Albany’s Ray Charles plaza contains a revolving, lighted bronze sculpture of Charles seated at a piano. (Staff Photo: Laura Williams)
ALBANY — Take one visit to Albany’s downtown riverfront park and you can’t miss it — this town loves Ray Charles. From the piano-themed Ray Charles Plaza, Charles’ melodic sounds and a sculpture depicting his happy, key-tapping visage greet visitors to the city.
Albany and Southwest Georgia take pride in all of its residents, and especially those who have made their mark outside the area, including Olympian Alice Coachman, chef Paula Deen and singer Ray Stevens, among others.
But it’s Albany native Charles who gets a lot of the attention.
Born Sept. 23, 1930, Charles is remembered by fans this week, which would have seen his 83rd birthday.
Though he only lived in Georgia for a short time before his family moved to Florida, the Peach State obviously stayed close to his heart and mind, as noted in what has become his trademark song, “Georgia On My Mind.” Ironically, the song was originally composed the same year that Charles was born by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. According to legend, Charles decided to record it after his driver suggested it, since Charles kept singing it while riding in the car. Reportedly, it was recorded quickly and took only four takes to complete, compared to Charles’ usual 10 to 12.
In 1979, it became the official state song and country music legend Willie Nelson later sang it at Charles’ funeral.
Though various artists have recorded this hit over the years, including Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Nelson, Charles’ version is by far the most famous.
“That old sweet song” ultimately won Charles two Grammy awards for Best Male Vocal Recording and Best Pop Song Performance.
But of course, this is not Charles’ only famous tune. The legendary artist created a slew of hits in his lifetime, including “Hit the Road, Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “What’d I Say.”
Charles is regarded as a ground-breaking musician who pioneered the genre of soul music during the 1950s. Often called the “Father of Soul,” Charles combined blues, gospel and jazz to create classic tunes and his influence has left a lasting impression on contemporary music.
Though he’s often pictured with a bright smile on his face, Charles’ early years were anything but easy.
When he was 5 years old, he began losing his eyesight, most likely as a result of congenital juvenile glaucoma. The same year, his younger brother drowned. Still, Charles’ mother, Aretha Robinson, encouraged her son to develop independence and enrolled him in St. Augustine’s Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where he studied for nine years.
Charles later wrote in his memoirs that his early years were filled with music, though no one else in his family was musical.
His school provided only classical music education, but Charles discovered other genres. With an increased awareness of sounds around him, Charles found his own music everywhere — in church, the general store, radio, and of course, on the piano.
As his musical knowledge and skill grew, so did his fame, and in the early 1950s, Charles began to emerge as one of the first black musicians to be accepted by mainstream culture. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Though certainly not perfect, Charles remained throughout his life a classic entertainer and a fascination for many, culminating in 2004’s big-screen biopic simply titled, “Ray,” starring actor Jamie Foxx as the big man himself.
Charles died of liver failure in 2004, the same year “Rolling Stone” magazine named him one of the 100 greatest musicians of all time.
Charles’ seamless combination of musical genres has reached all types of listening ears, and his voice is considered one of the most recognizable in American music. But most importantly, his songs were true to himself — soul music filled with soul. Fellow singer Billy Joel has said, “This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley.”
Big heart, big tunes and big pride for Albany — all from a man simply known as “Ray.”