My Mind.”

The way “Georgia on My Mind” connected with audiences also put the track on an entirely different level from the rest of The Genius Hits the Road. In 1979, when Georgia made it the state song, you can bet the 1930 Hoagy Carmichael recording wasn’t the one people were thinking of.