Against All Odds: Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder

Ray Charles Essay
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Ray Charles. Hugo van Gelderen / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder

In this essay, I would like to get back to the themes of music and inspiring personalities. The two musicians I will be writing about here can easily be regarded as the very definition of inspiring personalities. They are truly the epitome, the prime examples, of what human beings can achieve in spite of all the odds stacked against them.

These two musicians are the great Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, two legendary and pioneering figures in the world of music. In the contemporary world, there is hardly anyone who has not heard of them or their music. They are iconic. They are both regarded as two of the most influential musicians of all time and rightly so.

But there is another obvious factor that is common between them, and that factor is one of the reasons why I have chosen them as subjects for this essay. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder were both blind. Charles, unfortunately, passed away in 2004 at the age of 73, and Wonder still continues to influence the world through his music.

In short, they both spent their entire music careers with the major disadvantage of being blind. Of course, they clearly did not think of it as a disadvantage like most of us would. In fact, it was the very opposite. What could have possibly been their greatest limitation was exactly what made them so great. They turned their obvious limitation into their greatest advantage.

Let us now take a deeper look at what I mean. Let us dive into their past so that we can get a better sense of what we can all achieve in spite of all the odds against us and all the obstacles in our paths. All we need is some will and some determination to just keep going and never give up.

Since Ray Charles came on the scene before Stevie Wonder, allow me to first talk about him.

Ray Charles was born on 23rd September 1930 in Albany, Georgia, in quite a scandalous manner. His mother, Aretha, was 15 years old when she became pregnant with him. The father was a certain Bailey Robinson (a co-worker of Aretha’s father), who had, along with his wife, informally adopted Aretha a few years earlier after Aretha’s father had sent her to live with Bailey after the death of Aretha’s mother.

Needless to say, the circumstances they found themselves in caused much scandal in Greenville, where they lived. Aretha left Greenville and went to Albany to stay with her family during her pregnancy. It was here in Albany that Charles was born. After his birth, Aretha returned to Greenville with her infant son.

In the meanwhile, Bailey and his wife had lost their son. When Aretha returned with little Charles, Bailey’s wife decided to help her raise him. But things soon turned worse. Bailey abandoned the family and left Greenville for some other town where he married another woman.

Clearly, Charles’ childhood did not have an auspicious start, and difficult times would continue. Aretha, who had a second son, George, by the time Charles was 1 year old, worked hard and was often ill. Charles would later recall that his mother’s perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride, in spite of her constant poor health and adversity, served as guiding lights in his life.

Charles’ interest in music began when at the age of 3 he heard a certain Wylie Pitman play the boogie-woogie on an old upright piano at Pitman’s cafe, where, at times, Aretha lived with her children during financially difficult periods. It was Pitman who began teaching young Charles to play the piano.

As tough as their life seemed already, it would get worse. Charles’ younger brother George would accidentally drown in a laundry tub at the age of 4. And by the age of 5, Charles had begun to lose his sight (most probably due to glaucoma), leaving him blind by the age of 7.

In this state of distress and darkness, Aretha managed to enroll Charles at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine in 1937. Even though Charles was reluctant to join the school, it would turn out to be a blessing.

At the school, Charles got the opportunity to properly explore his musical interests. He was taught to play the classical works of composers like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven on the piano. He would also learn how to use braille music, a system invented by French educator and inventor Louis Braille, which allows music to be notated using braille cells so that music could be read by visually impaired musicians.

In 1945, when Ray Charles was 14 years old, his mother passed away, leaving him devastated. This was the second tragedy of his life after the death of his brother. After Aretha’s death, Charles left school for good and moved to Jacksonville to live with a friend of his mother’s.

In Jacksonville, he began trying to make it as a musician. But more on that later. Allow me to change the subject to Stevie Wonder for a while now.

Stevie Wonder. Nijs, Jac. de / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stevie Wonder, whose actual name was Stevland Hardaway Judkins, was born on 13th May 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, to Calvin Judkins and Lula Mae Hardaway. He was a premature child, born 6 weeks early, which resulted in retinopathy of prematurity, a condition in which the growth of the eyes is aborted, causing the retinas to detach and leaving him blind.

This disease of the eye affects prematurely born babies that have received neonatal intensive care in which oxygen therapy is used due to the premature development of the lungs.

When Stevie was barely 4 years old, his mother divorced his father and moved to Detroit along with her three children. It was here in Detroit that Stevie came into contact with music while singing in the church choir.

Stevie would soon come to be known as a musical prodigy. He learned to play multiple instruments like the piano, harmonica, and even drums at a very young age and also began singing at dances and at street corners along with his friend.

Stevie’s undeniable musical talents were discovered when he was only 11 years old. In 1961, aged 11, he sang a composition of his called Lonely Boy to Ronnie White of the R&B vocal group The Miracles. White was so impressed that he took Stevie, along with his mother, to an audition at Motown, where founder Berry Gordy immediately signed him to Motown’s Tamla label. He was given the stage name Little Stevie Wonder.

Being only 11 years old, they came up with a deal in which the royalties of his records would be held in a trust until he was 21 years old, while he and his mother would receive a weekly stipend for their expenses. They also agreed to provide him with a private tutor when he was on tour.

By this account, Stevie Wonder had a relatively quick start to his music career when compared to Ray Charles, whose music career was still somewhat far away in the future when he moved to Jacksonville at the age of 14.

Upon arriving in Jacksonville, Ray Charles began playing piano for various bands at the Ritz Theater in LaVilla for $4 a night. He did this for more than a year. But finding regular work in Jacksonville was hard and difficult. He even joined a local union of musicians hoping that it would help him to find more work.

Since Charles did not have a piano of his own, he practiced on the union hall’s piano, often learning new licks by copying that of the other players he heard.

But due to the lack of opportunities in Jacksonville, Charles moved to Orlando two years later, at the age of 16. He struggled in Orlando, living in poverty and sometimes going without food for days. He even auditioned to play piano for the R&B bandleader Lucky Millinder but was rejected.

Fed up with his circumstances in Orlando, Charles moved to Tampa. Upon arriving there, he got a gig playing piano for Charles Brantley’s Honey Drippers.

Ray Charles struggled in Tampa for almost a year, playing piano in the bands of other bandleaders. But he wanted something different now. Instead of playing in someone else’s band, he wanted to form his very own band.

And so, once again, Charles decided to move. He left Florida for Seattle in the north, knowing that the biggest radio hits of the time came from the cities in the north. This move would prove to be a turning point in his life.

In Seattle, he met bandleader and record producer Robert Blackwell, who became his mentor. Through Blackwell, he met a young 15-year-old boy named Quincy Jones, who would go on to become one of the most influential and successful record producers in history.

Ray Charles soon formed a trio called the McSon trio, along with his friend Gossie Mckee, who played guitar, and Milton Garrett, who played bass. Charles, of course, played the piano. The trio managed to get a gig at the Rocking Chair Club, where they were allowed to perform from 1 am to 5 am.

The following year, in 1949, the band recorded the single Confession Blues, with Charles on piano and vocals. The song became a national hit and climbed to number second on the Billboard R&B Chart.

Things slowly began working out for Charles now. His first single was a hit, he had a steady gig at the Rocking Chair, and he had also begun receiving offers for arranging songs for other artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cole Porter.

Charles moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and got the opportunity to go on tour with blues musician Lowell Fulson, acting as his musical director. The same year, he was signed to Swing Time Records, where he recorded two more R&B hits. Unfortunately, the label soon shut down.

But fortunately for Charles, a performance of his in Miami had impressed producer Henry Stone, who recommended him to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun quickly signed Charles to Atlantic, thereby beginning a fruitful and iconic relationship that would result in several classic recordings.

Charles would also go on to produce Guitar Slim‘s No. 1 hit The Things That I Used to Do.

Meanwhile, somewhere 10 years into the future, Stevie Wonder began and finished recording his second album, Tribute to Uncle Ray, at the age of 11, which consisted of covers of Ray Charles songs. By then Charles was the most popular African-American musician in the country. The idea of the album was to associate Stevie with Charles.

But like his first album, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, it was not successful. His singles too failed to find much success. But things soon changed for the good. In late 1962, Stevie, aged 12, joined the Motortown Revue (a package concert tour of Motown artists) and toured the famous Chitlin’ Circuit of theaters where African-American artists and performers were accepted and supported.

Stevie’s performance on the circuit would finally gain him the recognition he deserved. His 20-minute performance at the Regal Theater in Chicago was recorded and released in May 1963 as an album titled Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius.

The song Fingertips from the album became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, making Stevie the youngest artist ever to top the chart, at the age of 13. It was also No. 1 on the R&B chart. But success did not last for long. His subsequent recordings failed to garner much success and Motown executives even considered canceling his contract.

Producer and songwriter Sylvia Moy, who had worked closely with Stevie, convinced Berry Gordy to give Stevie another chance before dropping him. They removed the word Little from his stage name and made it just Stevie Wonder. Together, Stevie and Moy wrote and produced the hit single Uptight (Everything’s Alright).

The hit single served as a catalyst for Stevie’s fledgling career and he went on to have several hits during the mid-1960s. He also began contributing to Motown’s songwriting department, arranging and composing songs for himself and for other musicians on the label. He co-wrote and co-produced several hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as I Was to Love Her and My Cherie Amour. His growing success led him to be invited to perform at music festivals as well.

Around 1952, Ray Charles’ career was just beginning to flourish. After signing on to Atlantic Records, Charles began having regular hits to his name, such as Mess Around, Don’t You Know, It Should’ve Been Me, etc. In 1954, I’ve Got a Woman was released, becoming a huge hit and one of his most celebrated songs to date. Charles’ music became famous for its combination of jazz, blues, and gospel.

By the late 1950s, Ray Charles had become one of the foremost African-American performers in the country, headlining major venues like the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. He was invited to perform at and headline music festivals such as the New Port Jazz Festival, where his first live album was recorded in 1958.

Soon enough, Charles finally got what he had always wanted, a band of his own. He hired the female singing group the Cookies (later renamed the Raelettes) for recordings and tours.

After his contract with Atlantic expired in 1959, Ray Charles received record deals from several big labels. He chose not to renew his contract with Atlantic and instead signed on with ABC-Paramount, where he received a contract that was very generous and liberal compared to that of any other artist of the time. Apart from higher royalty rates, he was also given the right to eventually own his master tapes, a rare occurrence back then and maybe even now. Charles had managed to get one of the most lucrative deals of the time.

With Paramount, Charles would go on to achieve greater national acclaim and be awarded several Grammy Awards with hits like Georgia on My Mind, Hit the Road Jack, I Can’t Stop Loving You, etc. In 1962, he formed a record label called Tangerine, which was promoted and distributed by Paramount, and would have several more hits.

Ray Charles would go on to have a legendary career with its fair share of ups and downs, leaving a great influential legacy behind. He would go on to win 17 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and several other awards and medals. He would also be inducted into several Hall of Fames and Walk of Fames.

Stevie Wonder, on the other hand, would go on to have a similarly groundbreaking and highly successful career. In 1971, Stevie, aged 21, allowed his contract with Motown to expire and recorded two albums independently before signing an unprecedented contract with Motown that gave him higher royalty rates and more creative freedom and autonomy to produce his music.

Stevie would go on to create some groundbreaking albums that are now regarded as some of the greatest albums of all time, thereby making him one of the most acclaimed and influential artists in history. He would also create some of the most iconic hits in music such as I Just Called to Say I Loved You, Superstition, Isn’t She Lovely, Part-Time Lover, etc.

He would win 25 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, several other awards, and medals, and be inducted into the Walk of Fames and Hall of Fames and all that stuff.

Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder have achieved immortality through their music and legacy. They are considered two of the most iconic and influential musicians of all time. They were pioneers and were an inspiration to musicians who came after them. They led the way and laid down the path for others to walk upon and follow.

They both had a lot in common aside from the fact that they were both blind. It is the struggle they faced in their lives that I wanted to highlight in this essay. It is the tough and bleak circumstances in which they were born and raised that I wished to lay down in this essay.

By no means did they have an easy path to success. If anything, it would seem to one that their blindness and other circumstances such as poverty and broken families certainly made it a lot more difficult for them to achieve what they ended up achieving. It made their journey tougher but it is also what made them great I believe.

The lives of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder are examples to anyone out there who wishes to achieve something meaningful and fulfilling in life. There are no excuses. If they could do it, so could we all.