Country music fans owe a great debt of gratitude to the late Ray Charles.
The Albany, Ga., native, who died June 10 at age 73, expanded country music's worldwide popularity through his unique country recordings.
His 1962 landmark album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, startled country and noncountry fans alike and birthed hit singles including Born To Lose, You Don't Know Me, Worried Mind and I Can't Stop Loving You.
Mr. Charles released another landmark country-influenced album, Friendship, 20 years later. It featured several duet country hits, including We Didn't See a Thing, with George Jones; Seven Spanish Angels, with Willie Nelson; and Two Cats Like Us, with Hank Williams Jr.
And yet he told me in 1973 in a room at the old Holiday Inn on Gordon Highway, "I'm not a Charley Pride, and I'm not a country singer. I just like to take country songs and sing them my way."
He came by country music honestly, faithfully listening to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast over Nashville's WSM-AM radio station.
"When I was 7 or 8 years old, I used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio every Saturday night," he said. "I wouldn't miss it for the world - just like I wouldn't miss The Shadow. I remember loving to hear all of those people like Grandpa Jones, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl. I thought she was so funny."
And thinking about that, he added in a soft voice, "Any kind of music you like becomes a part of you, leaving a scar on you, or rather a beauty mark. That's exactly what it is - a beauty mark."
Ray Charles Robinson (his full name) first left his mark on Augusta on Oct. 15, 1957, in Bell Auditorium when "Ray Charles & His Orchestra" appeared with Micky & Sylvia, The Del Vikings, The Moonglows, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Bo Diddley and a bunch of others for what was billed as a "fantabulous rock & roll show."
White spectators were seated in the Music Hall section (then on the rear side of the Bell Auditorium stage) while black patrons were seated in the main auditorium. Admission was $1.50 in advance or $2 at the door.
Mr. Charles already had scored hit singles with I've Got A Woman and Hallelujah I Love Her So. But he still was two years shy of his 1959 breakthrough, What'd I Say.
On March 15, 1961, Mr. Charles was due to perform for a dance in Bell Auditorium. He had hit big with What'd I Say, Georgia On My Mind and Ruby since his previous Augusta show.
But on the day of the show he received a telegram from students of Paine College saying that the larger auditorium dance floor would be restricted to whites while blacks had to sit in the Music Hall.
That prompted Mr. Charles to cancel the show. He was sued by the promoter and was fined $757 in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta on June 14, 1962.
This incident reportedly is being depicted in a movie about Mr. Charles that has been filmed but has not been released.
Mr. Charles was back in Bell Auditorium the next year with his backup group the Raelets on Oct. 23, 1963. There was no mention in the advertisement about any segregated seating.
DON RHODES HAS BEEN WRITING ABOUT COUNTRY MUSIC FOR 33 YEARS. HE CAN BE REACHED AT (706) 823-3214 OR DON.RHODES@MORRIS.COM.
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