JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Singer-songwriter Ray Charles may have had Georgia on his mind, but North Florida is where his path to fame and fortune began.
Charles was born in Albany, Georgia, but grew up in Greenville, Florida, a small town two hours west of Jacksonville off Interstate 10. He lived there in a small home with his mother.
News4Jax spoke with Elesta Pritchett, 90, and Loucile Day, 86. Both women grew up with Charles and said when they were all children, times were tough.
“We were poor, but he was poorer than we were,” Pritchett said.
She and Day were both instrumental in having a recreation of Charles’ childhood home turned into museum. It sits on a street that was renamed Ray Charles Avenue.
The home is less than a mile from Haffye Hays Park, where a statue of Charles (pictured above) is located along with a placard. The placard displays his full name and gives a brief synopsis of his life and his accomplishments.
Inside the recreation of his Charles’ childhood home, Day explained how Charles got his start at playing the piano.
“Ray’s mentor, Wylie Pittman, was my daddy’s best friend. He owned the Red Wings Café,” Day said.
Pittman is credited for teaching Charles how to play the piano after Charles showed interest at age 3 when he still had his vision.
“When I first knew him, I think he could see some, but during the years, he would lose his vision,” Day said.
“His eyes didn’t look like our eyes. Did we treat him any different? We did not. We played with him. Whatever he could do. We carried him as far as he could go. We never ostracized him,” Pritchett said.
Despite losing his vision, Charles was known to still get around with help from others. Day recalls seeing Charles walk along railroad tracks to get from downtown Greenville to his home.
“He could count and know when to get off to get home. The railroad tracks are right behind this house,” Day said.
Pritchett also described Charles as the ultimate practical joker when they were kids. She recalled a moment when they were at a backyard gathering and Charles, who had lost his vision, pulled the chair away as she was just about to sit down.
“When I sat, I ended up on the ground,” Pritchett said with a smile.
Charles was eventually sent to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. It was at the school where he further developed his musical talents by learning how to play other instruments. He even learned to read braille.
To this day, Charles is one of the most famous people to have ever attended the school.
In the mid-1940s, when Charles was only a young teenager, he left the school following the death of his mother and moved to the LaVilla neighborhood in Jacksonville.
Ritz Theatre and Museum historian Adonnica Toler said Charles had a relative in the River City.
“He came to live with an aunt that lived on Church Street,” Toler said.
That location is now a vacant lot, just footsteps from where the young teen began making a name for himself one street over. Toler said that at the time, a small strip of Ashley Street was known for its nightlife, and it was at some of the nightclubs and bars where Charles developed a reputation as an impressive blind musician who was still just a kid.
“One of the legends is that he was discovered at the Wynn Hotel and a bar,” Toler said.
Charles would eventually leave Florida and head west to Seattle, then years later, Los Angeles. Toler said Charles never forgot his aunt back in Jacksonville.
“He kept his connection to Jacksonville for years. His aunt was a patient at Eartha White’s nursing home on Moncrief Road, and he cared for her until her death. So, he kept his ties to Jacksonville after he became famous,” Toler said.
As the years went by, Ray Charles became a household name in music genres that included soul, jazz, rhythm and blues, and he even successfully crossed over into country and western music. Charles went on to win 17 Grammy Awards. In 1992, he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone even ranked him number 10 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.
Erik Avanier: “As someone who grew up with him, how proud are you of Ray Charles?
“Oh, I was very proud of him. Very much so,” Pritchett said.
“He let us know that even though you might have obstacles that may seem insurmountable, you can overcome. And he did,” Day said.
People who knew Charles said he never forgot where he came from.
Charles once said, “I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.”
“He accomplished both. He was a talented person from birth, and we witnessed him going on to have a really great career,” Toler said.
Ray Charles died in 2004 and left behind a legacy of music, but also financial resources that helped to form the Ray Charles Foundation, which is based in Los Angeles. The foundation helps people with hearing disorders get hearing implants. The foundation’s mission statement reads:
“The foundation is dedicated to providing support in the area of hearing disorders and the empowerment of young people through education by offering support to educational institutions and non-profit education programs. Ray Charles said: “The inability to hear is a handicap; not the inability to see.” The vision of The Ray Charles Foundation is to instill in the youth of America that “there is no challenge too great one cannot overcome.”
There is also the Ray Charles Library in Los Angeles that is a two-story building that Charles built. The library houses his office, archives of master tape recordings and a recording studio.
More about Charles, his accomplishments and samples of his music can be found by following this link.