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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Ray Robinson overcame many obstacles to leave a lasting legacy

By Paul Niemann

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[May 15, 2008]  Ray C. Robinson (1930-2004) was born in Albany, Ga., during the Great Depression. You probably think you've heard of him, but like most of the men and women profiled in this column, you're not sure. Until now.

HardwareRay had what most of us would consider to be a rough life, but you would never know it by his positive outlook on life. He was born into poverty and his mother had only a fourth-grade education. He overcame two tragedies early in his life. First his younger brother died when Ray was just 5, and his mother died when he was 15. Despite all this, he went on to have a successful career as a gospel, jazz and blues musician who even did some country and pop songs. Some people credit Ray for inventing soul music.

Ray was sent away to a special school in St. Augustine, Fla., when he was a child. Time to hit the road, Jack. But this was for his own good, and he seemed to benefit from the experience, as he learned to play the piano, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and organ while he was there. But he always had Georgia on his mind.

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While he was away at school, his mother died. His father died two years later. The thing that Ray feared most, though, was the thought of losing his hearing. You'll know why in a minute.

As an adult, Ray had more challenges to overcome in his personal life. He abused heroin for 17 years, which resulted in three arrests. He was married twice and fathered 12 children by nine different women.

But he continued to create great music. In 1946, he began his professional career playing with local bands in Jacksonville, Fla. Two years later he moved to Seattle and formed a jazz and blues group known as the Maxim Trio. He also adopted the stage name of R.C. Robinson. He always claimed that he trusted people, yet he insisted on being paid in single dollar bills every time. You'll know why in a minute.

The following year, in 1949, he changed his professional name once again and released his first single. Throughout his career, Ray earned a number of important awards and honors, including:

  • The Horatio Alger Award (1995).

  • 12 Grammy awards.

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  • Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's original class (1986).

  • One of his songs was proclaimed as the state song of Georgia (1979).

  • Hollywood made a movie about his career, and Jamie Foxx won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ray in the film (2005).

  • The Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award (1994).

Why would Ray be eligible for the Helen Keller Award?

The school that he went to as a child was a school for the blind. At age 5, he began to lose his sight, and by age 7, he was completely blind. By this time, though, he had already begun to learn how to play music, so his blindness didn't hurt his ability to perform.

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When you see all those celebrities on TV wearing sunglasses indoors, they are merely following the example that Ray Robinson set more than 50 years ago, because Ray always wore sunglasses indoors. And he always had a smile on his face.

So his name still doesn't ring a bell, yet you've heard of him. His name could get confused with that of Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the greatest boxers of all time. In fact, Ray C. Robinson shortened his name when he entered show business, in order to avoid having his name confused with that of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Because Ray Charles Robinson, the musician who cranked out such hits as "Georgia on My Mind" and "Hit the Road, Jack," was none other than Ray Charles.

[By PAUL NIEMANN]

Paul Niemann is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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