In the late 1940s Ray Charles Robinson was considered one of the most talented piano players in North Florida. For a blind 16-year-old, Ray was doing pretty well for himself — he had his own apartment, a steady girlfriend, and regular gigs with two local bands. Young Ray was so confident that when the nationally known band leader Lucky Millinder came through town looking for a replacement piano player, he thought the gig would be his. But after the audition, Millinder told him, ”Sorry, kid, but you’re not good enough to play in my band.” Fifty years later when Ray told me this story, he still felt the sting of those words. He recalled this as a seminal moment in his life, because he was forced to confront the fact that if he were ever to be ”good enough,” he’d have to leave Florida. He asked a friend to stretch out a string on a U.S. map and find the city that was farthest away from Tampa. Giving up his hard-won security, Ray bought a one-way Greyhound ticket to Seattle.
When Ray began his journey in the segregated South, he could only sit in the back of the bus. Black music wasn’t played on American radio. By the time of his death this year, black music had become the music of choice for many all over the world — and Ray Charles had a crucial role in putting it there. This blind, black boy who didn’t wear shoes until he was 7 definitely proved that he was ”good enough.” There will never be another Ray Charles. He was the best of what America is, and it was impossible not to be inspired by him. (Charles died of liver failure in Beverly Hills.)