As a talented singer, songwriter and composer, Ray Charles captivated the eyes and ears of people around the world. Dubbed the “Father of Soul”, he brought soul music into the mainstream by using a unique blend of R&B, gospel and blues in hits such as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack”. In honor of what would have been his 84th birthday, we’re taking a look back at Ray Charles’ story, and how it’s impacted us here at Industries for the Blind – Milwaukee.
Ray Charles Robinson was born September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia. His mother Aretha was a sharecropper, and his father Bailey worked as a railroad repair man and handyman. At an early age, his vision began to deteriorate, and by age seven, Ray was completely blind. The cause of his blindness was believed to be glaucoma.
Shortly after losing his vision in 1937, Ray Charles was sent to St. Augustine, Florida to attend a special school for the deaf and visually impaired. At that time, the school – which was founded by a deaf man – was called The Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb. The organization’s name has since been changed to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind; it is now the largest school for the blind and deaf in the United States. Although the original name is no longer in use, it serves as a stark reminder of how far we’ve come and why organizations like IB Milwaukee are much-needed.
During the eight years he spent at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, Ray Charles discovered and developed his musical skills and was known to be the most talented musician at the school. The school encouraged his natural gifts, teaching him how to play the piano, saxophone, organ, trumpet and clarinet. In addition, he was also taught how to not only read music in Braille, but also how to write and arrange music in that format – a life-changing skill which gave him the ability to compose his own songs.
While the popular biopic “Ray” did a wonderful job of sharing Ray Charles’ life story, the film glossed over the huge impact that the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind had on his life. In a 2004 article on Slate, David Ritz – the co-author of Ray Charles’ biography – points out, “The fact that Ray fails to include a single scene from his extraordinary educational experience is another grievous oversight. It was at that state school where he was taught to read Braille, play Chopin, write arrangements, learn piano and clarinet, and start to sing.”
There’s no doubt that Ray Charles is a man that was blessed with innate musical talent. However, his story reinforces the importance of creating and providing opportunities for the blind and visually impaired. Here at Industries for the Blind – Milwaukee, we firmly believe that remarkable potential lies within every human being, and it’s our goal to provide employment opportunities that allow blind and visually impaired professionals to realize their true potential.