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What I Say

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Young Ray won the right to pursue the piano in the landmark Supreme Court decision Robinson v. Some Dumbass Crackers (1939)
If they ever make a biopic out of my life, and there's no clear reason why they wouldn't since I am the Dean of American Jazz Humorists® and one of the world's foremost experts on baseball's balk rule, I hope they are able to get Jamie Foxx to reprise his Oscarâ"¢-winning role in the pivotal "Genius writes his Ray Charles piece scene. But if it comes down to it, I'd rather they spend the budget money on the absolutely necessary "Thora Birch recreates Phoebe Cates' swimming pool scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High sequence.

So then.

Ray Charles Robinson was born in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. Very shortly thereafter, his parents moved over the border to Greenville, Florida, due to Depression-era rationing of future musical legends. Florida received Ray and the future rights to Tom Petty, while Georgia received Gregg and Duane Allman, Otis Redding, and a bassist to be named later.

Perhaps the most defining moment in young Ray's life came when he lost his sight at around the age of seven. Even then, Ray displayed the tenacity and independence that would be characteristic of his entire life and career; bucking restrictive post-Reconstruction Southern laws requiring all blind black men to become blues guitarists. Astute even then, young Ray invoked the "Blind Tom Bethune exemption which was on the books in Virginia and won the right to pursue the piano in the landmark Supreme Court decision Robinson v. Some Dumbass Crackers (1939).

Ray went on to the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind, where he took full advantage of their excellent Future Celebrity program. He particularly excelled in their pioneering Product Spokesman curriculum, as well as their Late Night Talk Show Guest course, and was a 4-year letterman on the Advertising Jingle team. But by the age of 15, Ray felt he had learned all that St. Augustine could teach him and left the school to pursue his career as a professional musician.

Hanging around Florida's music scene just long enough to realize that there wasn't one, Ray moved to Seattle. Though he didn't stay long, relatively speaking, his impact on the Emerald City has reverberated for decades. By demonstrating that it was possible to go on to worldwide stardom from the unlikely Pacific northwest, Ray was a model for those to come, from Jimi Hendrix in the sixties to Heart in the seventies to everyone with a flannel shirt and a mood disorder in the nineties. And so kinetic and energetic was Ray's music that since his departure in the 50's, the town has required gallons of coffee a day per resident just to replace the stimulus.

From Seattle, Ray formed the McSon Trio (later, a popular breakfast entrée at McDonald's) and shortened his name to Ray Charles after boxer "Sugar Ray Robinson won the rights to the name Robinson on October 15, 1952, at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Sugar Ray won a majority decision (Art Tatum scored the fight 144-141, Charles), and the newly titled Ray Charles avenged his defeat by going out on the road with blues guitarist Lowell Fulsom. The pair would later beat Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski in a two-man tag team bout, and during the match Ray would invent a powerful piledriver move he called the "Hit the Road Jack. And now you know the rest of the story.

The next most epochal event in Ray's life was when he met Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. To this point, Ray had primarily made his living by emulating other singers, particularly Nat "King Cole. Ertegun recognized the possibilities presented by Ray's talents, and encouraged him to explore his own ideas. Charles responded by inventing a brilliant amalgam of R&B and gospel that would be known as soul music (U.S. patent 6,212,464).

During Ray's tenure with Atlantic he became a bona fide superstar, charting single after single and redefining the way the country listened to "race music. Previously, 1950's America felt uncomfortable listening to black people sing right out in front of God and everybody. Ray's rich, expressive voice and unique piano style, along with his personal charisma, made it safe for Caucasians to listen to songs like "I Got A Woman without having to wear elaborate disguises and speak with thick Dutch accents to avoid detection.

Ray used his celebrity to make a stand for the civil rights movement, refusing to play a show in Georgia because the audience would have been segregated. The state of Georgia responded by banning Ray from performing in the state, a move they later rescinded in more enlightened times. Georgia would come to embrace their native son, making Ray's "Georgia on My Mind their state song and passing a constitutional amendment banning slackwitted hacks from using the term "blind ambition when writing about Charles.


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