Ray Charles – Part 1

For several years now, the Music Enthusiast has done a series on a notable artist at the end of the year. Previous years have included Elvis, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, my tour with the Allmans I’ve done almost nothing about Ray Charles. Time to rectify that. 

“Either RC was playing the piano or he was listening to the jukebox.” – Pretty much everybody in Greenville, FL.

Wikipedia: “Ray Charles Robinson (born in 1930) was the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha (or Reatha) Williams, a laundress, of Greenville, Florida.” (Greenville is roughly mid-state Florida, close to Georgia and Tallahassee. It is a good 200 km or 125 miles west of anything resembling the Atlantic Ocean – ME.)

“Aretha was described as a lovely slip of a girl with long wavy black hair; she was also sickly and walked with a cane. Her mother had died and her father, a man Bailey worked with, could not keep her. The Robinson family—Bailey, his wife Mary Jane, and his mother—informally adopted her and Aretha took the surname Robinson.

A few years later 15-year-old Aretha became pregnant by Bailey. During the ensuing scandal, she left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with family in Albany, Georgia. After the birth of Ray Charles, she and her baby returned to Greenville. Aretha and Bailey’s wife, who had lost a son, then shared in Charles’ upbringing. His father abandoned the family, left Greenville, and married another woman elsewhere. By his first birthday, Charles had a brother, George.” 

Ray got interested in music when he heard some boogie-woogie piano at a place called the Red Wing Cafe. The proprietor showed Ray how to play he took to it readily

Two traumatic events happened in young Ray’s life. One was that his brother George drowned in a tub of water. George was too heavy and Ray couldn’t pull him out. The other was that he started to lose his sight around the age of four or five. Years later doctors attributed it to congenital juvenile glaucoma. In researching Ray’s life, one of the facts I came away impressed with is how Retha would not let Ray be defined by his blindness. She wanted him to function and succeed on his own merits just like everybody else.

She got him into the (still functioning) Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind way over on the coast in St. Augustine. (For the record, that city is the oldest continuously-inhabited European-established settlement in the US.) This being the South in the segregated Thirties, seven-year-old Ray got sent over to South Campus which was the “colored” section. He was warned – as were the others – not to wander into the white part of school, the North Campus.

Ray was in his element, just like all the kids, cutting up, having fun, listening to baseball on the radio. By the time he was eight, he realized his ambition was to be a great musician. He was taught to read music in braille and played Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

When he would go back to Greenville (or sometimes, Tallahassee) he would “zoom up and down hills on a motorbike.”(!). He also managed to get hold of a clarinet and later became proficient not only in piano but also in sax. He would join in loose jams in clubs around Tallahassee and got his first taste of being a performing musician.

Ray’s mother died in 1945 when Ray was 14. This was every bit as traumatic for him as the earlier death of his brother. He went back to school. But instead of being the model student he had been, rather became somewhat of a wiseass. After he played one too many pranks, he was summarily dismissed from school. “Sent home, Oct. 5, 1945. Unsatisfactory pupil.” One senses that Ray got all he could from the school and no longer gave a fuck.

By 1945 – at 15 –  Ray had made his way to Jacksonville, Florida, to this day the largest city in Florida. He played the piano for bands earning the princely sum of $4/night. According to Ray’s memoir, jam sessions were “stomp or be stomped combat with one inflexible rule: get your chops together or go home.” One band member said they played everywhere. “One night a white place where we’d go in through the kitchen and play behind a curtain, the next night a whorehouse where they played cards and drank moonshine.”

During this period and for a while afterward, Ray imitated the singing style of his idol Nat “King” Cole. He hadn’t yet developed his own sound and style. But despite the fact that there was a vibrant music scene and there were always young and willing ladies, things weren’t happening quite enough for Ray so a year later he went 100 or so miles south to Orlando.

At first, he couldn’t find any work in the local clubs and had to sometimes subsist on sardines and crackers. Eventually, things loosened up and he found work not only as a piano player but also as an arranger. But Orlando wasn’t happening either and so after less than a year, Ray headed another 75 or so miles southwest to Tampa.

Tampa is a port town and musically and otherwise it was a little more jumpin’. By the time he was seventeen, he wound up in two bands -Charlie Brantley’s Honeydrippers and a country band. (Ray had grown up listening to the Grand Old Opry.) Ray started earning some money. Some nights as much as $30. That may not seem like much but that was in 1947. Taking inflation into consideration, that would buy about $400 worth of stuff today.

Meanwhile, it quickly became clear to other bands and bandleaders that Ray was mega-talented. Not only could he read music, he could arrange it, sing, play great piano. So he slowly became a minor star in Tampa. But Ray was an ambitious guy and always, always had his sights (no pun intended) set higher.

As you can imagine, recording techniques back then were rather primitive. Ray always had an interest in gadgets and picked himself up a Sears (Sears sold everything) Clarion wire recorder.

“Wire recording or magnetic wire recording is an analog type of audio storage in which a magnetic recording is made on thin steel or stainless steel wire. The wire is pulled rapidly across a recording head which magnetizes each point along the wire in accordance with the intensity and polarity of the electrical audio signal being supplied to the recording head at that instant.

By later drawing the wire across the same or a similar head while the head is not being supplied with an electrical signal, the varying magnetic field presented by the passing wire induces a similarly varying electric current in the head, recreating the original signal at a reduced level.”

There’s your recording history lesson for the day. Now, legend has it that Ray recorded several tracks using this equipment. It may or may not be that he did but regardless, these tunes are pretty typical of Ray’s sound back in the day. And it is pure, straight-up, down in the alley blues:

Another slow blues (that’s all there is) but with some nice piano up front

Sources: Ray Charles Memoir by Michael Lydon, Wikipedia, Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording

20 thoughts on “Ray Charles – Part 1

  1. Here’s some more of that “crossing of musical “paths we talk about. I was talking to Big Earl the other day and he’s been digging and discovering all this Ray stuff. What a great thing for a young guy/gal to be able to hear someone like Charles for the first time. Like striking musical gold. I have so much music by this guy. Some of it is those duets that he did later that dont move as much as his early stuff. Plus I did like his country shift. He came by it honestly by listening to the Opry. Good stuff Doc.

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    1. Ray’s been on the to-post list for a while. You should have the Duke of Earl check out the series. Those early 1947 blues are pretty damn good. I have a box set of Ray’s classic Atlantic years. Probably the first tune I knew by him was the incredibly popular and catchy “Hit the Read Jack” and “Can’t Stop Loving You.” Nobody could figure out how a black guy could do country so credibly. But it turns out music doesn’t have or care about color. So, yeah, a white guy can play the blues and a black guy can do country.

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      1. Already have the word out to the Earl. I guess in your travels you have a who’s who on musicians that love the guy. Put Joe Cocker at the top of list. I seen Ray back in the 80’s. Solid show. Slick, cool and very good.

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        1. Oh, there’s no question about Ray’s infuence and legacy. Holy shit. Some guys transcend. They started calling him “genius” somewhere around 1960. Nice that you saw him. I listened to his stuff but he never got on my to-see radar. I probably had him pegged as too Vegas by then.

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        2. It’s probably safe for me to say Ray wasn’t on my radar concert-wise. Now BB. There’s another story. I tend to separate artists (maybe even unconsciously) into ones I wanna see live and ones I just enjoy listening to.

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        1. BTW, I went over to CB’s site for my weekly dose of Sunday goodness and got …nothing. I wept. I wept openly. What the hell is going on?

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  2. It’s remarkable, and without meaning to romanticize it, inspiring to see how Ray Charles overcame the drama in his early childhood and turned out to be the extraordinary artist he was. I would have loved to see him live. Looking forward to the next part of your series.

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