Ray Charles was born in Albany, Georgia, September 23, 1930. When Ray was six months old, his father, a carpenter, moved the family of three to Greensfield, Florida. "It was a town no bigger than this room. I guess." Asked about the handicap of being blind, he said, "Let's look at it right. If you lost your sight as an adult, you would be a total wreck. But I grew up blind and learned to live with it."
As a young child, Ray's vision was normal. At the age of six. he came down with mumps or measles—he doesn't remember exactly what it was. But, for lack of proper medical attention, complications set in . . . and suddenly, for the six-year-old, the world was all darkness.
His parents put him into a school for the blind at St. Augustine and that was where his musical education began. He learned piano and saxophone. It wasn't easy. Music was written in braille. He would memorize the score, then go back to the instrument and learn to play it.
"I guess I ought to tell you what it was like at home then." he said. "The neighbors would all scold my mother because of the way she treated me. She was kind of scorned for the things she made a blind boy do." She made him wash clothes, scrub, make up beds, iron, even cook.
"Anything that was normal to do, she put me to do," he explained. "She would tell the neighbors. 'One of these days, I won't be with him to help him.' She would tell me, 'You lost your sight, son, but you haven't lost your mind.' She taught me independence. She didn't let me pity myself."
At school, he got a solid foundation in music. The accent was on classical compositions, but Ray listened to popular music on radio. "Sometimes I would put aside my lessons and play for my comfort, my own joy. I'd put the braille aside and try some boogie-woogie or something I'd heard Nat Cole do."
With this natural love of music came the desire to be a musician. It made sense to Ray, but not to others. "The kids called me 'Roc' for my initials. They would say. 'Roc, you're supposed to learn to make brooms, mops and chairs. You can't sing and play the piano. Why don't you just make up your mind to do what other blind kids do?'"
Ray recalled, "I would go off and cry, but I came back more determined than ever. Partly because of my mother. I trusted her. She kept telling me that, if you had a strong enough belief, you could accomplish anything."
At fifteen, Ray Charles lost his mother and then, within the same year, his father. He was alone, with no relatives. "I went out looking for work as a musician. The first band I got into, there was a regular pianist but they would let me sit in near the end of the night."
He worked when he could as a pianist or saxophonist. "Of course, no one had braille arrangements. I would get one of the guys to read off the music and I would write it down in braille, then go back to my room and memorize it. It was a lot of work, but it strengthened my memory, taught me to remember."
Living wasn't easy. He got seven or eight dollars a night—and it was a "helluva good week" if he worked two nights. "The strange thing is that people can learn to live with less. When I had parents, there was all I wanted to eat. But I learned that man can go from day to day on a can of sardines and a few crackers. You just have to remember to save that can until you really need it."
At seventeen, Ray decided to do something on his own and organized his first trio. "I admired Charles Brown and Nat Cole. I imitated them. We began to travel and got as far as Seattle, Washington." There they won a job on a television station, and the trio was the first Negro act to be sponsored in the Northwest.
But then Ray began to have mixed feelings about his music. He wanted to develop a style of his own and he gave it much thought. "It seemed to me a person must play from deep within himself. You do that, and you don't have to worry about originality—because then you are doing what no other man can do, and that is being yourself. They call my music 'soulful' and that's what I think it is. I sing from the soul."
Many music critics have spoken of the spiritual feeling in his style. Some have written that he got his early training in spirituals. "That's not at all true," he told me. "I never sang in choirs. I didn't have time. I was too busy trying to make a dollar to eat. But I'm basically a very religious man and love gospel music and, if you love something, it's bound to rub off."
His wife Delia was singing in a gospel group in Houston, Texas, when he met her. He speaks of her and his family with feeling. Their home is in Los Angeles and he has three sons, the eldest six years. "I've got very definite ideas on how children should be raised," he said. "I'm of the old school and believe they should at all times be respectful. But, most important, I believe the best thing for kids is their parents. We have no maid to help out with the boys, although Delia might get a baby-sitter once in a while. She never goes on the road with me, for I think no outsider—not even an aunt or grandmother—can take the place of a parent."
His blindness hasn't bothered his relationship with his kids. "They like to go to the beach or have a picnic. I like that, too." His hobby at home is working with his intricate audio equipment and he handles all the complicated switches and knobs and buttons himself. And he listens to music, all kinds. "I love to hear certain operas, and I'm only sorry that they aren't in English so that I could get fuller enjoyment from them."
He has had memorable experiences. The first night he played in Carnegie Hall, he brought down the house. He got a sensational welcome at the Hollywood Palladium recently. He remembers Paris with love. "It was almost too much in France. We were scheduled to do only four concerts, but so many turned out that we had to do two more."
He talked about what his career is like these days, behind the ovations and hurrahs. "It never gets easier. It's a struggle when you're trying to get to the top. and with me it wasn't overnight. It was step by step, all the way. And when you get up there, you've got to work even harder to maintain the position. There's always someone else trying to knock you over. I don't regret that part of it. There's always room for improvement in a man. Competition keeps a man from getting lazy."
Ray has refused to compromise the inner feeling about what his music should be. Recently, a movie company gave him a song and offered him $15,000 to record it on a movie track. Ray took the song home —and, the next day, returned the music with his apologies. "I'll tell you what happened. I worked on that song all night. I tried it every different way—as blues, a tango, a waltz, everything—but I couldn't get any feeling out of it. And, believe me, it didn't make me happy to turn down fifteen grand! I'm just not in the position to turn down that kind of money."
He has a reputation for demanding the best from his band—in fact, of being tough; though his sidemen, without exception, are loyal. Yet, away from the bandstand, he is soft-spoken. At no time during our interview was there the slightest trace of self-pity when he spoke of handicaps and hardships. Evident was the dignity instilled by his mother . . . pride in music . . . purposeful integrity. There was no sign of weakness in the man.
TV Radio Mirror
Every kid, at eighteen, cherishes a secret ambition to do something terrific—something which instantaneously will assure his place in the elusive adult world. Should he voice that dream, however, he swiftly hears the sound advice: "Don't fool yourself. There's no such thing as overnight success. Things don't happen that way." . . . And yet—just often enough to keep the dream alive—they do.
Three years ago, Elvis Aaron Presley, newly graduated from high school, jingling in his jeans money which he had earned on the assembly line in an airplane factory, walked into the Sun Record Company in Memphis Tennessee, paid his fee and sang a song. "I didn't even know it was a record company," he says. "I thought it was just one of those stores you can make a record in." The platter was to be his mother's birthday present.
Today, at 21, that same Elvis Aron Presley, who has not yet had either a vocal lesson or an acting lesson, holds impressive recording, motion picture and personal appearance contracts. He also owns a dazzling wardrobe, four Cadillacs, a Messerschmid sports car and the hottest motorcycle money can buy. He shares his good fortune with his parents. He has given them a $40,000 ranch house and has persuaded his father to retire at the age of 39. He makes light of this largess by saying, "Why should he work when I can make as much in a day as he used to in a year? Besides, look at all they have done for me."
His possession of the voice and style to match the mood of teenagers, who come to a boil over rock 'n' roll, has made him the most-discussed entertainer in America today. Even those critics who turned caustic about his uninhibited gyrations in front of the TV camera must concede his remarkable accomplishment in simultaneously putting—not one—but four records on Variety's scoreboard of top talent and tunes: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "I Was the One," and "I Want You, I Need You."
While calling his style "animalistic" and dubbing him "Pelvis Presley," those same acid commentators had to acknowledge that, not since Frank Sinatra's debut, had anyone approached Presley's direct communication with an audience. One even admitted grudgingly, "Let's face it. He tops Sinatra. Everybody in show business knows that Sinatra, right from the start, had the aid of one of the best press agents. When bobbysoxers swooned in Times Square, that response was 'hypoed.' This kid hasn't even got a press agent. Sure, the publicity crew over at RCA Victor has done a good job putting out stories, but don't forget they have a lot of other artists to handle at the same time. And his managers have done fine with personal appearances—but where has he played? In the sticks. He's done nine network television shots, but he's not yet had a Broadway booking and that's where the big press coverage starts. In other words, he's just a little guy from the deep South who has set the fire all by himself. And no one ever did that before. This kid's a natural."
Although he has become a national legend, the person who appears to be least impressed by this phenomenon is Presley. He regards himself as a novice, eager to learn, to grow, to develop. Asked how he gets a hall rocking, he replies, "I don't know, but I hope it never stops."
Off stage, he would rather sit around with people his own age than garner more publicity by talking to interviewers. Some young relative or long-time friend usually travels with him and his manager, Col. Tom Parker, or Parker's associate, Tom Diskin. Elvis, in a hotel room, is like a caged tiger, restless, distracted, eager to get out where people are having fun. When a carnival or amusement park is within reach, Elvis and friends prowl the midway, often to the distress of concessionaires, who find Elvis has a deadly aim with a baseball and a way of acquiring a large number of pandas and dolls.
Neither engaged nor married, he has an eye for a pretty girl. When, during rehearsal for the Milton Berle show, he learned it was a dancer's birthday, he ordered a cake and candles and surprised her by leading cast and crew in singing, "Happy birthday, dear Millie . .
He neither drinks nor smokes, following precepts learned during childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. Born a twin, he came in for an extra measure of devotion after his brother died at birth. His father was a truck driver and, since both parents sang in the choir of the Pentacostal Assembly Of God church, Elvis joined in, too. He loved the gospel songs, strong in beat and exuberant in emotion.
When he was twelve, they moved to Memphis, where his father worked in a paint factory. Elvis, a child who had played alone in his own back yard, found it hard to make friends. In L. C. Hume High School, he was no big wheel. "The girls didn't go for me," he confesses. He went out for football and baseball but was too slight in build to make the team in either case. He appeared only twice in school entertainments.
At home, however, it was a different story. On his thirteenth birthday, his parents gave Elvis a twelve-dollar mail order guitar. While other kids swam, he sat out in the back yard picking out tunes. Some were gospel songs, 'some family ballads, some tunes he learned listening to phonograph records. When kinfolk got together, Elvis suffered none of the shyness which beset him with strangers. He sang out, as he does now, "just the way I feel."
That's the way he sang on the record for his mother—the record which changed his life. As he finished, the man at the controls stepped out of the booth and asked if he were a professional singer, or if he wanted to be.
Elvis thought this no time to speak of dreams he had cherished while strumming his guitar. He laughed it off, saying he didn't especially care. Today, he says, "Singing for a living was the farthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to see what I sounded like.
When the man took his name and address and said he would call if something suitable came up, it became a nice story to tell his mother, not anything to count on. Ambitious Elvis found a job driving a truck for an electrical contractor and studied in night school, preparing to become an electrician.
But the man didn't forget. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Record Company, called Elvis several months later. "He had a song he wanted me to sing," says Elvis. "It was a real slow-type ballad."
Phillips had a small combo back him — guitar, string bass and drums. Elvis recalls: "We worked three, four hours on that song and never did get it to perfection. Then we took a break and I started kidding around with a tune I knew—'That's All Right.' All my life I've heard stuff with a beat and I get a bang out of it. That's what we finally recorded."
Effects were far reaching. In Memphis, a disc jockey put it on the air. Elvis, afraid his friends would rib him, hid out in a movie house. But, at the station, the phone really started ringing: They had to repeat the record seven times that evening.
Elvis Presley's days as an apprentice electrician were almost over. With disc jockey Bob Neal as his manager, he "barnstormed," learning in little shows how to charge a crowd with a different sort of non-wired current. Sun, a small company, sent records to other Southern stations and, everywhere the song was heard, kids started digging it.
One person who heard it with special interest was Steve Sholes, RCA Victor's country - and - Western specialist. Another was Col. Tom Parker, booker of country-and-Western shows. Tom Diskin, Parker's associate, tells their reaction:" In Texas, touring with a show, we began hearing about this new singing sensation, Elvis Presley. We thought it was one of those local-boy-makes-good things—but every disc jockey we spoke to complained he had requests for only four records, all of them by Presley."
They also discovered Elvis drew crowds. "Fans can make requests," says Diskin, "but not until they buy records, and turn out for personal appearances, is a star hot property."
They first booked Elvis into other stars' tours as a supporting act. After five performances, they put him on a tour of his own and discovered they now needed to take precautions for his personal safety: "The kids moved in on him. They didn't mean anything malicious, but they hit him like a wave, grabbing and screaming. We had to put ropes around Elvis," says Diskin.
Steve Sholes' and Presley's paths finally crossed in Nashville, where Steve was recording a number of country-and-Western performers. Presley, who by then had made Col. Parker his manager, was on Grand Ole Opry. When, again, the kids went wild, RCA Victor entered negotiations. As the deal was signed, Elvis was given a royalty of four and one half cents on each 89-cent record. He also received $5,000 "spending money" — which he promptly plunked down for the first of his four Cadillacs.
Victor paid Sam Phillips $35,000 for Presley's recording contract, together with the "masters" he had made for Sun — a most unusual arrangement for Victor. They broke precedent again by reissuing the entire group for national distribution.
The timing was perfect. Man, mood and mass fused into an explosion. Teenagers, with rock 'n' roll's tom-tom beat in their blood, had lost one hero when Marlon Brando "graduated" into becoming a distinguished, well-behaved actor. They lost another when Jimmy Dean died so tragically. Now here was Elvis, looking like them both and throwing himself around a tune in a way not previously seen on stage. The new star was on his way.
As it chanced, RCA Victor's "perfect lady" press agent, delicate Anne Fulchino, drew the assignment to cover Presley's ensuing tour. She ticks off milestones of mounting hysteria: "In Jacksonville, they tore off his coat and belt. In Charlotte, about. 300 broke through the police line and surged on stage. In the wings, we all screamed at Elvis, 'Get off there!' He ran, but they ripped his clothes. I remember the way he said, 'They even took the tassels off my shoes.' He was like a child who had lost a toy."
By the time he reached New York, the surge even struck RCA Victor stenographers, who normally are immune, thanks to constant sight of top talent. To the astonishment of their bosses, about twenty crashed his recording session.
New York, however, held more than clamoring fans for Elvis. It was his first trip, a time when he discovered that show business in the big town differs somewhat from the southern circuit. Although able to cope with autograph hunters, the crowds in good restaurants appalled him. Rather than wait for a table, he would bolt to a side-street lunch counter for his favorite pork chops, potatoes and gravy. People staring at his ear-muff-sized-sideburns posed a problem. "You're a square if you don't wear them in the South," he explained to Anne. (To compromise, he shaved them a quarter of an inch.)
"Timing" brought a challenge on the Stage Show section of Jackie Gleason's big Saturday-night hour. "Because Elvis sings the way he feels," says Anne, "it used to take him several numbers to warm up—and just as long to calm down. I've seen him call the trio around him and sing in the wings until his tension eased off. He knew he would have no such leeway on television and he was scared. We saw him sort of square off and hit it on the first note. It was the first time he was able to turn on the fervor just when he needed it."
Because he was exhausted by the six Stage Show appearances with the Dorseys interspersed with trips south for personal appearances, everyone worried when he boarded the plane for Hollywood to take his screen test. Anne fussed: "Oh, Elvis, you'll never be able to learn your script by tomorrow morning." When they saw the film they were amazed. They couldn't believe the vital person on screen was that same weary guy.
Charlotte Clary, who directed the screen test for Paramount, supplies a close-up of what happened: "Seeing him do his rock 'n' roll bit, we all fell on our faces. But we really flipped when he did his two heavy dramatic scenes from 'The Rainmaker.'"
She especially praised his self-discipline: "He had to smoke a black cigar. Since Elvis never touched tobacco, he got greener and greener. Yet he never broke, never missed a line, did not ruin the take."
They saw his will power again in his musical number: "He didn't have his own guitar. The one our music department supplied had a broken string. He tuned it down and used it like a drum. Then the pick flew out of his fingers. He went right on. The string cut deep, and blood dripped, but he never stopped."
Elvis's only comment on the test was: "I guess it was all right." He holds to his caution in revealing his deepest dreams, but his intimates know he would rather be an actor—a good actor—than anything else in the world. "It's an obsession with him," says Tom Diskin.
His ability to grow and develop is his best asset. If, as record sales now indicate, the rock 'n' roll cacophony is moving into a slower, more melodious form, Elvis Presley is not likely to fall with the fad. His last session at RCA Victor was a rugged four and a half hours—twenty-four takes. To make the finished platter, they spliced numbers 17 and 24. The trouble was, Presley didn't sound like Presley. His low notes were full and round. Said the Victor people, "The guy is really learning to sing. He'll move on into the popular music field. This fellow's got a big future."
The teenagers want Elvis Presley today. Experienced prophets in the field are predicting that everyone will want him tomorrow!
TV Radio Mirror
Joshua captured Jericho with music. Tommy Smalls has done likewise to New York. Five years ago, this Georgian marched north to Gotham and settled behind a turntable and a WWRL microphone. It was historic. . . . First off, the dynamic invader acquired the title of "Dr. Jive, the medical hipster." He prescribed rock 'n' roll on The Dr. Jive Show, heard Monday through Saturday from 3:05 to 5:30 P.M.—emanating from WWRL's Woodside studios—and weekdays from 10:30 to midnight and Saturday from 10 to midnight —emanating from Small's Paradise, an uptown landmark which Tommy also acquired. . . . Tommy piloted the Dr. Jive moniker to national fame and a 100,000 fan club following. Then Dr. Jive began to acquire other titles. Some people called him "father" of rock 'n' roll. Others said he was "king." Thousands elected him Honorary Mayor of Harlem, the first disc jockey to be so honored. It was all, in the language of rock 'n' roll, "very dap." And it all confirmed some of Tommy's pet theories. . . . This peppery twentyseven-year old has been spinning rock 'n' roll, under the name of rhythm and blues, since 1946, when he first went on the air down South. At that time, he grins, he was "a crusading newspaperman." One of his crusades was to get the local radio station to hire a negro. When the prospective announcer had to leave for the Navy, Tommy substituted and found himself a new career—and a new crusade. . . . "No form of music today expresses itself like rock 'n' roll," he says. It doesn't, Tommy insists, only appeal to teenagers. His in-person revues at the Brooklyn Paramount and Apollo Theaters are crowded with older folks, who wait in line just as long as the youngsters. And, in answer to those who associate rock 'n' roll with delinquency, Tommy says: "I want to tell you something. A teenager can't stick up a store or be a delinquent when he's listening to music or rising early in the morning to stand in line all day to attend a show. When I was growing up, it was the big band era. Now it's rock 'n' roll. Every parental generation has listened to the music the youngsters dig and said it was bad for them. But what was bad for the parents when they were young? It's the music that today is called 'standards,' the music we now accept." . . . Tommy spends much of his free time combating delinquency—working with PAL, with community centers, giving record hops. Tommy Smalls is still crusading. And, while music can't cure all that ails the world, Dr. Jive thinks rock 'n' roll is mighty potent medicine.
TV Radio Mirror
JOHNNY CASH: THE APOSTLE OF THE UPROOTED
Johnny Cash has Big River blues in his voice . . . and the sound of the prairie wind. On his guitar, he plays "an old standard country beat with the rhythm accented and intensified." But, in this, his listeners find the drive of America on the go ... to work, to war, to love—and, sometimes, just to go. His song titles, too, carry the theme: "I Walk the Line," "There You Go," "Next in Line," "Train of Love," "So Doggone Lonesome," "Don't Make Me Go." Intense, talented Johnny has a right to be the apostle of the uprooted.
Kingsland, Arkansas, was grim, heartbreaking country when Johnny was born February 26, 1932. With the aid of a rehabilitation program, the family moved to forty acres near Dyess. They found no fortune, but they always sang. At 18, he enlisted in the Air Force and met his girl "sixteen nights before I was sent to Germany for three years." Upon his return, they were married. In Memphis, Johnny tried to sell home appliances. He was "doing very bad" when he went over to Sun Records, around the corner from Beale Street, to ask Sam Phillips (the man who discovered Elvis Presley) for an audition. Sam, unimpressed by Johnny's hymn singing, suggested he try writing his own songs—he had had some poems published in Stars and Stripes. Johnny produced "Cry, Cry, Cry," and "Hey, Porter." His friends, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, backed him on guitar and bass. Today, the three are in demand for TV and personal appearances. A song evolves by lonely stages for Johnny Out on the road with a show, he gets homesick. Scraps of words and bits of music "come into my head. Then, when I get home, I fish maybe forty, fifty scraps of paper—my notes—out of my pockets and go to work. Then maybe I get a tune."
Many a young hopeful follows the same song-writing formula. Touring rock 'n' roll and hillbilly shows give the boys a chance to try out their tunes before an audience of their own age. If a little studio then cuts a few discs and the tune takes off, both singer and studio are on their way to a fortune. That's the individual side of it—startling, exciting, life-changing for the lucky ones. The collective effect is overpowering. About 150 new recordings—300 songs —are being released each week. If the kids like the tune, it's made, whatever its label. Trade publications such as Variety, Billboard and The Cash Box call it an unprecedented "grass-roots movement," a musical revolution in which the kid next door has almost as much chance for a hit as the professional tunesmith or big-name singer. The field's wide open. Anyone can win —if he has the talent and personality that speak to America's teenagers in rhythms which pulse with their own heartbeat.
TV Radio Mirror
"In the winter season I had numerous calls to play on the violin. Wherever the young people assembled to dance, I was almost invariably there. Throughout the surrounding villages my fiddle was notorious. Anne, also, during her long residence at the Eagle Tavern, had become somewhat famous as a cook. During court weeks, and on public occasions, she was employed at high wages in the kitchen at Sherrill's Coffee House.
We always returned home from the performance of these services with money in our pockets; so that, with fiddling, cooking, and farming, we soon found ourselves in the possession of abundance, and, in fact leading a happy and prosperous life. Well, indeed, would it have been for us had we remained on the farm at Kingsbury; but the time came when the next step was to be taken towards the cruel destiny that awaited me."
-- Solomon Northup, "Twelve Years a Slave" (1853).
Right click here to download the book for free (PDF).
"Yahoo! Cool Pick Of The Week." Yahoo.com 1997
"Of all the websites on the Web we find yours to be the most informative and entertaining." IrelandOnline.com 1997
"The Web's Best Sites." Britannica.com 2000