jessica tholmer
Updated Feb 01, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

Yesterday marked the first day of Black History Month, so I thought it would be a good time to honor one of my heroes who changed the world with his music and his message.

EINTKILF Ray Charles

1. Fame is not everything.
If you have never seen the movie Ray, or read the book Brother Ray, first of all, you’re missing out. And second of all, perhaps you don’t know much about Charles’ upbringing. It is fairly safe to say that most now-famous people probably don’t set out on their journey assuming they will find fame. Most people hope to find something along the lines of being able to express their talent / creativity / etc. to a large group of people. Charles was no exception, but growing up as a blind African-American in a largely segregated, racially intolerant era, his sheer talent and perseverance are an inspiration. The spoiler alert lesson here is that Charles did not only get massively famous, he changed the music world, and reading his words today is so humbling:

“I never wanted to be famous, I only wanted to be great.”

Well, it’s no stretch to say that he succeeded.

2. Big men do cry.
In a day and age where men were certainly not known for publicly crying, Charles shared his emotions proudly. As he described: “I know that men ain’t supposed to cry, but I think that’s wrong. Crying’s always been a way for me to get things out which are buried deep, deep down. When I sing, I often cry. Crying is feeling, and feeling is being human. Oh yes, I cry.”

I feel like there has always been a great exception for performers. Performers are expected to cry, especially because they make us cry so many times. How many times have I cried listening to Ray Charles? About a trillion times. And anyway, it’s OK for dudes to cry. Let it out, guys.

3. Dream big.

“Dreams, if they’re any good, are always a little bit crazy.”

I always tell people to dream big, and I’m not sure if I do that or not. But when a man comes from nothing and builds a legacy that lasts through the ages, you know he dreamed big.

4. Heartbreak is a bitch.
Listen to the song “Drown in My Own Tears” and tell me that isn’t the best breakup song of all-time. I DARE YOU. Even if you close your ears to the lyrics and simply focus on the way the words are coming out of his mouth, you will know exactly what I mean.

5. Stand up for your rights.
Though the original song was written in 1930, not by Charles, his version is the one that people know, and for very good reason. In March of 1979 as a symbol of Civil Rights reconciliation, Charles performed “Georgia On My Mind” before the Georgia General Assembly. The Assembly adopted it as the state song shortly afterward, in a further attempt to mend the horrors of the state’s past.

My version of ‘Georgia’ became the state song of Georgia. That was a big thing for me, man. It really touched me. Here is a state that used to lynch people like me suddenly declaring my version of a song as its state song. That is touching.”

6. Find your own voice.
Charles is often on a list of people that popularized rhythm and blues and jazz music, but there was still something different about Charles. It was not only the fact that he was a blind pianist, but there was something about the gritty, blues-soaked sound of his voice that resonated with people. He elongated his “ohs” and played with his audience and left a truly lasting impression on a crowd. Charles stood out in a sea of incredible musicians on his time, and he continues to do so today, years after his passing.

7. Be open-minded.
And in the height of blues and jazz’s popularity, Charles decided he wanted to try a country-western sound. He surprised everyone when he nailed it, proving that trying something new and being open-minded are vital for any performer. Charles’ country tunes are as incredible as his jazz music. What a multifaceted man. (That duet with Norah Jones?! Still one of my favorite things.)

8. Master your abilities.

Charles has said that his mama always told people that “He may be blind, but he ain’t stupid.” With that thought process, Charles took over the musical world. Charles was a brilliant pianist, who felt his way around the keys. His blindness never impeded his work. He lived his life without hesitation or pity, mastering everything he set his mind to.

9. Music = life.
Charles has called music “a necessity” for him, comparing it to food and water. Though I do not have a single musical bone in my body, I can agree that Charles’ music has always been a necessity for me. Hearing someone’s experience through music is something that I believe helps us all get through life, regardless of how hard it might be at the time. As a musician, Charles needed music, like he needed food and water. As a huge fan, I know exactly what he means. His words, his tunes, and his talent has been my food and water, plenty of times.

10. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Because it feels wrong to talk about Mr. Ray Charles without mentioning it, Jamie Foxx portrayed the legend so impeccably in 2004, it is hard to remember where Charles ends and where Foxx begins. Foxx won an Oscar for that role, and his speech was as beautiful as his performance.

(Images , via)