- from Ray Charles
A piano has 88 keys. When pressed, each key produces a different sound, called a note. That means a piano player has 88 chances to hit the right note or the wrong note.
Now, suppose that piano player can’t see the keys; suppose the piano player is blind. Just imagine how much more difficult it would be for the person to hit the right keys every time. That was Ray Charles’s challenge. And rise to the challenge he did, every day. Charles’s fellow musicians called him the “Genius.” His life proved the truth of it. Charles explains how he did it.
I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood . . . and from the moment I learned there were piano keys to be mashed, I started mashing ’em, trying to make sounds out of feelings.
▲ Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930. When he was an infant, his family moved to Greenville, Florida. Bailey Robinson, Ray’s father, was a mechanic. His mother, Aretha Robinson, worked in a local sawmill, stacking lumber, and also took in laundry. The family was extremely poor.
Even compared to other Blacks, we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground.
▲ When Ray was three, he climbed onto a piano stool in a nearby café and sat next to Mr. Wylie Pitman, the café owner. “Mr. Pit” gave him his first lessons. As Ray Charles remembered, “I’d climb up there and listen to him, just waiting ’til I got the chance to start bangin’ on the keys.” Ray also sang with the Shiloh Baptist Church choir. By his own description, he was not a star in the choir but an enthusiastic participant. Gospel, the music sung in the church, would influence Ray Charles throughout his life. And so would all the other music styles he heard as a child.
African American gospel grew out of spirituals dating back to emancipation in the mid-19th century and before. (Emancipation refers to the freeing of enslaved people.) Early gospel music was accompanied by piano or organ, well suited to Ray Charles’s towering talents.
◀ When he was about five years old, Ray started to lose his sight. The process was gradual, but by the time he was seven, he was totally blind. The cause may have been glaucoma, a disease that damages a nerve in the back of the eye. Ray’s mother helped him learn how to live independently in spite of being blind. He learned so well that later in life, many people didn’t actually believe he was blind. Shown here in this scene from the 2004 movie Ray is a young Ray (played by CJ Sanders) and his mother (played by Sharon Warren). As an adult, Ray Charles said he didn’t remember much about what it was like to see, though he did remember what his mother looked like and colors like black and red. In an interview, he also recalled what his mother had told him so many years ago. That message spurred him on throughout his life.
You may be blind, but you’re not stupid. . . . You lost your sight, not your mind.
▲ When Ray was seven, his mother sent him to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, in St. Augustine. There, he learned to read, write, and arrange music in Braille. (Braille is a system of touch reading and writing that uses an arrangement of raised dots to stand for letters of the alphabet.) He also learned to play classical piano, organ, saxophone, and trumpet. The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind was segregated. That means students were separated according to race. Ray Charles had a hard time understanding that.
It’s awfully strange thinking about separating small children – Black from white – when most of ’em can’t even make out the difference between the two colors.
Ray was not an “angel” as a student. Once, he got into trouble with a teacher for adding “stuff” to a piece of music by Chopin, a classical composer. For Ray Charles, it was all about musical curiosity. Even as a youngster, he always wanted to invent, to make the music his own. ▶
I was just curious as to what would happen if I did this, if I did that. . . .