By the time of his passing in 2004 at age 73, musician Ray Charles had ascended to legendary status within American pop culture, having overcome his blindness to become one of the country’s earliest pioneering music stars.
But before he hit it big on the national circuit, Charles got his start learning and playing music here in Northeast Florida.
Born in Albany, GA, Ray Charles Robinson and his mother moved back to the small North Florida town of Greenville, FL, shortly after his birth. But when Ray started losing his vision, his mother sought out a town with a school that would be able to accommodate him – both his blindness, and the fact that he was a black child in the days of segregation.
They moved to St. Augustine when Ray was seven – and, by then, fully blind – so that he could attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. He attended the school for eight years, learning to play classical music and often putting on shows for other students.
Ray was expelled for acting out after the sudden death of his mother. Following his expulsion, he took up residence with a family friend in Jacksonville. He played with bands at the Ritz Theatre back in the heyday of the LaVilla nightlife scene, making a name for himself as a talented musician.
The Ritz was the hottest venue in what had come to be known as the “Harlem of the South,” but unfortunately, the Jax music scene still wasn’t quite big enough to propel Ray to stardom at the time. Within two years, he left the Bold City for Orlando, then Tampa, then eventually moved out to Seattle, WA.
There, he met a young Quincy Jones, formed a band, and dropped the “Robinson” from his name to become Ray Charles. And from there, he took off on what would become a legendary musical career spanning several decades and resulting in recognition as one of the greatest musicians of all-time.