On a balmy fall evening, amid the hustle and bustle of South Central Los Angeles, an intimate, invitation-only crowd gathered to commemorate the 80th birthday of the man who smashed cultural, musical and racial boundaries with a contagious smile and piano. With tears, laughter, singing and dancing, the life and legacy of iconic musical genius Ray Charles was immortalized with the unveiling of The Ray Charles Memorial Library. Located on the ground floor of the historic landmark building Mr. Charles designated for his offices and recording studio, the library is a stunning reflection of the man himself: vibrant, sleek and unorthodox, it is a creative blend of modern technology and historic preservation elegantly displayed throughout six amazing galleries.
Without a single book in sight, it juxtaposes interviews with legendary musicians, such as Quincy Jones, B.B. King and Jimmy Jam on high-definition screens and a wealth of artifacts not found anywhere else in the world. In a video montage honoring Ray, Jamie Foxx, Kanye West and Mable John all share their feelings on the musical legend. Bill Cosby spoke of the memorable "Cosby Show" episode, when "Rudy" belted out "Nighttime is the Right Time," eliciting nostalgic laughter.
The exhibits trace Mr. Charles' childhood, schooling and development as a musician; breakthrough recordings, historic crossover beyond R&B to Pop and Country genres; mastery of his recording studio; managing the business and unprecedented artistic independence; recognition of 17 Grammy's, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performances for presidents and world leaders, Academy Award–winning biographical film; and lasting legacy through his foundation and timeless creative works.
One can also find a handwritten letter from Johnny Cash that discusses the release of a track they recorded together, the original Raelettes performance dresses and wigs, his chessboard with raised squares so he could feel his way through the game, his personal address book that he created in Braille and his contract with the William Morris Agency.
"He never threw anything away," said David Brokaw, president of The Brokaw Company, the publicity agency handling the event. "Which is a good thing. How do you capsulize Ray Charles?"
Though his music was honored and appreciated throughout the evening, it was the heart, passion and determination of Ray Charles that was the primary focus of the event. His philanthropic efforts and concern on behalf of disadvantaged and disenfranchised youth is the driving force behind the Library.
In the ceremony preceding the official ribbon-cutting, Valerie Ervin, president of The Ray Charles Foundation, stressed the importance of such a dynamic, interactive exhibit and spoke with humble sincerity of the profound affect Ray Charles and his long-time manager, Joe Adams (who was present for the event) had on her life:
"They taught me perseverance, hard work, integrity, and I hope [his legacy] will have the same affect on children who walk through these doors."
Bob Santelli, executive director and curator of The Grammy Museum, also spoke on the potentially transformative effect he hoped the library would have on the disenfranchised youth of Greater Los Angeles, with the ultimate goal being to "inform and inspire."
In a night filled with inspiration, the most powerful quote came from the man of the hour himself, Ramsey Jay, the master of ceremonies. In his uplifting introduction, Jay quoted Mr. Charles as saying, "I don't think any of us really KNOWS why we're here. But I think we're supposed to BELIEVE we're here for a purpose."
This library unequivocally fills a purpose. Ray Charles believed that even without sight, he was blessed with enough to be extraordinary. This library tells every child who has ever awakened hungry, alone, orphaned and/or impoverished that you are not alone. Here is a man who walked in your shoes with what most considered a disability and succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
The Ray Charles Memorial Library is an honor bestowed on a man who only wanted to give of himself. In the words of B.B. King, our "blind, black, Beethoven" illuminated the world with his presence. It is the hope of all who tirelessly devoted their time, resources and hearts to this phenomenally groundbreaking project, that any youth who experience this library will be encouraged, enlightened and empowered, then go on to shine just as brightly.
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