A Tribute to Tampa Bay Ray Charles for African-American Music Appreciation Month

Caroline de Braganza

The Genius at workVictor Diaz Lamich/Wikimedia Commons

(Image source)

Many musicians, composers, singers and songwriters have contributed to the legacy of African-American Music and its influence in American culture, but the Genius got the party started.

Many folks believe Ray Charles (1930-2004) is a native son of Albany, Georgia, as that’s where he was born in 1930. Technically correct, but here’s the true story.

Elesta Pritchett, former Mayor of the tiny town of Greenville in north Florida, was born a month before Ray, and her family lived only a couple houses away—she relates the story:

“My momma said that his momma wasn't anything but a child when she was pregnant with him. It was a scandal here in Greenville.”

Ray's father had a sister who lived in Albany, Georgia, and she came to fetch Ray’s pregnant mother, Aretha, and took her away to Albany. Aretha returned to Greenville only a month after Ray’s birth.

When Ray died in 2004, Mayor Pritchett was determined to make people aware of his childhood in Greenville. Funding was a problem but, through her persistence, the state of Florida provided some money.

Bradley Cooley and Brad Cooley Jr. in nearby Lamont carved a statue of Ray for free. The memorial was unveiled on February 18, 2006. It comprises a dedication plaque and bronze statue in a small plaza in Haffye Hays Park in the center of town.

“Oooh! What really struck me was that foot of his, like he was dancing. That's him. When he was playing, he'd be all into it and that foot of his would be up off the pedal,” said Elesta of the statue.

Although Albany lays claim to R.C.’s heritage, his real childhood home was Greenville. The Ray Charles Musical Revolving Sculpture in Albany arrived nearly two years after the statue in Greenville.

Elesta said Greenville is not in competition with Albany.

“This is Ray Charles's home. Greenville. He walked these sand roads with no shoes on. The people here now, the younger generation, I wanted them to know.”

The house where he grew up was due for demolition in 2006, and once again Mayor Elesta Pritchett convinced Florida to put up money to buy and repair the house. It opened as an attraction in 2009 - 443 SW Ray Charles Avenue. You can City Hall for a tour of the interior.

Childhood home of Ray Charles in Greenville, FloridaMichael Rivera'Wikimedia Commons

(Image source)

Now you know Tampa Bay Ray was a Floridian, even though he sang this:

Ray started losing his sight at age 5 and was completely blind by seven. He then attended The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, where he learned Braille and started music lessons for piano, clarinet and saxophone.

He made frequent visits back to Greenville until his mother’s death in 1945 when he was only 15. That same year, he completed school and moved to Jacksonville, followed by Orlando, then to Tampa. In 1948 he moved out of state to Seattle, Washington to further his musical career.

Ray may be gone, but he lives on in our hearts.

He mixed gospel, R & B and jazz to create a new form of music that came to be known as soul. That’s why I’ve been a fan for sixty years. When I’m feeling low, the best tonic to lift my mood is to play a Ray Charles CD.

Thank you for blessing this nation—and the world—with your music. RIP.

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Published essayist. Follow me for local news that impacts our lives, plus stories on public and mental health. Through writing, I also share my passion for music, politics, our environment and social justice, and hope you find value in my words.


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