The roots of rock and soul

The Covington News - - OPINION -

On a sunny sum­mer day in 1935, two young boys were play­ing in the din be­hind a tiny, shot­gun ten­ant house in the small rural com­mu­nity of Greenville, Fla., about 30 miles south of the Ge­or­gia.

Their ages were 4 and 5; the old­est was Ray Charles Robin­son. The younger brother, Ge­orge, was en­joy­ing the cool amuse­ment of splash­ing around in a tub of wa­ter.

Then tragedy struck. Ray, hardly notic­ing his brother’s fun, heard him scream. He looked and saw Ge­orge kick­ing in a wild fran­tic strug­gle. His mother darted from the shack with a look of hor­ror on her face. In sec­onds, her thin, frail arms pulled the limp, life­less and mo­tion­less body from the tub.

Lit­tle Ray, frozen speech­less by the scene, lost all rec­ol­lec­tion of the events which fol­lowed; it was the most hor­ri­ble sin­gle jolt of his life, and one of the last things he would ever be able to see.

If see­ing his lit­tle brother drown wasn’t enough to crush his spirit, Ray had to face an­other heart-wrench­ing blow — blind­ness.

It didn’t hap­pen overnight, but only a few months af­ter his brother’s death, Ray found him­self go­ing blind. It wasn’t long be­fore young Ray com­pletely lost his eye­sight. Con­tend­ing with the prob­lem, try­ing painfully to help Ray learn to read and count num­bers, the mother fi­nally gave up and took the ad­vice of a lo­cal doc­tor to put him in a spe­cial school for the blind in St. Augustine, Fla.

He was 7 years old when he took his very first train ride — St. Augustine was the fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. By this time he could hardly see, and the prospect of com­plete blind­ness con­fused him. His mother kissed him good­bye, and left him there with the other boys and girls who had the same hand­i­cap. He was home­sick and bro­ken-hearted.

This was the place and the time that took a gloomy, black boy, with a hun­dred strikes against him, and made him come to grips with life as it was, rather than what it might have been.

He could ei­ther cry and get bit­ter or take charge of his ner­vous, fear­ful self and make the best of what he had left. He made the right choice.

Soon af­ter he ar­rived at the School for The Deaf and Blind, he was in stark dark­ness — his eye­sight to­tally gone. His de­ci­sion was to do what he had started to do when he learned a few mu­sic chords on the pi­ano; he’d just go on and make mu­sic his life. And he did. To the amaze­ment of fam­ily, the towns­peo­ple of Greenville, and, in time, the whole world, this poverty-stricken boy who didn’t seem to have a chance, made his chance and drove him­self to be­come a mil­lion­aire and more.

He be­came known world­wide as the “King of Rhythm and Blues.

Ray, like many black boys in South Ge­or­gia and north Florida in the early 1930s, had two things go­ing for him; namely, ab­ject poverty and “old-time re­li­gion.”

But there was more. He had a lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with his mother. Shortly be­fore her funeral, when Ray was only 15, she en­cour­aged him with th­ese words:

“You will not beg, and you will not steal. You gotta be­lieve that you can do what you can do. If you don’t, you gonna sink, boy; you gonna sink to the very bot­tom.”

The bot­tom was not the place Ray was ever go­ing to stay.

With his mother gone, and his fa­ther, who also died while Ray was in his teens, the blind boy took the poverty and the blind­ness which life gave him and put his faith to work. He said, “I had to start buy­ing my own line.” With no one else around as a back up, what else could he do?

Ray Charles Robin­son was born 1930, in Albany. De­spite his hand­i­cap, he learned to read Braille, to play the pi­ano and clar­inet, and to me­morize mu­sic.

But he was not con­tent to do as some of his fel­low stu­dents at the school had done; he wasn’t go­ing to hold a cane and a cup and pick a gui­tar on the street cor­ners in or­der to make a liv­ing. He knew he was des­tined for big­ger things.

Ray, who later dropped his last name for the stage name of Ray Charles, de­scribed his de­ci­sion to put his life on the line for mu­sic, said:

“Peo­ple should never be bit­ter about any­thing. They should go out into the world and learn to keep fight­ing for them­selves.”

At 17, he moved to Seat­tle, Wash., but a mu­si­cal mag­net led him back to Ge­or­gia where he met Ze­nas Sears, who had pi­o­neered a world cen­ter record­ing black rhythm and blues.

Sears had be­gun his record­ing of black groups in an old stu­dio in a back room of the Fox Theatre in At­lanta. Ray Charles came along and, with the help­ing hand of Sears, moved on to big­ger things.

Be­gin­ning in 1947 Ray made three record­ings in Tampa, Fla., recorded with sev­eral small la­bels, and fi­nally land­ing a con­tract with At­lantic Records in 1952 — there, in 1954 he recorded his first big hit, “I Got a Wo­man.”

Within nine years, he es­tab­lished a rare style of singing, which fi­nally be­came soul mu­sic with a touch of coun­try.

His phe­nom­e­nal ca­reer took him from At­lanta to Los An­ge­les, and around the world, and in 1963, he played be­fore stand­ing room only crowds at Carnegie Hall.

His raspy, bari­tone voice was prob­a­bly best known for “Ge­or­gia On My Mind,” which was adopted as the of­fi­cial state song.

Ray also recorded for ABCParamount, be­fore he started his own record­ing com­pa­nies.

Be­fore the end of the cen­tury in which he was born, Ray Charles had sold more than 300 mil­lion records.

Un­til his death on June 10, 2004, Ray was ac­tive and in de­mand as an en­ter­tainer. He en­joyed mem­ber­ship in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Na­tional Academy of Record­ing Arts and Science Hall of Fame and the Ge­or­gia Mu­sic Hall of Fame. The amaz­ing story of his life is told in the Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios movie, “Ray,” re­leased in 2005.

His unique place in the his­tory of mu­sic is the fact that he was the first en­ter­tainer to blend black mu­sic — rhythm and blues — spir­i­tu­als, and gospel, with coun­try mu­sic, and mak­ing that mu­sic ac­cept­able to all.

Clifford Brew­ton


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