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Pauline Lerner

June 13, 2004 at 7:40 AM

On Thursday afternoon, I read that Ray Charles had died at age 73. What a great man and great spirit! I read about his life and career and learned new and impressive things. He was certainly acquainted with sorrow. He was born into a poor African American family in the South during the Depression. When he was a small child, he saw his younger brother drown in the metal washtub that his mother used for laundry. By the age of seven he became blind from some undiagnosed and untreated illness, probably a complication of poverty. His mother taught him not to wallow in self pity but rather to learn how to do things and keep doing them. He went off to a school for blind and deaf children, where he learned to read and write music in Braille and to play several instruments. He dropped out of school when both his parents died, when he was just fifteen. As an adult, he became addicted to heroin and then dropped it “cold turkey.”

Ray Charles said some interesting things about himself. When he wrote music, he didn’t need to write it down or play it on a keyboard as he composed it because he could hear it perfectly in his head. He attributed this ability to his experience reading and writing music in Braille, but other reasons are possible. After all, Beethoven heard the music he wrote when he was completely deaf. Ray Charles also said that he was born with music in him and it just had to come out. He said that it was just as much a part of him as his blood.

A reflection of Ray Charles’s greatness as a musician is his wide appeal. Just after I read about his passing, I had to talk about it, so I went to talk to a young woman who works in my office to support herself while she attends college as a music major. She is a young African American woman who is studying opera. When I broke the news to her, she was so upset. We talked with another woman, who plays French horn, about our favorite Ray Charles songs and how wonderful he was. I downloaded and printed a picture of Ray Charles playing and singing “America the Beautiful” in the rain, with a large American flag behind him, at the opening of a World Series game. The game was rained out, but he certainly wasn’t. Before going home, I taped the picture to the door of my office and annotated it with the names of some of my favorites among his songs. When I went home that night, I spoke to my students about him. One of them, a young Japanese woman who came to the U.S. to pursue her career in biomedical research, told me that she had heard him perform in Japan. I was so impressed! She had loved him as I did. I told her that music, like science, is an international language. At work the next day, I spoke with a scientist who emigrated to this country from India. He, too, loved Ray Charles, and glowed as we spoke about him. I told him, too, that music and science are international languages, and he agreed warmly.

My mother used to tell a story which, like many good stories, was probably apocryphal. She grew up in a tenement in New York City. She said that there was an old black peddler with blue eyes who roamed the streets of that neighborhood singing, “Am I Blue?”

It was ironic that former President Reagan had died a few days earlier and was being widely honored and eulogized, while Ray Charles’s passing had much less publicity. In my mind, the reverse should have been true. Reagan did so much harm to so many people for so long, and Ray Charles did so much good for so many of us.

It Had To Be You….Am I Blue….I Can’t Stop Loving You…Hit the Road Jack…


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