ST. PETERSBURG — The City of St. Petersburg plans to declare Feb. 15 “Ray Charles Day,” with a proclamation and a musical evening at The Studio@620. A group of presenters and local musicians will showcase the legacy of Ray Charles, whose first recorded song in 1950 was “The St. Pete Florida Blues.”
While that song, also called “I Met My Baby There,” is no secret–you can find at least three versions on YouTube–it has been under-appreciated as a musical icon of the city until now.
“It may be the happiest slow blues song ever recorded,” said Roy Peter Clark, a writing teacher at the Poynter Institute, who has spent two years leading this effort. “He meets the girl of his dreams, right here in St. Pete, Florida.”
Actually, he met the girl while he was still a teenager, living and working in Tampa. But when it came time to write the song, it sounded better with the name “St. Pete.”
“Back then,” said Clark, “Tampa may have gotten the airport, the university and the football stadium, but we got the song.”
Although Ray Charles Robinson was born in Georgia and is associated with that state because of his classic rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” he was raised in the little north Florida town of Greenville. His formative years were difficult. The family was poor. His older brother drowned. Ray lost his vision.
He attended the St. Augustine School for the Blind, where he developed his musical skills. In his teenage years, he lived and worked across the state with gigs in Jacksonville, Orlando and then Tampa. There he was known as R.C. Robinson.
Into the 1950s and 60s, Ray Charles became one of America’s most versatile performers, a singer, musician, composer, bandleader and arranger. Over time he became master of countless musical genres: gospel, jazz, rock, country, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, soul. His version of “America the Beautiful” has been applauded as our second National Anthem.
Over a half century, Ray Charles often returned to Florida with many visits to St. Pete, including performances at the Manhattan Casino, a venue for black performers in the days of segregation, but also at the Bayfront Center and at an outdoor concert at Campbell Park.
“For all these reasons,” reads the proclamation, “we declare Ray Charles as an Adopted Son of St. Petersburg Florida, and his song an official song of the city.”
Clark sees this, not as an end, but as a launch point of creativity for the city. “We are urging the celebration of Ray’s life and work in images, texts and music, on murals and statues, in museums, and in musical performances and festivals in his name and ours.”
Speakers and performers will include author John Capouya, Alex Harris and His Band, The Scheiber Family, J.J. Pattishall, Eric Deggans, Lillian Dunlap, Paul Wilborn, with a special guest appearance by soul artist Latimore.
Mark your calendars for St. Pete Celebrates the Florida Legacy of “The Genius” Ray Charles Friday, Feb. 15 @ 7 p.m. at The Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S. Tickets start at $10. For more information, please call 727-895-6620.