Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band

by John Capouya


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Monday, April 26


Florida Historical Society Charlton Tebeau Award

When recalling the roots of soul music, most people are likely to name Memphis, Detroit, New Orleans, Muscle Shoals, or Macon. But Florida also has a rich soul music history—an important cultural legacy that has often gone unrecognized. Florida Soul celebrates great artists of the Sunshine State who produced some of the most electric, emotive soul music America has ever heard.

This book tells the story of Ray Charles’s musical upbringing in Florida, where he wrote his first songs and made his first recordings. It highlights the careers of Pensacola singers James and Bobby Purify and their producer, Papa Don Schroeder. Florida Soul reveals how Hank Ballard created his international hit song "The Twist" after seeing the dance in Tampa and profiles Gainesville singer Linda Lyndell ("What a Man"). Miami’s Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods produced Sam Moore of the legendary duo Sam and Dave, Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall of Deep City Records, and singer Helene Smith. Miami was also the longtime headquarters of Henry Stone, whose influential company T.K. Productions put out hits by Timmy Thomas, Latimore, Betty Wright, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Stone’s artists and distribution deals influenced charts and radio airplay across the world.

Born in the era of segregation with origins in gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz and reaching maturity during the civil rights movement, soul music is still enjoyed today, still very much a part of our collective culture. John Capouya draws on extensive interviews with surviving musicians to re-create the excitement and honor the achievements of soul’s golden age, establishing Florida as one of the great soul music capitals of the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813064024
Publisher: University Press of Florida
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 1,237,947
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

John Capouya is associate professor of journalism and writing at the University of Tampa. During his journalism career, he was an editor at Newsweek and SmartMoney magazines, New York Newsday, and the New York Times.

Read an Excerpt


Ray Charles


"Well, he walked like a parrot."

"I'm sorry, what?"

"You know how a parrot walks, don't you?"

"Um ... no, actually."

"He walked with his toes pointed inward; we used to call that parrot-toed. Same thing as pigeon-toed."

That's the first thing tenor saxophone player Ernie Calhoun remembers about Ray Charles. In 1947 and early 1948, he and Charles worked together in the Tampa-based Manzy Harris Orchestra. Calhoun was twenty and the other musician just seventeen — and blind. The sax man would come across Charles walking down Central Avenue — the main artery of Tampa's black business and entertainment district — by himself, on his way to rehearsal with their jazz/blues combo. Charles' gait stayed in his mind, Calhoun explains, because "Ray would take his foot and put it in the groove in the center of the sidewalk. He'd follow those grooves to get where he was going. When he got to a corner, he'd listen both ways, then cross and when he got close to the other side he'd stick one of those parrot feet out to find the curb. He never did use a cane."

The younger man dressed older, always in the same somewhat formal get-up: black pants, white shirt, black shoes and socks. This was his nighttime performance outfit, minus the black tie and black suit jacket. At that time this "undertaker" outfit, as Charles would later call it, was pretty much all he had.

The way Calhoun remembers it, Charles had another technique that helped him navigate the Tampa streets: "He'd make a buzz sound as he was walking. Bzzz, bzzz, like that. So when he got close to an object or a person, he'd get a kick-back; the sound would come back to him like sonar, and he wouldn't run into it." When they met on Central, with Charles en route to rehearsal at Watts Sanderson's Blue Room, or to a gig on the patio of the Cuban Club, or to the room he rented on Short Emery Street, the young piano player wouldn't stop to chat, much less ask for help. "He'd be telling me, 'Out of the way, man. I got to go. You're holding me up.'"

Charles doesn't seem to have mentioned the sonar technique Calhoun ascribes to him. However, the tenor man remembered Charles' speed and impatience accurately. While working some of his first professional gigs in Jacksonville, Charles wrote in his memoir Brother Ray, "I got to know the city quickly and had no trouble racing around on my own." Of Orlando, Tampa, and other Florida cities he lived in, the musician said: "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but when I walked around those towns, my pace wasn't halting or even cautious. Man, I moved."

He was much skinnier then, not as solid in body as the iconic entertainer he'd become. He wasn't yet Ray Charles, either; audiences in his home state knew him by his birth name, Ray Charles Robinson, while friends and colleagues called him RC. Musically he'd be close to unrecognizable today as well. Manzy Harris, the leader of that six- or seven-piece Tampa group, hired Robinson as a piano player, a sideman, but he sometimes let him contribute vocals. The young man sang well, but his voice was still quite light. More significantly, "he didn't have his own style yet," says bandmate Calhoun. Instead, this singular, distinctive artist was intentionally, slavishly mimicking two older, better-known musicians of the day.

Young RC was also focused as much on his alto saxophone playing as he was on piano. That's the instrument he'd play when he and alto man Harold Young came over to Calhoun's house, on Central near Cass Street, to work on tunes and study theory. This was a careerist move; the success of Louis Jordan and Illinois Jacquet had made sax the glamor instrument and Robinson was intently — even desperately — focused on making his living in music, the only career he thought he could have and the only one he wanted. He had mastered the clarinet, which made the saxophone much easier.

He was already displaying one quality that would help that career become a reality: a rare, full-spectrum musicality. In his biography, Ray Charles: Man and Music, author Michael Lydon says his subject had perfect pitch. Calhoun, a trained musician (see chapter 2) who's certainly familiar with that term, expresses it another way. "Ray had a gift of hearing," he says. "He could hear all the intonations. He got here and right away he's telling us who's playing the right notes, who's playing the wrong notes. He'd tell us: 'You don't want to be playing B-flat there; you want B-natural.'"

Even the more experienced players they worked with weren't offended, Calhoun remembers. "Those criticisms were right, for one thing," the tenor player says. "I mean, the man was a genius."

There may be no good definition of, or explanation for, genius. But this fact seems to confirm that Charles was indeed what Calhoun calls him: No one in RC Robinson's family sang well or played a musical instrument. The man himself could only conclude, "I was born with music inside me."

Less appreciated than either his genius or his musical legacy is that both those things were born and took form in Florida. True, this iconic American entertainer was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1930. Yes, he famously — unforgettably — sang "Georgia on My Mind." But Ray Charles Robinson, who died in 2004, was truly a Floridian. His mother, Aretha Robinson, brought him with her to Greenville, Florida (about 45 miles due east of Tallahassee and 125 miles west of Jacksonville) when he was less than six months old. RC remained in the Sunshine State for roughly the next two decades; Florida is where he became a musician and a man. And as the lyrics of his "St. Pete Florida Blues" testify, his first great love was a Florida love.

Post-World War II Florida was flooded with first-class musicians, Charles later explained, and, beginning when he was fifteen, he was immersed in this competitive crucible. He struggled as he worked his first paying gigs in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, and those hard times are reflected in the titles of successive chapters in his autobiography: "Suffering"; "Scuffling in Jacksonville"; "Hungry in Orlando"; and "Floppin' Round Tampa." His early tribulations forced him to work harder, improve at his craft, and reconsider the possible.

If mastery takes ten thousand hours of practice, as is popularly believed these days, this is where RC paid those dues, even as he made actual, financial payments to Florida musicians' unions. The young man also came to realize the limitations of the musical and vocal imitations he engaged in for much of his early career, which would allow him to create his unique musical identity.

If Ray Charles did not invent soul music, he certainly pioneered it and raised it to its highest exponent. While it's important that Florida lay claim to this phenomenal — and phenomenally successful — musician, his importance in the history and evolution of soul music extends well beyond any state borders.

As noted in the introduction, author Peter Guralnick invokes this Florida artist in his definition of soul. On the second page of his seminal 1986 book, Sweet Soul Music, he also gives that musical form an origin story, one in which Calhoun's former colleague is both protagonist and catalyst. Soul music, Guralnick writes, "grew up in the wake of the success of Ray Charles."

One way to explain his vital role (and one factor in his decades-long appeal) is to consider that Charles first excelled at the thing that came before soul music: dance-band rhythm and blues. Charles, or Robinson at this stage, made his name as an accompanist, soloist, arranger, and singer, in the seven- to twelve-piece blues-based dance bands of the 1940s and 1950s. These midsize combos, smaller versions of the bigger pre-World War II bands, took their cues and often their charts from Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, and Lucky Millinder, among others. (As a bandleader Charles would later expand the Ray Charles Orchestra back to the prosperous size of the Basie and Ellington Orchestras, featuring backup singers, sophisticated arrangements, strings, and full horn sections stocked with star players such as David "Fathead" Newman.)

Next, and just as vital, Charles was without peer at the thing that defined soul music: searing, soaring vocals. The second strand of Charles' unique musical DNA was his utterly compelling voice, instantly recognizable and often imitated. The beautiful power of his vocals, the emphasis his recordings put on singing, and his gospel-derived vocal style were crucial to the creation of the soul template.

Charles was never very religious, but he was well churched as a young man, made to attend at least every Sunday. If the dogma he heard there didn't make a big impression, the music did — especially the singing and the call and response between the preachers and the congregation. After he left his musical and biographical home, Charles would directly transpose gospel into pop, substituting a female love interest for the Lord in his lyrics in songs such as "I Got A Woman" and "Flallelujah, I Just Love Her So." His great achievement, Guralnick writes, was the "transformation of dignified gospel standards into cries of secular ecstasy." Those cries contained strong elements of the blues — his rasp or strain, the use of flatted notes — to which Charles was able to add falsetto range. To those qualities he also added the capacity to render a ballad sweetly and soulfully.

These two streams — the jazz-fluent musicianship and gospel- and blues-inspired vocals — suffused the humid air and percolated up from the Florida soil he walked on as a barefoot boy. Combined they produced in him an inimitable triumph: instantly recognizable, soulful music that virtually anyone could appreciate but that no one could quite reproduce.

Aretha Williams was the ward or adopted daughter of a Greenville couple, Mary Jane and Bailey Robinson. After Aretha became pregnant at sixteen, it emerged that Bailey was the father. The Robinsons sent her to their former home, Albany, Georgia, where she gave birth to Ray Charles Robinson in 1930. Soon after Aretha and child returned to Greenville, Bailey left Mary Jane and moved away; he'd have little to do with his son.

Greenville, which locals pronounced "Greensville," was a little country town — Charles called it "the real backwoods" — founded around a stop on the Florida Central and Western Railroad. Originally called Station Five, it was renamed by a resident who came from Greenville, South Carolina. The town produced cotton, cattle, lumber, and pine slats used for Florida orange crates. And of course this 1930s Florida enclave was "segregated to the teeth."

Even compared to the other African Americans in Greenville, 'Retha, her firstborn, RC, and her second son, George, born a year later, were poor. There were two black enclaves in Greenville and the Robinsons lived in the rougher, more transient one farther from the town center, a collection of shacks known as Jellyroll. (The more established "colored" section of town was called Blackbottom.) In the Great Depression, dinner at the Robinsons might consist of homegrown greens and/or raw sweet potatoes. 'Retha couldn't always make the rent, so they moved often. She was small, frail, and couldn't do the heavy work other black residents, including the women, put their backs to. While Mary Jane worked in one of the sawmills, dragging soaking wet boards to the blades, RC's mom took in the extra washing and ironing for white folks that the other black laundresses couldn't handle.

Despite the family circumstances, Mary Jane, 'Retha and, RC remained close; Charles said often that he had two mothers. His birth mother was the strict, demanding one when it came to chores like chopping kindling and fetching water, while Mary Jane was indulgent. Charles would later describe his life then as "a simple time and a simple place. We were back in the woods, and the feeling of life and the spirit among the people was good."

The Robinson family went to the Shiloh Baptist Church. In his earliest years the sole accompaniment to the singing there was the sound of tambourines; only later in his childhood did the church get a piano. So young RC found his instrument and his calling elsewhere: in Wiley Pitman's Red Wing Café. Jellyroll's general store, it also served as a gathering place and weekend juke joint. A few tables sat in the middle of the store's biggest room and, along one wall, the adult Ray Charles remembered, were two entrancing things: a piano and a jukebox.

The jukebox played blues by Tampa Red (who, despite his origins and moniker, had most of his success in Chicago) and boogie-woogie piano by Meade Lux Lewis, as well as the big bands of the 1930s. The only radio signals reaching Greenville played white music — pop crooners and country, or hillbilly as it was called — and RC and his mom listened to the "Grand Ole Opry" program out of Nashville every Saturday night.

The kid heard and liked them all, but he wanted to make music, too. Mr. Pit, as RC called him, was a very accomplished boogie-woogie piano man. Starting when RC was three, Mr. Pit let him climb up on his stool with him and bang away on the keys. "That's it, sonny! That's it!" Mr. Pitt would tell him and by the time he was six, Charles claimed, he could play a little blues of his own. When not at the piano, doing his chores, or in school, RC was crouched in front of the jukebox speaker.

As much as he wanted to create sounds like those he heard, the boy wanted to understand them, to know how music came together and how it worked. He and George were both mechanically minded; they'd watch older men work on car engines, and they built toys, repaired bicycles, and tinkered with any machines they got their hands on. As he wrote in Brother Ray: "There's a mechanical side to music which has always fascinated me." When he began to compose and write arrangements he would tap this structural knowledge and mechanical approach, layering components and combining musical forces like an architect. After he went blind, having seen and felt the layout of the piano keyboard — all the octaves, sharps, and flats — no doubt enhanced his musical vision.

Before that catastrophe, though, there came another. When RC was five and George four, he saw his little brother and close companion drown in a backyard washtub. In one later telling the adult Charles said the two had been horsing around; it seems possible that RC actually pushed his brother into the water. If so, the guilt must have been nearly unendurable.

Not long afterward, RC began waking up with a "crust" or mucus coating his eyes. Gradually his field of vision telescoped inward and light and colors dimmed. His mother took him to both local doctors and got a diagnosis of "congenital juvenile glaucoma," for which they had no remedy. "By the time I was seven," Charles said, "I was completely blind."

He wasn't devastated, or so he always maintained. Perhaps because his loss was gradual, over two years, it didn't feel that traumatic. 'Retha kept RC at all his chores and trained him to live as independently as possible. But she knew he couldn't go to Greenville Training, the local school for colored children. A white couple who employed friends of Aretha's called the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. The school year had already started, but they said he could attend right away, in October 1937. RC had lost his brother and his sight; he still slept with his mother. In Greenville, he also had Mary Jane, Mr. Pit, and other adults who knew and looked out for him. He was inconsolable at the idea of leaving; his twenty-three-year-old mother, implacable. RC went.

When Robinson arrived, writes Michael Lydon, the school a mile north of St. Augustine's Spanish fort was "modest: a dozen low wooden dormitories and classroom buildings connected by cinder paths winding between mossy oaks and tall palms." It was also, if possible, more deeply segregated than the world outside its acreage. South Campus was for the roughly one hundred black students — who could not be taught by white teachers or study with the three hundred or so white students — and their African American teachers, plus live-in staff. The curriculum on the black side was geared more to "industrial arts like broom-making than to higher education," according to this biographer, and made do with hand-me-down equipment. (The deaf students were kept somewhat separate from the blind ones, and of course, the girls were housed separately from the boys.) The racial apartheid didn't really bother Charles at this point — that was all he'd known — but later he saw the irony. "Imagine the nonsense of segregating blind kids," he later wrote. "I mean, they can't even see!"


Excerpted from "Florida Soul"
by .
Copyright © 2017 John Capouya.
Excerpted by permission of University Press of Florida.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Soul State of Florida, 1,
1. Ray Charles: Greenville/Jacksonville/Orlando/Tampa, 21,
2. Ernie Calhoun: Tampa, 55,
3. Noble "Thin Man" Watts: Deland, 68,
4. The Twist Came from Tampa: Tampa/Miami, 76,
5. Linda Lyndell: Gainesville, 95,
6. Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts: Jacksonville/Pahokee, 111,
7. Sam Moore, Soul Survivor: Overtown, 123,
8. James Purify: Pensacola, 149,
9. Bobby Purify: Pensacola, 162,
10. Papa Don Schroeder: Pensacola, 170,
11. Wayne Cochran: Miami, 178,
12. Willie Clarke and Deep City Records: Miami, 192,
13. Helene Smith: Miami, 211,
14. Henry Stone: Miami, 221,
15. The Miami Sound: Little Beaver, Chocolate Perry, and the T.K. Family, 241,
16. Frankie Gearing: St. Petersburg, 257,
17. Timmy Thomas: Miami, 270,
18. Latimore: Riverview/Miami, 287,
19. Jackie Moore: Jacksonville, 302,
20. KC and the Sunshine Band: Miami, 320,
Epilogue: The State of Florida Soul, 334,
Acknowledgments, 349,
Notes, 353,
Bibliography, 371,
Index, 373,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The story of a state long denied its place in soul capitals. Capouya tells quite a tale, taking us from the legends RC to KC; from Jackie Moore to Sam Moore; to many more."—Jeffrey M. Lemlich, author of Savage Lost: Florida Garage Bands, the '60s and Beyond

"Capouya reaches back over eighty years to tell the often overlooked history of Florida's vibrant soul music scene, painting the music and its makers with sympathetic insight and an eye for detail."—Michael Lydon, author of Ray Charles: Man and Music

"Engaging and comprehensive. Spotlighting the rich and underappreciated histories of R&B, soul, funk, and disco in Florida, Capouya contributes greatly to our understanding of the music and its contexts."—Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

Customer Reviews