Sunday, 20 March 2011

BOOK REVIEWS ~ "Ray Charles" ~ By: Sharon Bell Mathis

While researching the civil rights movement, we came upon a book about the blind musician Ray Charles and so we ordered it in through inter-library loans.  It is a "Crowell Biography" and is simply titled "Ray Charles," written by Sharon Bell Mathis and illustrated by George Ford.  It's old ~ published in 1973, but it is still an interesting read.

I was surprised to learn blind musicians can write musical notation using Braille.  Mathis tells us, "Ray learned to read and write music this way.  Then he learned to play every instrument in the school band.  His voice was great.  He didn't need to learn to sing.  He would sit at the piano.  His fingers would touch the first note pressed into the paper.  Then he would touch the next note.  He'd play these notes of the piano.  Next he'd touch four more, play the first two notes and add the four new ones.  His fingers would go back and forth from the pushed-out dots to the piano and back again.  The hardest music for him to learn this way was classical.  These pieces of music are usually pages and pages long.  But Ray knew the kind of music he wanted to play.  It was music filled with the great rhythms of Black people.  He gave more and more of his time to it.  He'd learn a tune and then jazz it up until he had a new sound.  His music got better and better.  Soon he was writing Braille arrangements of melodies for bands with as many as sixteen and seventeen instruments" (Pages 13 and 14).

RAY CHARLES ROBINSON, (born September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia), experienced many trials and tribulations.  The book doesn't go into detail about the death of his four-year-old little brother, George, but from other sources we learned that he drowned in a portable laundry tub despite Ray's efforts to save him.  Ray tried to lift him out, but George was too heavy.  He was only five when  this tragic event took place. [His Mother often did laundry for others to help earn an income.]  We also learned his father wasn't "on the scene" very much and also died when Ray was quite young.  Add in Ray's eye problems - the removal of one eye, due to disease, at the age of six, and total blindness by the following year.  Then it was off to St. Augustine School For the Blind which meant separation from his Mother.  When Ray was 15-years old, he was devastated to receive the news that his Mother had also passed away.  He was alone in the world.

"His sadness was so great that he had to stay in the school hospital for six days. 'After they buried her, I couldn't eat,' he said.'I couldn't cry. People kept saying I'd feel better if I could just break down and cry' " (Page 15).

At this low ebb, Ray quit school and walked away.  He had his high school diploma and "after hearing a piece of music once he could play it perfectly" (Page 16).  He found a job playing the piano at a radio station.  Life was a struggle, but Ray did what he could.  " 'I didn't want to spend my life making brooms,' he said.  'And I didn't want a dog and a cane to get across the street.  I wanted to depend on myself.'  But times were hard and Ray had little money.  Sometimes he was paid with food.  Often he had only sardines and crackers to eat.  Sometimes he had nothing.  All he could do then was drink water" (Page 16).

Eventually Ray managed to save a total of six hundred dollars and, in 1948, he decided to relocate from Florida to Seattle, Washington.

In Seattle, Ray was soon hired to play in a club called "The Rocking Chair."  From there, he made a record and became a sideman for other bands in several Black nightclubs.  "Then in 1953 he formed a three-man group of musicians called the Macson Trio.  Ray was part of the group.  The Macson Trio was the first Black act to get its own television show in the Pacific Northwest.  Then Ray shortened his name from Ray Charles Robinson to 'Ray Charles.'  He didn't want people to mix him up with the famous Black boxer Sugar Ray Robinson" (Pages 20 and 21).

Then he worked by himself.  "One of the places where he sang was the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem.  Harlem is in New York.  Black people live in Harlem.  They love the Apollo.  Many Black stars get their start there" (Page 22).

"Ray Charles worked harder and harder and kept practicing the music he wanted to play.  He would stay up five and six nights in a row playing a piece on the piano until he got the sound he wanted.  It took hours more to press the notes out in Braille.  In 1954 he hired seven musicians to play the beautiful music he had put together.  Many people said it was one of the best jazz groups in the country.  Ray Charles played the alto sax and the piano.  And he sang.  His rich, Black voice was sounding great.  Ray Charles made his first hit record. . . . The record that did this for Ray Charles, and his seven musicians, was 'I Got A Woman."  Ray Charles wrote the song and he arranged the music for it too" (Page 23).

Ray went on to own his own record company.  "He named the company Tangerine after his favorite fruit" (Page 24).  He was a perfectionist.  Once he told the 'Raelets' (his back-up singers):  " 'I'm not hard to get along with, darlings.  I just have to have things perfect.'  Ray Charles has perfect pitch.  His ears are so sharp that he can always hear a wrong note.  Once he was listening to thirty musicians playing.   Suddenly he stopped them.  He told one of the second violinists that he was playing a D-sharp instead of a D-natural.  And it was true.  There was a time when his girl singers, the 'Raelets,' couldn't make it to a recording session.  Ray Charles put on earphones and sang the girls' parts one at a time.  He sang in a high voice.  At the end the result was perfect.  It sounded as if four girls were singing along with him" (Pages 25 and 26).

"Ray Charles has been called a 'genius' by the music world.  He has won some of the highest music awards and honors of America and of countries around the world" (Page 29 and 30).

But Ray Charles also battled against discrimnation.  Mathis tells her readers:  "Ray once received something special from Black people.  It was a collection of 8,500 signatures under the heading of one of his most famous songs, 'I Can't Stop Loving You.'  They gave him this because he had refused to give a concert in front of a segregated audience [the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia on March 15, 1961].  Black people were not allowed to sit where they wanted to.  Ray Charles walked out of the auditorium rather than have Black people insulted.  He had to pay a fine of seven hundred and fifty-seven dollars" (Pages 30 and 31).

Ray's official website tells us that "On March 7, 1979 he took the stage in Georgia when he performed 'Georgia On My Mind' before the Georgia State Assembly. The performance was to an unsegregated audience. Six weeks later, on April 24, 1979 the Ray Charles version of 'Georgia On My Mind' was designated as the Official State Song of the State of Georgia by the Georgia State Legislature."

"Often it hurts him to remember.  Sometimes he says, 'When I am singing the blues, I can hardly keep the tears from running down my face.'  'I give it all I got,' he says.  It is then that the heavy, throaty voice pours out the trouble he knows.  His soul shows, and people see and understand.  And when he bursts into songs of joy, people see that and understand too.  His voice strains with the words, 'It's all right!'  And they know, if he tells them, it IS all right." (Pages 32 and 33).

At this point the account by Sharon Bell Mathis ends. In 1974 the book, "Ray Charles" won two Coretta Scotta King awards for their creative efforts - the Author Award for Mathis and the first ever Illustrator award for George Ford.

From  the biography on his website [which was mentioned above], we learn that "In 1986, Mr. Charles created what is now known as 'The Ray Charles Foundation' which is dedicated to providing support in the area of hearing disorders and the empowerment of young people through education by offering support to educational institutions and non-profit education programs. The vision of The Ray Charles Foundation is to instill in the youth of America that “there is no challenge too great one cannot overcome.

The website also states that, "Ray Charles died at 73 years old on June 10, 2004, two months before the release of his final album 'Genius Loves Company', which sold over 5 million copies earning 8 Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year and 4 months before the release of his Academy Award winning feature film Ray, portraying his life and career. Not only was the film critically acclaimed, but it earned more than $125 million worldwide and landed Jamie Foxx an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Ray remains the most critically acclaimed musical bio-pic because of the manner in which it told the story of one of America’s greatest entertainers."  (The official cause of death was liver cancer or, as it is known in medical terminology, Hepatocellular Carcinoma.  He passed away at his home, in Beverly Hills, California at 11:35 A. M.) 

Ray Charles' funeral was held June 18th from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and he was laid to rest at Inglewood Park Cemetery.
His official website explains "the Ray Charles Memorial Library [was] officially open[ed] on September 23, 2010, the 80th anniversary of the birth of the iconic American entertainer. . . .  The Library is located on the ground floor of the historic Los Angeles landmark building Mr. Charles designed for his offices and recording studio [located at 2107 West Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles.] Today, the building’s second floor continues to house the operations of The Ray Charles Foundation ("
“The Library was envisioned not solely as a tribute to his life and extraordinary accomplishments,” stated Ms. Ervin [President of the Foundation].  “It is also aligned with the core of his humanitarian work – to use his story to inspire and educate young people and those less fortunate on how to conquer adversities and create success in spite of obstacles.”

"The centerpiece of the Ray Charles Memorial Library is a self-guided interactive exhibit divided into six galleries that highlight significant aspects of his life and career.  Visitors will see in poignant detail how Mr. Charles was a pioneer not only as a musician but also in every aspect of his enterprise encompassing both creative and business sides.  The exhibits trace his childhood, schooling and development as a musician; breakthrough recordings; historic cross-over beyond R&B to Pop and Country genres; mastery of his recording studio; managing the business and unprecedented artistic independence; recognition with 17 Grammys, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, performances for Presidents and world leaders, Academy Award-winning biographical film; and lasting legacy through his foundation and timeless creative works.

The experience includes a fifteen-minute introductory film, touch screen portals, photographic panels, and participatory activities (such as mixing a song and hearing the resulting performance by Ray Charles or singing along on a stage as a background “Raelett.”  Mr. Charles’ piano, recording equipment, stage wardrobe and legendary sunglasses are among the hundreds of artifacts on display.  The Library will also house the extensive archives of recordings, photographs, documents, awards, gifts and other objects of historical importance."

"In the first few months of operation, The Ray Charles Memorial Library will be open exclusively to school groups by invitation only, with plans to extend access to the general public later in 2011."

"First and foremost, we wanted young people to feel free to walk about and discover how it was possible for Mr. Charles to structure his world and accomplish great things,” explained Ms. Ervin. 

"We want them to walk away from this place with changed perspectives about themselves, inspired by the possibilities.  At a time when music and arts curriculum in the schools has declined, we also hope the library will be a catalyst to encourage young people to study music and learn about the business side of the industry as well.”

"The Ray Charles Foundation has supported a broad range of educational institutions and organizations that extend greater opportunities to underprivileged American youth for nearly a quarter century.  The Foundation has also been involved in funding projects to assist the hearing-impaired, since Mr. Charles considered the inability to hear music a far greater disadvantage than blindness."

Ray Charles has left quite a legacy.  If we're ever in the Los Angeles area, I'd like to learn more about the man and his music firsthand on a trip to the "Ray Charles Memorial Library."

Ray Charles Robinson
1930 -2004

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