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Black History Month


Music legend Ray Charles overcame poverty, blindness

Ray Charles, 68, declares, "I was born with music inside me. Music is nothing separate from me. It is me…."

This legendary musician, nicknamed "Genius" by an admiring Frank Sinatra, is an exuberant singer, composer, and arranger of gospel, jazz, soul, rock ’n’ roll, country-western, and rhythm and blues music.

He fondly remembers his family’s friend, Wylie Pitman, who encouraged the curious3-year-old Charles to explore the keys of his piano and learn how to caress music from them.

When Charles was 5, his little brother drowned in their mother’s backyard laundry tub in spite of Ray’s frantic efforts to save him. One year later, Charles’ eyes began to mysteriously fail him: By the age of  7, Charles was blind. Ray credits his mother, Aretha Robinson, for preparing her son for a lifetime of independence despite his sightlessness.

At St. Augustine’s School for the Blind, Charles encountered racism: Although all the children were blind, white and black students were separated. Charles studied classical music, a change for a black, dirt-poor, Georgia country boy who’d been raised on gospel, church, country, and blues "race" music. Charles was 12 when he began writing music himself.

Charles was 14 when his beloved mother died. After a wise old woman friend persuaded the devastated youngster his mother would’ve wanted him to persevere and succeed in life, Charles began his musical career in earnest. Born Ray Charles Robinson, he dropped his last name, in deference to boxer "Sugar" Ray Robinson.

It would take pages to recount Ray Charles’ songs. Charles has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; he has won 12 Grammy awards; he is enshrined in the Rhythm & Blues, Jazz and Rock & Roll halls of fame.

— By Emily L. Bell


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