Let's go back in time to 1948, a street scene in Tampa, Florida.
A young man, R.C. Robinson, strides down the sidewalk, headed for the bus stop. He walks without hesitation, defying the fact that he is blind. He was not born blind, but lost his sight at 7, leaving him with at least the memory of the way things look. On this day, he wears no dark glasses, carries no cane, has no dog to guide his way.
He's out to meet some musician friends. As usual, he's looking for a gig. He lives in a rooming house with a friendly family, but he hardly has spare change in his pocket. Maybe tonight.
That's the name he would soon adopt. He would don a pair of dark glasses that would become a trademark and a universal sign of hipness. By his death in 2004, he was one of the most famous performers on the planet, uniting diverse audiences with his special ability to master musical forms: gospel, jazz, blues, soul, country, R&B, and rock 'n' roll.
Another famous piano player and singer, Billy Joel, would say about him: "This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley."
• • •
The voice of Ray Charles would be recorded countless times in studios and from live performances, in stadiums and small clubs, on his own and with other artists who marked a duet with Ray Charles as one of the honors of their professional lives.
But everyone has to start somewhere, right? Do you remember the first time you heard your recorded voice?
Our young Ray Charles, let's call him R.C., still in his teen years, was trying to find his own distinctive style. When he performed, he imitated the popular voices of his day: from Nat "King" Cole, to blues man Charles Brown, to the great Louis Jordan, who was inventing rock 'n' roll in the late 1930s.
His rooming house in Tampa had a piano in the parlor. There was a piano at the union hall, and the budding genius would dominate playing time. He began to compose his own songs, still in the style of the ones he would listen to on records and the radio. He had enough money to buy a primitive "wire" recorder.
With his "toy" recorder, as he called it, R.C. and three musician friends decided to record a few of his early songs. No one can say for sure exactly when this alpha session took place, and these rough recordings would be replaced by improved versions cut in Miami. The best guess is 1950.
Here he is in his autobiography: "I had written a song — hell, I can't even say that; I didn't consider it a composition, just a blues I made up. Called it Found My Baby There. It was a nasty little number, and that day we worked it out— along with a couple of other songs — with the recorder going. The sound quality was so bad it sounded like we were all locked away in a closet."
Ray Charles was not fussy about titles, so his early work can contain more than one title for a particular song. Take his song Found My Baby There. Turns out, it had another more enduring title that is about to be formally enshrined in the musical history of Tampa Bay: The St. Pete Florida Blues.
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• • •
I have lived in St. Petersburg since 1977 and play some music now and then. Not long ago, I picked up a copy of John Capouya's great book, Florida Soul. The first chapter describes the legacy of Ray Charles, who was raised in the tiny Florida town of Greenville, east of Tallahassee.
In his early years, he enjoyed the boogie-woogie piano work of a local musician. His interest in music was cultivated at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. As a liberated teen, he made his way to Jacksonville, Orlando, and then Tampa.
He fell in love with a girl from Tampa and wrote a song in her honor, one of the sweetest slow blues numbers you will ever hear. Along the way, he made a creative decision. In the song, the girl of his dreams would be not from Tampa, but from St. Pete.
"Down in St. Pete … Florida … I found my baby there."
There is a good chance that Ray Charles had never heard the sound of his own recorded voice until he and his friends played the cut from the wire recorder. Let that sink in for a moment. It's possible that the first time he heard the sound of his singing voice, he heard the words "Down in St. Pete, Florida."
I guess you can say that, when it comes to historical competition between Florida's twin cities, Tampa got the airport, the university and the NFL stadium. St. Pete got the song.
At the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading in November I ran into Rick Kriseman, mayor of St. Petersburg.
"Your Honor," I said in a mildly theatrical voice, "did you know that in 1950 Ray Charles wrote and recorded a song called The St. Pete Florida Blues?"
His reaction matched that of hundreds of others: eyes wide, jaw dropped and then a prolonged "Whaaaat!?"
• • •
Here's what's going to happen: The City of St. Petersburg is about to proclaim Feb. 15 "Ray Charles Day."
The city will embrace Charles as an adopted son and his song as an official song. Musicians and presenters will gather for a two-hour celebration of history and song at the Studio@620, featuring Alex Harris and 1970s soul singer Latimore, whose recording of The St. Pete Florida Blues can be enjoyed on YouTube.
It turns out that over the course of his career Ray Charles would have a rich connection to St. Pete. Archivist David Shedden has discovered old ads published in the "Negro News" section of the St. Petersburg Times. (Yes, the newspaper was segregated back then.) Every year through the 1950s and beyond, Ray Charles would perform at the Manhattan Casino.
In the Jim Crow days, the St. Pete Coliseum catered to white audiences, so the likes of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and, yes, Ray Charles would play at the Manhattan in the heart of the black community. Often, they stayed in the homes of residents there since many hotels in the South were segregated. In protest, some performers would not return.
There is a sense, though, in which Ray Charles was "color blind." I use that phrase with respect for the role he played on issues of both race and disability. He was born in 1930, during the Depression into the grinding poverty of the rural South. His younger brother drowned in a bathtub. His beloved mother died when he was just 14. The school he attended for blind children had separate programs for black and white students. He was never blind to racial prejudice and social injustice.
That said, he came to understand that his music was a bridge, not a wall. He performed with musicians of all races and ethnicities — rich and poor. He could play white music for white people with white musicians — like the Florida Playboys — if it put cash in his pocket. He became one of the greatest country music artists of all time, for goodness sake.
In 1984 when he sang his version of America the Beautiful at the Republican National Convention, he had white delegates swaying with all the soul they could muster, some of them in tears. When he was finished, Ronald Reagan and George Bush escorted him to the top of the stage to be with them.
Most people associate Ray Charles with the state of Georgia, not Florida. His mother gave birth to her son in Albany, Ga., but returned shortly to Greenville to raise him. When he performed the Hoagy Carmichael classic Georgia on My Mind before the Georgia State Legislature — they had once banned him from performing in the state — the members were so moved that, before the month was out, they adopted it as the official state song.
A story in the St. Petersburg Times on March 20, 1961, describes an outdoor music festival in St. Pete's Campbell Park. Mamie Brown, one of the first African-Americans to work for the paper, wrote:
The rains came to the Suncoast Saturday night.
So did recording artist Ray Charles, who literally chased the showers away with hearty vocal and organ renditions of original compositions and other numbers.
An estimated crowd of 2,000 gathered on Campbell Field for the outdoor Spring Jazzy Festival, the first of its type to be staged locally. Earlier in the day city workmen had completed installation of a portable wooden dance floor on the field ...
The event was the second this year in St. Petersburg where the color barrier "dissolved" itself in the wake of admiration for a performer.
Photos of the event show white people and black people side by side in the audience.
When I proposed the idea to the city of a proclamation, I listed 10 reasons why we should declare Ray Charles as an Adopted Son of St. Petersburg and The St. Pete Florida Blues as an official song. I did not know then that at a concert at the old Bayfront Center on April 16, 1975, the city had declared that day as "Ray Charles Day."
My hope is that this reprise will be different. Not a Ray Charles Day in the middle of Black History Month, but the start of a Ray Charles Era. The proclamation concludes: "We urge the celebration of his life and work in images, text, and music, on murals, in museums, and in music performances and festivals in his name and ours."
St. Pete is a city flirting with hipness. Let's let the coolest cat of all time seal the deal.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times, since 1979. He is the author of many books on writing and journalism. He has played keyboard in garage bands since 1964. Contact him at email@example.com.
An excerpt from the Ray Charles Day proclamation by the City of St. Petersburg
"Whereas, as early as the late 1940s, he lived in the Tampa Bay area and performed numerous times in St. Petersburg at the Historic Manhattan Casino …
Whereas in 1950 he wrote and recorded The St. Pete Florida Blues, which may be the sweetest most joyful and most loving blues song ever recorded …
For all these reasons, we declare Ray Charles as an Adopted Son of St. Petersburg, Florida, and declare his song about St. Pete as an official song of the city.
We urge the celebration of his life and work in images, texts, and music, on murals, in museums, and in music performances and festivals in his name and ours."
If you go
The Florida Legacy of "The Genius" Ray Charles celebration begins at 7 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Sold out. (727) 895-6620. thestudioat620.org.