"I was born with music inside me. That's the only explanation I
know of..." he remarked 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, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. He hit the
road early, at about three months, when the Robinsons moved across the border to
Greenville, Florida. 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
had 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 went to Los Angeles to cut his first professional recording. Along
the way he'd shortened his name in deference to the success of "Sugar" Ray
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 had come of age musically. He had become a great musician, posting musical
milestones along his route. He had made it to Carnegie Hall. The hit records
("Georgia," "Born to Lose") successively kept climbing to the top of
the charts. He had made his first triumphant European concert tour in 1960 (a feat which,
except for 1965, he has repeated at least once a year ever since).
He had 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 Magazine, "...his niche is difficult to define. The best blues singer
around? Of course, but don't stop there. He is also an unparalleled 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 was master of his soul, musically and personally. He
took 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.
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
"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, Georgia, 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."
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 made an exception for the State of
Israel and world Jewry.
Among the many, the world leader Charles most enjoyed meeting
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 claimed to
have touched him the most is the Beverly Hills Lodge of B'nai B'rith'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 came back to music, so inseparable from Ray Charles.
He kept rolling along, doing what he did uniquely well. He was a national treasure and a
global phenomenon for these reasons: He was music; he was himself; he was a master of his