Ray Charles has the distinction of being both a national treasure and an international phenomenon. He started out from nowhere; years later finds him a global entity.
Hundreds of thousands of fingers have hit typewriter and word processor keyboards telling and retelling his story because it is uniquely American, an exemplar of what we like to think is the best in us and of our way of life.
The Ray Charles story is full of paradoxes, part and parcel of the American Dream.
Rags to riches. Triumph overcoming tragedy. Light transcending darkness.
The name Ray Charles is on a Star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. His bronze bust is enshrined in the Playboy Hall of Fame. There is the bronze medallion cast and presented to him by the French Republic on behalf of its people. There are the Halls of Fame: Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll. There are the many gold records and the 12 Grammys…
There is the blackness and the blindness. There was the extreme poverty; there was the segregated South into which he was born.
It is music, Ray Charles’ single driving force, that catapulted a poor, black, blind, orphaned teenager from there to here.
“I was born with music inside me. That’s the only explanation I know of…” he remarks in his autobiography.
“Music was one of my parts… Like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.”
“Music is nothing separate from me. It is me… You’d have to remove the music surgically.”
Ray Charles Robinson was not born blind, only poor.
The first child of Aretha and Baily Robinson was born in Albany, GA, on September 23, 1930.
He hit the road early, at about three months, when the Robinsons moved across the border to Greenville, FL. It was the height of the Depression years. And the Robinsons had started out poor.
“you hear folks talking about being poor,” Charles recounts. “Even compared to other blacks. . . we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground.”
It took three years, starting when Ray Charles was four, for the country boy who loved to look at the blazing sun at its height, the boy who loved to try to catch lightning, the boy who loved to strike matches to see their fierce, brief glare, to travel the path from light to darkness.
But Ray Charles has almost seven years of sight memory – colors, the things of the backwoods country, and the face of the most important person in his life: his mother, Aretha Robinson.
St. Augustine’s was the Florida state school for the deaf and blind. Ray Charles was accepted as a charity student.
He learned to read Braille and to type. He became a skilled basket weaver. He was allowed to develop his great gift of music.
He discovered mathematics and its correlation to music. He learned to compose and arrange music in his head, telling out the parts, one by one.
He remained at St. Augustine’s until his mother’s death when he set out “on the road again” for the first time as a struggling professional musician.
The road to greatness was no picnic, proverbial or literal. In fact, while earning his dues around and about Florida, he almost starved at times, hanging around at various Musicians’ Locals, picking up gigs when he could.
He began to build himself a solo act, imitating Nat “King” Cole. When he knew it was time to head on, he asked a friend to find him the farthest point from Florida on a map of the continental U.S.
Seattle, WA. For Ray Charles, the turning point.
In Seattle he became a minor celebrity in local clubs. There he met an even younger musician, Quincy Jones, whom he took under his wing, marking the beginning of an inter-twining of two musical lifetimes…
It was from Seattle that he went to Los Angeles to cut his first professional recording. And it was in Seattle, with Gossady McGee, that he formed the McSon Trio—Robin (son) and (Mc) Gee—in 1948, the first black group to have a sponsored TV show in the Pacific Northwest.
Along the way he’d shortened his name in deference to the success of “Sugar” Ray Robinson.
As Ray Charles, he toured for about a year with Lowell Fulsom’s band. He formed a group and played with singer Ruth Brown. He played the Apollo, the landmark showcase for black talent. He aspired to Carnegie Hall, then as now epitomizing the pinnacle of artistic success.
These were also the years that brought Charles the first band of his own, his first big hit record, “I Got A Woman.”
By the early 1960’s Ray Charles had accomplished his dream. He’d come of age musically. He had become a great musician, posting musical milestones along his route.
He’d made it to Carnegie Hall. The hit records (“Georgia,” “Born to Lose”) successively kept climbing to the top of the charts. He’d made his first triumphant European concert tour in 1960 (a feat which, except for 1965, he’s repeated at least once a year ever since).
He’d treated himself to the formation of his first big band in 1961. In 1962, together with his long time friend and personal manager, Joe Adams, he oversaw construction of his own office building and recording studios in Los Angeles, RPM International.
He had taken virtually every form of popular music and broken through its boundaries with such awe inspiring achievements as the LP’s “Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz” and “Modern Sounds in Country & Western.” Rhythm & blues (or “race music” as it had been called) became universally respectable through his efforts. Jazz found a mainstream audience it had never previously enjoyed. And country & western music began to chart an unexpected course to general acceptance, then worldwide popularity. Along the way Ray Charles was instrumental in the invention of rock & roll.
In 1966, Thomas Thompson wrote in his profile of Ray Charles for Life:
“…his niche is difficult to define. The best blues singer around? Of course, but don’t stop there. He is also an unparalled singer of jazz, of gospel, of country and western. He has drawn from each of these musical streams and made a river which he alone can navigate. His music is still marked by the unpredictability that is the genius of consummate artistry. He is master of his soul, musically and personally.”
To this day he selects and produces his own recording material with utter disregard for trends. He doesn’t find the time nor necessity to write as much as he once did, but what he gleans, “from the attic of my mind, ” either old or new, is inevitably suprising, unique, “right.”
In the past decade he has taken on George Gershwin (“Porgy and Bess”), Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Some Enchanted Evening,” “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”) and “America the Beautiful”—all with resounding, if unexpected, success.
Despite his intense reticence to expose the personal portion of his life to public scrutiny, Ray Charles is as outspoken about his opinions on matters of global interest as he is about matters of music.
As a Southern Black, segregation was Ray Charles’ dubious birthright. But racial tension and friction were not a part of his early rural years. At St. Augustine’s the rules of segregation were strictly adhered to, both for the deaf and the blind children, a fact that even young Ray Charles found ironic.
“I knew being blind was suddenly an aid. I never learned to stop at the skin. If I looked at a man or a woman, I wanted to see inside. Being distracted by shading or coloring is stupid. It gets in the way. It’s something I just can’t see.”
It was on the road in the 1950’s that the realities of segregation, its evils, its injustices, even its ludicrous moments, became apparent to Charles and his troupe of traveling musicians.
It was a concert day in Augusta, GA that brought the issue of segregation vs. civil rights to a head for Ray Charles.
“A promoter insisted that a date we were about to play be segregated: the blacks upstairs and the whites downstairs.
“I told the promoter that I didn’t mind segregation, except that he had it backwards. […] After all, I was black and it only made sense to have the black folk close to me. […] Let him sue. I wasn’t going to play. And I didn’t. And he sued. And I lost.”
This was the incident that propelled Ray Charles into an active role in the quest for racial justice, the development of social consciousness that led him to friendship with and moral and financial support of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s.
“…early on, I decided that if I was going to shoot craps on anyone’s philosophy, I was putting my money on Martin Luther King Jr.
“I figured if I was going to pick up my cross and follow someone, it could only be Martin.”
Despite his deep commitment to King and the cause of black Americans, Charles came to the logical conclusion that there was no place for him physically in the front lines:
“First, I wouldn’t have known when to duck when they started throwing broken bottles at my head. And I told that to Martin personally.
“When he intentionally broke the law, he was hauled off to jail. And when you go to jail, you need money for lawyers, for legal research, for court fees, for food for the marchers. I saw that as my function; I helped raise money.”
His awareness of racial injustice was not limited to the home front: The same years he fought the war against racial injustice in the American South found in Charles a growing awareness of racial injustice abroad, particularly the notorious policy of apartheid in South Africa.
Modest to the point of mum about his humanitarian and charitable activities, Ray Charles makes an exception for the State of Israel and world Jewry.
Among the many, the world leader Charles has most enjoyed meeting is David Ben-Gurion, with whom he had a conversation of many hours during a concert tour of Israel not long before Ben-Gurion’s death.
And the award among the hundreds he claims to have touched him the most is the Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai Brith’s tribute to its “Man of the Year” in 1976.
“Even though I’m not Jewish,” he explains,” and even though I’m stingy with my bread, Israel is one of the few causes I feel good about supporting. […] Blacks and Jews are hooked up and bound together by a common history of persecution. […] If someone besides a black ever sings the real gut bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
But it all comes back to music, so inseparable from Ray Charles.
He keeps rolling along, doing what he does uniquely and wondrously well.
Ray Charles is a national treasure and a global phenomenon for this reason:
He is music; he is himself; he is a master of his soul.