It is not out of the ordinary for the legendary Ray Charles to donate his time and talents for the downtrodden - he was once one of them.
But Ray Charles had a lot going for him despite the grinding poverty he was born into and the loss of his vision from glaucoma at the age of five. Ray Charles had a mother that knew that even though his eyes didn't work, there was nothing the matter with his brain.She taught him to cook, to clean house and to garden. She treated him like any other child. She encouraged him when he showed a precocious interest and talent in piano at age four.
Ray Charles needed that early-taught independence. He would lose his mother by the age of 15 and his father just two years later.
While attending a state school for the blind at St. Augustine, Florida, the poverty that led to his blind
ness (if his parents had been able to afford medicine, his vision could have been saved), also gave Charles a unique opportunity to develop his musical ability. Most students scattered to their homes throughout the state during holidays like Christmas or Easter. But up until his 15th year while he still had a home to go to, his parents could not afford to buy a ticket to bring him home. So Charles found himself wandering the campus almost alone and able to cross from the "colored" side to the "white" side of the school to enter the music room and practice the piano.
The irony of a school where all the young people were blind and couldn't see each other from their segregated facilities was not lost on Charles.
At the age of 15 Charles was on his own earning a living as a musician. He traveled with blues and hill billy bands throughout the South. In addition to playing the piano, Charles took up saxophone and clarinet. He began writing music and headed to Seattle.
There were a lot of hard times between the day Ray Charles struck out on his own and his first major recording hit, "I Got a Woman" in 1958. But once his unique music settled into the national consciousness, America took Charles into its heart as a national treasure.
Trying to define the Ray Charles sound is useless. He sings rhythm and blues like it's pulsing out with his heartbeat. But he can do the same with ballads, rock & roll, with jazz and country western. His name is emblazoned on a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, he has 10 Grammies and numerous gold records. He's been honored by the French Republic and inducted into Halls of Fame: Songwriters, Rhythm & Blues, Jazz and Rock & Roll.
For his off-stage life, Charles has been presented the National Asssociation for Sickle Cell Disease's "Man of Distinction" award, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and was named "Man of the Year" by the Beverly Hills B'nai B'rith.
The little boy who started out life with capital letter handicaps: Poor, Black, Blind, Orphaned; never forgot the pain he'd lived through. He raised money for Martin Luther King's civil rights efforts. In the face of severe penalties, he took his Asian, Latin, Caucasian and black orchestra on the same buses and into the same hotels in South Africa as he played before the first totally integrated audiences in Capetown and Johannesburg in 1981.
He holds a special spot for the State of Israel and for Jews. He has said, "Blacks and Jews are hooked up and bound together by a common history of persecution . . . "
So it is not unusual that on Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m., Ray Charles will step onto the stage of Salt Lake's Symphony Hall in behalf of Salt Lake Neighborhood Housing Services. Improving low and moderate income housing and the very lives of West Side residents is a project Ray Charles can get behind.
When he slowly starts to break your heart with "Born to Lose" and "Georgia" and then smiles that mega-watt smile of his on an upbeat song, the little boy who once loved to try to catch lightning bugs will be bringing light to lives now lived in shadows as well as joy to all attending.