The roots of rock and soul
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.