Today, our inspirational singer is probably one of the few people in the world who saw positivity despite being wholly surrounded by negativity. Half of his life was steeped with suffering; you can’t compare it to the usual tragic soaps on tv. It’s a story of almost never-ending despair until he gained full control of his life and achieved success.
Nowadays, becoming a good singer from being a complete tone-deaf guy is a luxury. Most of us need to work two to three jobs just to get by and secure ourselves. And with the economy shaking and pandemic spreading, who in their right mind would spend time singing these days?
Actually, it’s the best time to sing. Everything around us is too depressing. Racial equality, gender discrimination, you name it, the country has it. If singing makes you happy, then do it more so often. And I think it’s safe to say that whatever’s happening now and the things keeping you from singing are mostly trivial and trifling matters to our inspirational singer today.
Folks, let me talk about Ray Charles.
Ray Charles Robinson was a lovechild of a laborer (Bailey Robinson) and a laundress (Aretha Williams). Aretha was a sickly child. When her mother died, the Robinsons adopted her. Bailey impregnated Aretha when she was 15. And this forced her to move out.
A few years later, Bailey Robinson and his wife, Mary Jane, lost a son. I tried to look deeper on what happened, but I’m surmising that they lost him because of a disease. This made the Robinsons decide to have Aretha back and share the upbringing of Ray Charles. A year later, Aretha gave birth to another boy, George. Aretha doesn’t know who the father was; I’m supposing that she had multiple partners at that time.
Out of the blue, Bailey left and married another woman. He died when Ray was 10.
At age five, his brother drowned in one of the tubs where Aretha did her laundry. At age seven, he became blind because of glaucoma. Anyone with this chain of events would have easily given up right then and there, but you all know what ‘The Genius’, as he was often referred to, came about to be. I’m going to tell you more about it if you follow along. Ready?
Affinity to Music
When he still had his sight, he became fond of all things mechanical. From cars to musical instruments, Ray always tried to get his hands on one. Fortunately for him, his mother became friends with a café owner that had a piano. He often stayed in the café, and Wylie Pitman, the owner, would teach him how to play.
However, his blindness slowed down his progress on the piano. Due to his mother’s insistence, he enrolled in a school dedicated to teaching blind and deaf African Americans. There, he was taught how to use braille music. It wasn’t easy. To learn the parts for your right hand, you need to read braille using your left hand, and vice versa.
Now, that to me is pure resilience. Who in their right mind would endure the pain to learn the keyboard with 88 keys which you do not see? Isn’t that something? Could you have switched over to something else if that was you? I could have. Keep that in mind because learning to sing, then, would not have been so complex in comparison to how he learned the piano. I see some determination right there, folks. Ok, let’s move on.
When he was 14 years old, his mother died. She was sickly since she was a child. Ray Charles never said how and why in his interviews and memoirs. Days after her funeral, his school expelled him just because he pranked a teacher. It’s interesting. I’m assuming that most teachers in the school would not have been afflicted. How can a blind kid prank a teacher, with enough severity of his own to worry about, to get him kicked out of school?
Struggling To Survive
After being completely orphaned, one of his mother’s close friends, Charles Wayne Powell helped him out. They lived together in a small apartment.
At that time, it was difficult for him to progress his piano skills since he didn’t own one. To get by and play music, he played for bands, which allowed him to earn around $60 (around $4 back then) every night.
He also joined a musician union to get his hands on the union’s piano and have a higher chance of getting more jobs. He improved his craft by learning the licks from other players in his group. After a year, he was able to make a name for himself locally. Unfortunately, getting gigs was almost impossible. It was World War II, he’s blind, and he didn’t have other skills besides playing the piano.
Ray tried his hand at arranging music for bands. His attempts and auditions failed. He decided to move forward and find work in different states.
Not owning a piano never hindered him to get his hands on one and he persisted to learn as much as he could to get better at it. Did I mention he failed auditions he attempted? How he got past that only tells me one thing…
“The difference between the Haves and Have-nots? The will to sacrifice and to do what others won’t… Very simple.”- Ziad K. Abdelnour.
That’s one of the reasons why someone like Ray can be where he or she wants to be because of those simple but deep-seated characters.
He found himself in Tampa, Miami, and then Seattle. Moving around the country as he was hoping to find work and a break. To survive, he worked two jobs. One of those two jobs was playing in bars. At this point in his life, his musical style defined itself. Then he met Robert Blackwell, a renowned bandleader, and producer. This man was heavily responsible for his fate in the industry and other talents such as Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson, Herb Alpert, Lloyd Prince, and Sam Cooke.
Besides his resilience and determination, being at the right place at the right time got him close to those influential somebodies. You know what? My take is, that’s only possible when you’re constantly present out there, acting out your craft, someone special will take an interest in you that could turn things around and give you that break you’ve been waiting for. It’s not going to drop on your lap, y’know, you’ll have to chase it yourself.
While being under Blackwell’s guidance, Ray was able to establish a band. With him on piano, Milton Garett playing bass, and McKee handling the guitar, they formed McSon. This band gave him his first record hit, Confession Blues.
Having a bit of prominence in the industry, he resumed going around the country. This time, he was touring instead of finding a place that’ll recognize his talents. He’d signed a contract with Atlantic Records, which allowed his music to reach everyone in the US and other western countries.
He then released his oeuvre, “What I’d Say”. It was a culmination of all the things he’d learned and all the styles he’s acquired. Unfortunately, it wasn’t able to gain its potential popularity because radio stations banned playing it. Their reasoning was about the song’s inherent sensual lyrics.
Ray recorded and played until his act became dated and obscured by other rising artists and fickleness of people when it comes to taste in music. He died at his home in California after his liver failed. It was 2004; Ray’s life ended at the age of 74 years old. Many influential artists arrived at his funeral like Stevie Wonder and B.B. King.
Ray was blind, lived amid a war, and orphaned. Unlike the trends with other celebrity singers, Ray didn’t have an entertainers’ blood or any connections in the business. He got his success all by himself. Despite worrying about his next meal, Ray still pursued music. And what made things worse was the fact that he actually had vices to boot.
Nothing stopped him, and nothing should stop you, too. What a tough act to follow, but you are less disadvantaged than he was, aren’t you? What reasons can you give that you can’t move forward with all the opportunities ahead nowadays? Don’t tell me now you’re going to surrender to excuses, are you? If Ray wasn’t determined to become a musician, he could’ve given up on multiple points in his life. Nobody would even blame him. But he didn’t.
Being orphaned at a young age and having no access to the one tool his skillset relies on are two things that could’ve stopped anyone from doing what he or she loves to do. Instead of giving up, he found ways to make things work.
If he can’t play, he’ll write. If he can’t write, he’ll sing. If he doesn’t have a piano, he’ll find one.
That should be an attitude that all of us, especially beginners, should adapt. If your time is filled to the brim with work, then sing while you’re working. If your boss doesn’t like you singing, then do it while commuting. If you can’t read a book on how to sing, listen to videos or audio-books instead. If you don’t have time to go to a music studio to learn, learn from a virtual vocal coach.