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Ray Charles Robinson was born in Georgia, just north of the Florida border, on September 23, 1930. His mama was only about sixteen years old at the time. Ray's father, Bailey, a tall, strapping man, worked on the local railroad. But he was hardly ever around, and Ray almost never saw him. He only visited once in a while.
Mama soon brought Ray to Greenville, Florida, looking for work. Ray's mama did all kinds of work, like snapping beans and shelling peas. Mostly she did laundry, washing and ironing it for the town's white people. A year later, Ray's little brother, George, was born.
The town's real name was Greenville, but most people who lived there, including little Ray and his mama, 'Retha, called it Greensville, with an s. Perched right on the border of Florida and Georgia, it was a deep southern country town, which meant hot, sticky summers; great southern food, like barbecued ribs and grits; and an understanding, in the early 1930s, that white folks lived in one part of town and black folks lived in another. That was just the way things were.
Little Ray thought his world was just fine. He had his little brother, George, for company, his mama and stepmother, Mary Jane, to raise him and love him, and his friend Mr. Pit to teach him about music.
Mama was very strict about both chores and manners. At the top of her list were two iron-clad rules: You do not beg and you do not steal. Ray and George knew she meant them.
One day Ray finished his chores quickly. Until he and George were through picking up chips for the fire, clearing up after lunch, and making the bed, they were not allowed to go anywhere. And Ray wanted to go someplace special today: He was going to visit Mr. Pit.
Ray wiped the last of the dishes from lunch. He looked over the last plate carefully to be sure it was dry, and set it atop a stack near the sink. He hung the towel carefully over the counter to dry. Now he could go.
Outside in the yard, George, who was a year younger than Ray, looked up hopefully as Ray came through the door. He wanted to play with Ray; he had a tiny frog in his hand. He opened his hand to show it, but Ray shook his head. "Not today, George. I got somewhere to go."
George was a good playmate, and Ray usually liked to play with him, but when he visited Mr. Pit, he went alone.
Ray ran to the Red Wing CafÉ, just a few buildings down the road. As usual he was barefoot. He and George never wore shoes. Black people in Greenville mostly didn't own shoes, and they didn't mind, either. The weather was usually warm, and their feet were used to the dirt roads. In the hot summers, they walked on the cool grass, not the blazing hot roads. Ray didn't even think about his feet today, squishing along happily in the mud from last night's rain. He just hoped Mr. Pit would be waiting for him.
The Red Wing Cafè was the center of life in Greenville for black folks. It was a general store, which sold food and all kinds of necessities. They also rented out a few rooms in the back if you needed a place to sleep. At night lots of people went there to dance and talk. But in the hot, sleepy summer afternoons, when just a few people came in to buy beer and ice cream, it was quiet. That was when Ray visited his best friend.
Mr. Pit's real name was Mr. Wylie Pitman, and he owned the Red Wing Cafè. Ray, though, always called him Mr. Pit. There were two things a the cafè that just fascinated Ray: a jukebox and a battered, old upright piano.
The jukebox was a machine that had records stored in it. On the outside were labeled buttons, each listing a song. When you dropped in a nickel and pushed the right button, the song you wanted to hear would play. Ray just loved that jukebox. It was stuffed full of good country-western songs, some boogie-woogie, some big band, and some jazz. Ray didn't care what it played. He sat, a chubby four-year-old, between the big speakers that boomed out the music. He soaked in every note, every word, eyes closed, humming or singing along, and rocked his little body from side to side.
Even better than the jukebox, though, was Mr. Pit's piano playing. Oh, how that man could play!
Today, as Ray drew near the cafè, he could hear that upright booming. Mr. Pit was playing right now!
Ray wiped his muddy feet carefully on the door mat, then ran inside as fast as his little legs would move. Mr. Pit was sitting at the piano, his strong hands moving fast on the white and black keys, jabbing out great chords, making such wonderful sounds. "Mr. Pit! Mr. Pit! Here I am!" Ray shouted.
Mr. Pit smiled and moved over on the scarred old piano bench. "Hop up, RC," he said. Lots of people called Ray RC, the initials of his first and middle names, or Mechanic, because he loved to do things with his hands. His sturdy little fingers were good at making things. They were even better, though, at pounding those piano keys.
Ray jumped up onto the piano bench. He loved it when Mr. Pit showed him how to play the piano. Even more than hearing Mr. Pit play, Ray loved to touch those wonderful keys himself.
Today Mr. Pit showed him some new chords, using three fingers on each hand to touch six keys at once. He played them several times and told Ray their names. "That's C major and that's F major and that's D minor. Now you play 'em," he said.
Ray's little fingers tried to stretch as far Mr. Pit's big hands. They wouldn't quite reach that far...but he pounded the keys as hard as he could. Oh, how he loved making those musical sounds!
"That's good!" Mr. Pit said. "That's very good, sonny!" As Ray played the new chords over and over, Mr. Pit started playing something else at the lower end of the piano. Soon they were belting out something they'd just made up and shouting themselves hoarse with the joy of it.
Miss Georgia, Mr. Pit's wife, was laughing at the other end of the cafè. "RC, you sure can play that piano," she told Ray when they'd finally stopped.
Ray's little face glowed. He was always happy, just being with Mama and Mary Jane and playing with George, but nothing made him happier than making music with Mr. Pit. Something inside him just burst into flame whenever he heard good music.
When he got tired of playing, Mr. Pit sat him down between the speakers of the jukebox. Then he set the jukebox playing. Ray listened to country-western songs and jazz and big-band selections for a long time, till he could barely nod his head along with the music. Mr. Pit laughed and lifted him up. "I think that's all the music you can stand for today, RC," he told Ray. "You go on home now."
"I'll be back, Mr. Pit," Ray said, his dark eyes huge in his little face, his grin stretching from ear to ear.
Mr. Pit laughed again. "I know you will, Ray. And I'll be waiting."
Ray ran home. It was late, but he'd had such a good day. In his yard, he saw George playing next to the big washtub Mama used to scrub laundry for the white people in town. "George, I'm back!" he shouted.
George interrupted before Ray could talk about Mr. Pit and the piano. "Listen to this, Ray!" he said. And he recited a long string of numbers, and then multiplied them in his head, giving the answers as fast as he could speak.
Ray shook his head. Everyone knew George was really smart. What other kid at age three could add and subtract and multiply without paper and pencil? "George, that's really good!"
"And listen to this," George said eagerly. "If Mama did washing for fifty people instead of ten and they all gave her six loads of wash a week, she'd be doing three hundred loads of wash!"
Mama came to the door, a bowl in her hand. She was small and slender, wearing an old cotton dress that she always kept very clean. The delicious smell of hot greens came to each boy's nose at the same time. "You come in now and wash up, both of you. I got plenty of hot food for you, and you look like you're hungry. And, George, I don't even want to think about doing three hundred loads of wash a week. I got enough to do with the wash I got."
The boys laughed as they went inside. George beamed as he ran his hands under the tap. "I'm pretty good at numbers, aren't I, Ray?"
Ray took his place at the tap and washed his hands carefully too. He knew Mama was going to check them before she'd let him eat. "Well, you get me on numbers, George, but don't forget, I can play the piano."
George couldn't think of anything to say to that. So they sat down at the kitchen table for supper.
Text copyright © 2007 by Susan Sloate
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