Ray Charles: Trailblazing Artist and Advocate (1930-2004)
June 11, 2004—Who was Ray Charles? Blues troubadour or rock and roller? Soul swinger or classic standards crooner? Jazz sophisticate or country wailer? He was all of those things to some degree, but mostly he was just Ray Charles—a true American original. He made music and lived the way he wanted to, with a self confidence that lacked arrogance and a life-long enthusiasm that was neither manic nor unfocused. Charles credited much of his drive and self-esteem to his mother, Aretha, who never coddled him because of his disability. "When I got to feeling sorry for myself," he once reminisced, having become blind from glaucoma at the age of six, "she'd get tough and say, 'you're blind, you ain't dumb; you lost your sight not your mind.' And she'd make me . . . see I could do almost anything anyone else could do . . . showed me I didn't have to be scared of anything." Charles was a great artist and a shining example of how blindness need not prevent one from leading a full, productive life.
Because of his determination not to let his disability limit him, in 1994 the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) presented Charles with the very first Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award, which honors individuals who have significantly improved the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. He also appeared at AFB's "Vision Loss in the 21st Century—Everybody's Business" symposium in 2003, along with his good friend Quincy Jones, in support of expanding the opportunities of people with visual impairments.
Charles lent his voice to many other important causes throughout his career as well, from the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King to anti-apartheid initiatives in South Africa. His love for music also led him to found The (Ray Charles) Robinson Foundation for Hearing Disorders. He broke down barriers—racial, musical, and otherwise, anything that limited the prospects of people, whether it be artistically, economically, or politically.
Over the next few days as we pull out Charles' albums and enjoy some of the best music that has been recorded over the past 50 years, we should also remember that his legacy exceeds his catalogue of songs. Not only have we lost one of the greatest performers of the last century, we have lost a powerful advocate for the rights of all people. His example dispelled myths about what musicians, African Americans, and people who are blind or visually impaired can do.
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