Ray Charles

Overview

The first comprehensive, definitive biography of Ray Charles. Based on extensive interviews with Ray Charles himself, as well as more than 150 other sources.
Includes 16 pages of photos.
Read More Show Less
... See more details below
Available through our Marketplace sellers.
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (55) from $1.99   
  • New (2) from $8.74   
  • Used (53) from $1.99   
Close
Sort by
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Note: Marketplace items are not eligible for any BN.com coupons and promotions
$8.74
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(16)

Condition:

New — never opened or used in original packaging.

Like New — packaging may have been opened. A "Like New" item is suitable to give as a gift.

Very Good — may have minor signs of wear on packaging but item works perfectly and has no damage.

Good — item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Acceptable — item is in working order but may show signs of wear such as scratches or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Used — An item that has been opened and may show signs of wear. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Refurbished — A used item that has been renewed or updated and verified to be in proper working condition. Not necessarily completed by the original manufacturer.

New
1999-01-11 Hardcover New Excellent Book, Great Read, Fast Shipping, Fast and friendly Customer Service.

Ships from: Titusville, FL

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$45.00
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(177)

Condition: New
Brand new.

Ships from: acton, MA

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Close
Sort by
Ray Charles

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook - Updated)
$29.95
BN.com price
This digital version does not exactly match the physical book displayed here.

Overview

The first comprehensive, definitive biography of Ray Charles. Based on extensive interviews with Ray Charles himself, as well as more than 150 other sources.
Includes 16 pages of photos.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Hallelujah We Love Him So

Ray Charles is an American musical icon, known to many as the Genius of Soul. Certainly one of the hardest-working men in show business, he has earned and enjoyed massive success as an R & B singer, songwriter, and piano player. Like anyone, Charles has also had his faults and flops. Michael Lydon's Ray Charles: Man and Music follows Charles admiringly through the good times and respectfully through the bad, never losing sight of Ray's ultimate genius and determination.

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930 and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. The son of an unwed mother and her guardian, Charles spent his early years in Jellyroll, Greenville's black quarter, with his mother, her guardian, and his younger brother. Charles remembers these years as a time of poverty but also of warmth; friends and neighbors remember him as a bright boy who loved music and played piano from the age of three. Sadly, when RC, as he was called, was five, his world darkened: His younger brother drowned in a washtub as Charles stood by, unable to save him. A few months afterward, congenital juvenile glaucoma set in, which would soon render him completely blind.

Charles' mother, extraordinarily determined and certainly no fool, realized that life in the South for a blind black man would not be easy. When she found a way to send him to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, he was packed off in short order. By his second year there he had settled in socially and academically; music instruction occupied most of his timeandinterest.

When his mother died, in 1945, Charles had learned everything the school could teach him. He began the long task of establishing himself as a musician, playing every gig he could. His style was, by all reports, derivative; this criticism would follow him for years until he developed his own musical signature. In these years, however, beginning in 1946, he styled his singing primarily after Nat "King" Cole.

In 1948, Ray's star truly began to rise. He moved to Seattle with a friend and began building his reputation as a solid singer, piano player, and crowd-pleaser. However, it was also in Seattle that he first slipped under the influence of alcohol and drugs; he quickly developed a heroin habit that would pursue him for almost 20 years. In 1952 he signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and although his first several releases were ignored, he hit it big in 1954 with "I Got a Woman," a song that combined the best elements of gospel and blues into a sound that was beginning to be uniquely his. In the book's most interesting moments, Lydon enthusiastically charts the development of Charles's own inimitable style, which would make him a household name.

Charles switched record companies in 1959, shrewdly negotiating an unusually sweet deal even as his record "What'd I Say" was peaking on the charts. "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) was his first No. 1 hit. Throughout his career, Charles had toured relentlessly, and he continued to do so now. He made ripples in 1961 when he refused to play segregated venues any longer, but he also received some bad press when he was busted in Indianapolis for heroin. A more serious bust in Boston in 1964 convinced him to kick his habit for good, and this he did with typical determination. He had toured every year of his career since 1945, but he took 1965 off and stayed at home in Los Angeles, recovering and noodling around in his studio. (Lydon admires Charles's determination to quit cold turkey but notes that he seemed to switch his dependency to gin, which he drank all day long from a coffee mug.)

Through the '70s, Charles was virtually invisible. Though he'd been a major success for several years, new musical styles were evolving that made his sound began to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Charles plugged along, continuing to tour, but he produced no more hits until the '80s, when he returned to the rich tradition of country and western, a musical blend that had yielded him a number of hits in the early '60s. Singing "America" at the Republican convention in 1984 brought him close to the forefront again, and in 1990 Pepsi launched an ad campaign featuring Charles that once again pulled him out of near-obscurity. But as both he and his signature style grew older, Ray knew his time in the American public eye was nearly over.

As a chronicle of Ray's career, Ray Charles: Man and Music is strong and principled. Although clearly an admirer of Ray Charles at his best, Lydon is not sentimental about his failures and flaws (as, indeed, Charles himself is not). Ray Charles: Man and Music brings clarity and perspective to the involving story of one of America's R & B greats.
Julie Robichaux is a freelance writer. She lives in New York City.

People Magazine
...[E]xhaustively researched, movingly written...
Jonathan Yardley
Ray Charles may well be the ultimate American story....Remarkably candid. A scrupulous and perceptive piece of work.

The Washington Post

People
An exhaustively researched, movingly written biography of the man Frank Sinatra once called 'the only genius in our business.
Jeff Turrentine
Admirable...engrossing...Lydon isn't afraid to peek under those dark glasses and present a complete picture of this phenomenally talented but equally complicated man.

Forbes

The Newark Star-Ledger
This is no quickie pop-star bio. Lydon understands that Ray Charles is a character as complicated as any in fiction and fully as interesting. Dostoevsky might have invented Ray Charles, had he the inspiration.
KLIATT
The first thing a YA reader generally asks when looking at a biography is, "How long is it?" On this alone, Ray Charles: Man and Music, is a dubious YA choice at over 398 pages. A reader would have to already admire Ray Charles and want to learn about him and his music. The book is thoroughly researched; if you want to know how Charles stacks his chords, it's there. And Lydon has great respect for Ray Charles. More than that, Lydon is eager to praise Charles yet rarely dares to criticize him. He labors to show how smart and industrious Charles' mother was in insisting her blind son go to school, but finds no fault with the decisions that led her to have two children she couldn't support before she was 18. He makes a big deal of Charles' success in kicking heroin, without truly showing how this habit affected him and his family. Well researched? Yes. Well written? Maybe. Only highly motivated teenagers will be interested. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Berkley/Riverhead, 434p, 23cm, illus, notes, discog, index, 98-29602, $14.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Frieda Toth; Children's Libn., Crandall P.L., Glen Falls, NY, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
A founding editor of Rolling Stone on Charles's life and five-decade-long career.
Michael E. Ross
...Ldon uses a deft touch to illuminate Charles' volatile brilliance....lays bare the heart of American soul. -- Vibe
People Magazine
...[E]xhaustively researched, movingly written...
Kirkus Reviews
A disappointingly superficial account of the life of one of popular music's elder statesmen. Veteran pop-music critic Lydon (Writing and Life) follows Charles' journey from his childhood in Florida, where he lost his brother and mother as well as his sight, by the age of 15, his life at a school for deaf and blind children (where he distinguished himself with both his intelligence and his mischief), and the launch of his professional career in Seattle at age 17. While in Seattle, Charles meets an even younger Quincy Jones and forms an extremely important, lifelong friendship. Lydon chronicles Charles's juggernaut to fame and his simultaneous descent into heroin addiction in the 1950s and '60s, through his hibernation during the 1970s, and finally his political appearances singing "America the Beautiful" at party conventions and his jingles in the cola wars. Drug arrests and subsequent litigation form a substantial part of Lydon's narrative. Finally given an ultimatum by a judge (he could choose prison or his career), Charles kicks his habit. However, as Lydon describes it, alcoholism remains a daily part of Charles's life, and Lydon is surprisingly blasé about the subject, noting that Charles drinks all day long but never showing the musician seeking treatment or even acknowledging that his daily drinking is a problem. Lydon is a facile writer, but his failure to delve into the meatier parts of Charles's life—particularly his relationships with his wives and children—in any depth is disappointing. Similarly, Charles's progression to blindness over several years is covered in only a couple of pages. It's been 20 years since Charles' autobiography was published;time was ripe for a new look at his life. Ironically, Lydon notes that the autobiography has "only one fully fleshed-out character: Brother Ray"; the same could be said for his own work.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573221320
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/11/1999
  • Pages: 436
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.56 (d)

Table of Contents

Prologue
Pt. I Youth
1 Greenville 1930-1937 3
2 St. Augustine 1937-1945 13
3 The Death of Retha Robinson 1945 23
Pt. II Apprentice
4 Jacksonville 1945-1946 29
5 Orlando and Tampa 1946-1948 39
6 Seattle 1948-1949 51
7 Los Angeles 1950 63
8 On the Road 1951-1952 71
Pt. III The 1950s: The Atlantic Years
9 Atlantic Records 1952 85
10 New Orleans 1953 92
11 The First Band 1954 103
12 Breakthrough 1955 117
13 Growth to Genius 1956-1958 130
14 The Genius Moves On 1959 155
Pt. IV The 1960s: The ABC Years
15 Georgia on My Mind 1960 179
16 New Highs, New Lows 1961 193
17 I Can't Stop Loving You 1962-1963 212
18 Busted in Boston 1964 237
19 The Year Off 1965 249
20 Coming Back 1966-1967 260
21 Rolling Onward 1968-1969 273
Pt. V The 1970s: The Invisible Years
22 Volcanic Messages Early 1970s 287
23 Life on the Road Mid-1970s 303
24 Divorce and Decline Late 1970s 321
Pt. VI The 1980s: The Long Comeback
25 Nashville Early 1980s 341
26 Medals and Honors Late 1980s 356
Pt. VII The 1990s: The Grand Master
27 No Time to Waste Time 1990s 373
Epilogue 389
Acknowledgments 399
Source Notes 401
Bibliography 412
Discography 415
Index 421
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter One


I was born with music inside me.
Like my ribs, my liver, my kidneys,
my heart. Like my blood.

Ray Charles


Greenville
1930-1937


                                For a hundred miles west of the Atlantic coast, the land of northern Florida lies flat as a floor covered by a thick rug of gray-green vegetation. In fertile fields, venerable live oaks, bearded by Spanish moss, bend grandly to earth. Bright green palmettos bunch cheerfully around slender brown trunks in the piney woods, and creepers tangle everything in flowered variety and profusion. East of the Suwannee River, the land is marshy; lakes and ponds and lazy creeks abound. West of the Suwannee, the land starts a gradual rise, and the old east-west road, U.S. 90, begins to undulate to the rhythm of mountains eroding into plain, a rhythm that accelerates slowly into rolling hills and pastured valleys over the sixty miles to Tallahassee. Atop the first real hill in the rhythm stands the Madison County courthouse. The six windows of its silver cupola survey the territory in all directions like six bright eyes.

    In 1776 that territory was a wilderness. Then white settlers brought slaves to fell the virgin forests and to plant cotton and tobacco, wresting the land from the Indians and the Spanish, until in 1821 Spain ceded the whole peninsula to the new United States of America. Sandy Ford, at a ford on the Aucilla River, was the first settlement to spring up in Madison County's western reaches. The second was Station Five, the fifth stop from Tallahassee on the Florida Central and Western Railway.

    In 1876 an ambitious settler, Elijah James Hays, bought a huge tract of land surrounding Station Five and began using the station to market his plantation's livestock, cotton, tobacco, and timber. Hays owned a general store, a brickyard, and a turpentine still; he sold his cotton direct to W. W. Gordon, exporters in Savannah. Hays' enterprise drew tradesmen and their families, and the railroad village prospered as Sandy Ford declined. By 1887 the town's Ladies Aid Society had decided that Station Five needed a more genteel name. Mrs. Morgan, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, suggested that Greenville sounded nice and refined. Their husbands spit skeptically at the notion that a new name would change rough-and-ready Station Five, but the ladies prevailed and Greenville the town became.

    Greenville grew with the infant century. In 1912, the town passed a "milestone," as a local history put it: an ordinance forbidding hogs to roam the streets. World War I and the booming twenties provided eager markets for all the lumber, cotton, and cattle Greenville could bring to rail, and other milestones followed: the first electric power company in 1923, the first high school graduation in 1926, and the first town well, 195 feet deep, dug in 1927.

    Busy North Grand Street, Greenville's main drag, along the east-west railroad track, was still unpaved as the 1930s began. On the station side, porters loaded trains from stacks of freight brought in by mule wagons and gasoline trucks. Ladies and children stepped off passenger coaches, back from a week's vacation with relatives on the Atlantic coast. On the store side, planters in broad-brimmed hats signed bills with clerks in the shaded interior of Mr. Hays' Bank of Greenville, talking among themselves about the price of cotton and the troubles on Wall Street. In the warehouses, farmers with cotton to sell bargained for harnesses and nails, canvas and candles, while their wives shopped for sundries at Reams' department store. White teenagers spooned at King's pharmacy, dawdling over their Cokes, and little colored boys, barefoot and in ripped overalls, hung on hitching posts and watched the world go by.

    Hot humid summer gripped Greenville in September 1930. Through the still air came the puffing of trains, the screech of tenders trundling to and from warehouse depots. Smoke rose from the Prince Veneer and Southern Lumber mills, where sweating black men, stripped to the waist, wrapped iron chains around their wrists to tug raw trunks to the screaming blades that sliced tall yellow pine into board feet of lumber and skinned short white pine into orange-crate strips. Greenville's business district extended a few blocks north of North Grand through drab streets lined with barbershops and cafes, a blacksmith and stables, to the Andrews Hotel, the biggest building in town. Behind its awninged windows the Porkchop Gang, rural politicians and their landowner cronies, met over bourbon and cigars to plot control of the state legislature, a discreet fifty miles west in Tallahassee. To the south of North Grand, the land rose in a slight hill, where stood the big white Baptist church and the houses of the town's leading white families, unpretentious frame dwellings on streets canopied by spreading oaks.

    West of town, North Grand soon wore down to a double wagon track, and songbirds and buzzing bugs drowned out the sawmills. Wild morning glories wrapped green vines and blue trumpets over sagging fence posts. Rickety shacks perched on tiny lots squeezed between forests and farms. Across from the big wooden New Zion Baptist Church, a nameless smaller road turned south across the railroad tracks and past a second wooden church, the modest New Shiloh Missionary Baptist. A half-mile farther a cluster of small houses and shacks stood under tall pines and oaks, a black quarter everybody called Jellyroll.

    The name, rightly, had a raffish air. Colored folk who had lived in Greenville for years lived in Blackbottom, the black quarter in town watched over by the white folks on top of the hill. Jellyroll was out from under white eyes, a sandy clearing in the woods where transient workers had thrown up tar-paper shacks when work held through more than one season. Nobody had lived in Jellyroll long, nobody knew where the others had come from or might go next. The men and women of Jellyroll were by and large greenhorns from the plantations, drawn by the promise of cash for menial labor. Living close to Greenville felt more like town than the sharecropper cabins they had left, but Jellyroll was still country. On Sunday the people prayed hard, all week they worked hard, and Saturday night they found a bit of the free and easy at Mr. Pit's Red Wing Cafe.

    Wiley Pitman was a jovial brown-skinned man, fat, with a wide grin, and known far beyond Jellyroll as a fine piano player. With his wife, Miz Georgia, he owned the Red Wing, a wooden plank building facing the road from North Grand. The cafe doubled as a small general store where Miz Georgia sold kerosene and matches, flour and salt, cold beer and pig's-foot sandwiches. A few tables filled the middle of the floor, and against one wall stood a jukebox and a piano. Out back stood a boardinghouse where Mr. Pit had rooms for the watermelon pickers who overflowed the place in summertime, and rooms, as one longtime resident put it, "for husbands going with other men's wives." Behind the boardinghouse stood several shacks.

    Time has swept those shacks and the Red Wing Cafe into "the limbo of things that disappear," as Dreiser wrote. Decades later, under gray December skies, only the tumbledown boardinghouse remained, a fading specter in a tangled wood of weeds and baby trees. Yet in September 1930, the Red Wing was the lively hub of a village, and the shacks out back housed a family: Margaret Robinson, her grown son Bailey, his wife Mary Jane, and an orphan girl they had adopted, Aretha Williams.

    Bailey Robinson and his mother had come to Greenville from Albany, Georgia, a hundred miles to the north, in the 1920s. That much two elderly Jellyroll natives, Bessie Brown and Mrs. Mary Clemmons, remembered clearly. Neither knew where Mary Jane came from, and the deeper roots of the Robinson family may be lost forever. Jellyroll respected Margaret, called "Muh," as a nice old lady and Bailey as a big, rough man, six feet tall or more and heavily muscular. He worked at a mill pulling logs into the skids; sometimes he laid track for the railroad. Mary Jane, a plain, thickset woman, worked at a mill too, stacking planks, "uneducated but a good person," remembered a neighbor. Aretha was a slip of a girl, lovely to look at, with long wavy black hair. Her mother had died a year or two before. Her father, a man Bailey worked with, couldn't keep her, and Bailey and Mary Jane took her in as their ward. Williams was her surname, but everybody called her Retha Robinson.

    That September 1930, the goings-on at the Robinsons' had all Jellyroll gossiping. Little Retha was pregnant, there was no way such a skinny girl could hide it. She wasn't stepping out with anybody as far as anybody knew. Who could the daddy be? Bailey blamed a boy named Jack Wilkerson, because, as Bessie Brown remembered, Jack had gone with the two girls into the fields one day when their mamas sent them out to cut straw for brooms. Bailey told Jack he'd have to marry Retha. But Bessie told her aunt Eliza that Jack and Retha hadn't done anything out in the fields. Instead, a few weeks before, Bailey had taken a few kids for a ride in his car down to Petty Springs. The group had gotten separated in the woods, and when Bessie and her friends came back, they found Bailey lying with Retha. Aunt Eliza spread that word about the quarter, Bailey stopped denying he was the daddy, and Jack was free to go.

    Few in Jellyroll had time for high and mighty attitudes, yet to judge by Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, set in a West Florida quarter just like Jellyroll, tongues must have wagged about swollen little Retha, just as they wagged over Janie when she came back from her adventure with Tea Cake: "What she doin' coming back here in dem overhalls? Can't she find no dress to put on?--Where's dat blue satin dress she left here in?"

    To still such tongues, Margaret and Bailey sent Retha back to relatives in Albany late that summer to have the baby. Toward the end of September she gave birth to a baby boy. No birth certificate exists, but the baby, when grown, always declared his birthday to be September 23, 1930. After a couple of months to get back on her feet, Retha returned to Jellyroll with her son. She named him Ray Charles Robinson.


* * *


Retha came back to Jellyroll with little Ray, RC everybody called him, but there was no going back to how things had been. Bailey and Mary Jane soon separated, and Bailey moved south to Shamrock, another small town, where he took a new wife, Stella, by whom he had several children; he seldom came back to Greenville and had little to do with raising the boy. Retha and Mary Jane remained close--Mary Jane had lost a son, Jabbo, and doted on RC---but Retha, no more than sixteen and with a baby in diapers, was on her own as never before.

    "What was life here like in the Depression?" said one Greenville man in his seventies. "Bad." In 1932, Loomis King, the town's leading doctor, took in only $450, much of that in hams or eggs. The Bank of Greenville survived the worst days, but out in Jellyroll, Jim Crow and poverty, like twin pitiless gods, decreed the destinies and daily lives of Retha, RC, and their Jellyroll neighbors. One Christmas the town police shot a black man near Mr. Pit's cafe. "He hadn't done nothing," Mrs. Clemmons remembered. "After it happened, it was like it hadn't happened at all." Dinner in Jellyroll was a dish of homegrown greens; when they had no fuel to fry or boil their sweet potatoes, the people ate them raw. Folding money was as scarce as shoes on children.

    To keep abreast in this struggle, physical strength was a must, and Retha, in the memory of all, was weak. No one remembered just what was wrong with her--Mrs. Clemmons blamed it on giving birth so young--but she was "sickly," "walked with a cane," and "had a sore on her leg." She couldn't handle the better-paying mill work as Mary Jane could, nor could she run a laundry business, as many black women did, with white clients on the hill. Retha and RC were among the poorest of the poor in Jellyroll, yet there was little chance they'd starve or be forced to move on. Everybody knew Retha and her story, and they liked her and her bright-eyed boy. The other women sent her their extra washing and ironing. Mary Jane became RC's second mother, glad to watch him when Retha was working or had to lie down, and she loved to buy him sweets at the cafe.

    RC grew, a healthy, happy baby. By his first birthday he had a brother, George. No one remembered who George's father was, but all remembered that Mr. Pit and Miz Georgia, who had no children of their own, adopted George to take the added burden off Retha. As soon as RC could run about, little George toddling behind him, the brothers were inseparable, a tiny Tom and Huck playing hide-and-seek in the woods, throwing rocks and stomping on bugs like boys from time immemorial. RC loved to play with matches, lighting them in the blackness of a moonless night and holding them before his face, feeling like he was "lighting up the whole world."

    Retha believed in strict discipline, and by the time RC and George were five and four, she had set them to their chores, chopping wood and hauling water. Every Sunday she took them to the New Shiloh Baptist Church back up the road toward Greenville. Founded before the Civil War as a mission to "our black brothers and sisters" from Greenville's white Baptists, the New Shiloh had become a full black church, with fiery preachers stirring the spirits of the faithful to tears and shouts of joy, to songs and beating tambourines, swaying hips and clapping hands. Sometimes Sunday meant chicken for dinner, and every great while, for sure once a year on May 20, the old maypole day colored folk still celebrated, all Jellyroll gathered for parties that lasted deep into the night, feasts when they barbecued whole hogs and goats over open pit fires, and the moonshine flowed free. Other nights Muh tucked the boys into bed and told them stories of the bad old days when hooded white men bearing torches thundered through the quarter, and they fell asleep shivering in fear and wonder.

    When still too young for school at Greenville Training, the town's public school for colored children, RC and George began to evidence gifts of particular intelligence. George amazed Jellyroll with his skill at arithmetic, his inventiveness in making toys from bits of wood and baling wire. RC showed a similar curiosity in mechanical things, poking his head between the men as they bent over sputtering Model T engines, tinkering with broken bikes and farm machinery. Most of all, RC began to demonstrate an unusual interest in and aptitude for music.

    "Either RC was playing the piano or he was listening to the jukebox"--that is Greenville's universal memory of the young Ray Charles, and the grown man's memory fully agrees. "I was a normal kid, mischievous and into everything," Charles recalled years later, "but I loved music, it was the only thing that could really get my attention." One day when he was about three, RC was playing by the shacks when he heard Mr. Pit break into a driving boogie-woogie on the Red Wing's battered old upright. Magnetized by the clanging chords and rocking beat, RC ran up the alley past the boardinghouse, pushed open the battered screen door, and stared amazed at Mr. Pit's flying fingers. Seeing him, Mr. Pit laughed, swept the boy onto his lap, and let him reach out his hands to the keys, run his fingers up and down over their warm ebony and ivory textures.

    From then on whenever RC heard Mr. Pit playing, he'd race into the cafe and, as he remembered years later with gratitude, "the man always let me play." Wiley Pitman was no amateur, as Ray Charles recalled him, but a stride pianist who, had he not chosen the simple life in Greenville, could have duked it out with giants like Pete Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. That may be a student's exaggeration, but Mr. Pit did prove to be a superb teacher, showing RC first how to pick out a melody with one finger. "Oh no, son, you don't play like that," he said when RC banged too hard on the keys, but when out of awkward fumblings the boy got a beat going on his own, Mr. Pit encouraged him with noisy shouts of "That's it, sonny, that's it."

    Near the piano stood the cafe jukebox, a marvel of flashing lights and moving metal. For a nickel, a mechanical arm would lift a black platter from a drum of records and set it spinning, the steel needle falling into the groove with a scratchy hiss, filling the room with electric sounds magically recorded long ago and far away. RC soon had a special place on a bench beside the jukebox where he sat for hours, his ear pressed up against the speaker. Sometimes when Mary Jane gave him a few coins for candy, they'd end up in the jukebox instead. More often RC didn't have the money to pick his own songs, so he listened to everything anybody played: boogie-woogie piano by Albert Ammons, gutbucket blues by Tampa Red, the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.

    Work and music, running in the woods, church on Sunday--life flowed on for RC and George, Retha and Mary Jane, with little to mark one day from the next, until one terrible afternoon in 1935. "I can still hear the women shouting for help, the sound of their cries," remembered Mrs. Clemmons' daughter Elesta, then a girl of six or seven. The scene seared itself irrevocably into Ray Charles' mind, leaving a scar that would never fully heal.

    The afternoon was hot and sunny. To cool off, the two boys splashed in and out of a big washtub behind the cafe. Retha was inside ironing. George climbed inside the tub, ducking under the water for a shiny penny, shouting and laughing. Suddenly RC realized that George's splashings had a frightening urgency. His baby brother wasn't playing, he was in trouble. For a moment he froze in terror, then he lunged to the tub to try and pull George out. He couldn't; George was kicking and flailing his arms and legs, and RC, only a year older, didn't have the strength. He ran to the shack screaming, "Mama, Mama." Retha dropped her iron and came running. She lifted George from the tub and tried to shake, rub, and breathe life back into him, but it was too late. George had drowned. RC burst into tears, and Retha started wailing in pain. Neighbors came running. All Jellyroll mourned the little boy, and even white Greenville heard about the colored child who had died so sadly.

    To have a beloved brother die at any age is a bitter, wrenching blow; to have that brother die while you and he are still infants, to see it happen and be powerless to prevent it, can only be a primal experience that will reverberate through a lifetime. Grief, guilt, anger, fear, loneliness, a bewildered sense of innocence crushed by fate--all must have coursed through RC's little-boy spirit.

    A second blow followed on the heels of the first. A few months after George's death, mucus began to ooze from RC's eyes like thick tears, and he woke every morning to find his eyelids stuck shut. Retha bathed off the crusts, but it still took the boy ten minutes to adjust to the light. Over months the breadth of his vision began to shrink, and he found he could see less and less distance into the world. People and things became unfocused blobs. Retha took the boy into Greenville to see Frank McLeod, the doctor who saw the colored people in town. Dr. McLeod peered into RC's eyes with bright lights, prescribed drops and ointments, then sent Retha and the boy on to a clinic in Madison, fourteen miles away, RC's longest trip to date. The clinic doctor examined him and told Retha what Dr. McLeod hadn't dared say: RC was losing his eyesight and in time would be stone blind. There was no cure. "I understand," said Retha. She took RC by the hand, and they went home to Jellyroll.

    Years laters doctors guessed that congenital juvenile glaucoma had caused RC's blindness. If so, only coincidence connects the illness with George's death; the boy's emotions didn't contribute to his loss of sight. As an adult Ray Charles has described going blind matter-of-factly, "not as bad as you'd think," he has said. "I was never too frightened." Yet when the thick tears began, RC was still in shock over George's death, and the pain of the first loss may have numbed him to the fresh pain of the second, both tragedies fusing into one life-changing event. Losing his sight may have seemed to RC a darkly fitting sequel to losing his brother. "I saw something bad, now I can't see; I did bad, now bad is happening to me"--these may paraphrase the wordless whispers, such whispers as we all hear, that little RC heard way down deep inside.

    The two blows hit Retha hard too. Two sons, so bright and full of promise; one dead, the other handicapped for life. Childish pleasures could still divert RC, but Retha, no more than twenty-three, faced unrelenting grown-up problems: How could she, penniless, uneducated, and ill, provide for her blind son's future? What could she give her boy to equip him for life? In answering these questions, Retha Robinson more than proved her mettle; she rose to quiet greatness.

    As Ray Charles and others remember her, Retha had an old head on young shoulders, a character flinty and tough. "Retha was weak in body," recalled Gertrude Riddick, another of RC's playmates, "but strong in mind." Her own trials had taught Retha the cost of depending on others, and though no woman of the world, she could imagine the blighted life a blind black man might lead in the South if he had to beg help. Penury or prison, vagrancy or a vegetable state at a charity home were all likely fates. Retha would not let blindness cripple Ray Charles Robinson. Fools wait for just rewards, she knew; the Lord helps those who help themselves. RC must be armed with the weapons to defend himself. The dangers were too great to let a moment be wasted.

    Retha kept RC at his chores. Whether he tripped on a tree root on the way to the pump or bruised his shins with kindling sticks flying off the chopping block, the boy must learn to do for himself. Neighbors tsk-tsked to see a blind boy scrubbing floors, and Mary Jane wanted to coddle him, but Retha would have none of it. Pity could only harm the boy. RC must be kept as busy as any other child, and he couldn't stay at home all day either. He needed to know his way around Jellyroll, learn the mile of dirt roads and sandy shortcuts to the busy streets of Greenville proper. She must teach RC, teach him something every day. "I won't be here forever," she told him again and again.

    Retha taught RC his letters and sums, but she knew he needed more education in order to develop the talents that blindness hadn't taken away. He couldn't go to Greenville Training; they didn't know how to teach blind children there. Where could he go to school? How could Retha find out?

    For answers to questions of that kind in the South of 1936, colored folks had to go to white folks, and that's what Retha did. She talked to the lady at the post office and to Dr. McLeod, and soon all Greenville knew about the blind boy in Jellyroll and his determined mother. Dr. McLeod told her there was a state school for the deaf and blind in St. Augustine that took a few colored children. Retha didn't read or write well enough to apply to the school, but Mitty King, a Jellyroll neighbor, cooked for the Reams family, who lived on the hill. Mr. Reams owned the big store in town and Miz Ruth was a nice lady. Maybe the Reamses would help.

    Reams is still a common name in and around Greenville, twenty-one listings in the 1994 Madison County phone book, all descendants of Albert Reams, a settler contemporary with Isaac Hays and a cofounder of the bank. Mitty King's Reamses--Albert's son Albert Dupree, his wife, the former Ruth Scruggs, and their three children--ranked among Greenville's first families, and the Madison Enterprise Recorder respectfully noted their comings and goings. Yet they lived more like plain folks than aristocrats. A.D.'s knack for business made him rich, but he remained a farmer at heart, and Ruth, known affectionately as "Ma Pop," taught Sunday school at Greenville Baptist and kept busy on civic projects sponsored by the Women's Club. "A.D. and Ruth lived the country tradition of helping your neighbor," recalled a neighbor who grew up playing with their children. "They tried to act on what they heard in church."

    Retha, with RC by the hand, walked up to the Reamses' white house on the western slope of the hill. Mitty King, smiling encouragement, met them at the kitchen door. In the living room, RC played for the company on Miz Ruth's piano, and Retha told her story one more time. A.D. and his wife were taken with the bright boy and his forceful mother, and, yes, if they could help a blind child get his chance in life, they'd do all they could.

    Dr. McLeod told A.D. whom to write to, and soon word came back: the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind did have a department for colored children. The fall 1937 term had begun September 7, but RC could begin school whenever he got there. The state paid room, board, and tuition, plus train fare to and from in the fall and spring. It wouldn't cost Retha a thing. She could put RC on a train, the conductor would keep an eye on him, and a teacher from the school would meet him at the station in St. Augustine.

    Retha knew at once that RC would go to the blind school, no doubt about it. This was her son's only hope; she had to make him take it. Little RC, barely seven, knew just as certainly he didn't want to leave Mama and Mary Jane, his playmates Johnnycake and Elesta Mae, all of Jellyroll and Greenville. "Mama," he cried, "don't make me go, Mama. I wanna stay with you." He ran and hid behind Mary Jane's skirts as she argued on his side against Retha. How could she send RC so far from home, alone among strangers? He'd be better off here where folks knew and loved him.

    Retha didn't budge. The morning came, and the little family walked up the road from Jellyroll to town. The locomotive steamed into the train station, eastbound from Tallahassee. RC had never been on a train before, and this one was no more than a black blob to his failing eyes. This was RC Robinson, Retha told the conductor, going to the blind school. The conductor said the boy would be fine. "All aboard!" With a last hug and kiss from Mary Jane, a last "Mind your teachers, son!" from Retha, RC climbed up the metal steps and took a seat on a hard wooden bench in the colored car. The other passengers gave the blind boy a passing glance, then paid him no more mind. RC sat by himself, as unhappy as a little boy can be, and didn't say a word. From Madison County the train ran clickety-clack out of the low hills, east into the rising sun, over the bridge across the Suwannee, and on to the flatlands and the coast.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)