It all started about two years ago when I was reading a review copy of the book Florida Soul, written by my friend John Capouya, who teaches at the University of Tampa. It’s a special book and traces the legacy of 40 musical artists who created soul music in the Sunshine State.
The first chapter is about Ray Charles.
Many people associate him with the State of Georgia because of his magical rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Georgia On My Mind.” After Ray Charles performed it in front of the Georgia State Legislature, that polarized political body embraced it as the official state song.
In fact, Ray Charles Robinson was born in Georgia but his mother moved him quickly back home to a little town in north Florida called Greenville. His rise out of poverty, the death of his brother by drowning, his blindness and his amazing ascent to artistic genius and world-wide fame are now the stuff of legend.
You can trace his growth on a Florida map: from Greenville to St. Augustine (a school for the blind where he learned music) to Jacksonville to Orlando to Tampa. There he was a teenager looking for work, living in rooming houses, blind, but getting around town on his own – without a dog, without a cane, walking the city, hopping on busses, finding his way to where musicians would work and hang out.
He played with black musicians and white musicians. He played the blues, jazz, gospel, country, standards, whatever people wanted to hear. It was about 1948 and ‘49 that he began to write his own music. He was inspired by a young woman he met in Tampa. She was perfect. He fell in love with her and was inspired to write a song about her.
Travel forward in time to November 2018. I am at the Times Festival of Reading. There I see the Mayor of St. Petersburg, Rick Kriseman. He shakes my hand. “Mr. Mayor,” I greet him. “Did you know that in 1950 Ray Charles wrote and recorded a song called ‘St. Pete Florida Blues’?”
His reaction was identical to the other hundreds of folks I have I asked over the last year: Eyes wide. Jaw dropped. And then “Whaaaat?!”
Yes, it’s true. The girl of his dreams, the sweetest girl he’d ever know, the girl whose voice made his day, the girl from Tampa turned – in the song – to a wonderful girl from St. Pete. “Down in St. Pete, Florida, I found my baby there. Hmm. St. Pete … St. Pete, Florida, I found my baby there. No one’s ever loved me like my baby, any place anywhere.”
It’s a slow blues song, not an anthem, but the happiest blues song you will ever hear, sung with the influence of one of his formative heroes Charles Brown. It has a great piano solo where Ray echoes the instrumental notes with his voice. There is also a woman’s voice in the background “Oh, Ray!” a foreshadowing of the background work of The Raelettes, who will accompany him on countless songs.
I found the song on You Tube, and so can you:
Why did Ray Charles write the song about his love in St. Pete, even though she was really in Tampa? Call it poetic license. Maybe “St. Pete” scanned better in the rhythm of the song. Maybe he thought St. Pete was a cooler spot than Tampa in 1950. Or look at it this way: Tampa got the airport. Tampa got USF. Tampa got the football team. St. Pete got the song!
In the 1950s and beyond, Ray Charles performed in St. Pete numerous times. Archivist Dave Shedden has discovered newspaper ads in the “Negro section” of the St. Petersburg Times announcing appearances at the Manhattan Casino in the Deuces section of town on 22nd Street South. He played an outdoor concert in Campbell Park. At a concert at the Bayfront Theater in 1973, the City offered a proclamation in his honor.
The City is getting ready to issue another proclamation. It will cite Ray’s many accomplishments. It will proclaim him an adopted son of St. Petersburg, and his song “St. Pete Florida Blues” as an official song.
I am delighted to announce to the Catalyst that this will occur on Friday, Feb. 15 at The Studio@620. Planned for Black History Month – but in the spirit of the history of the entire city – the event will feature readings and presentations by local writers and musical artists.
The lineup will include the phenomenal Alex Harris and his Band, the Palladium’s Paul Wilborn, the amazing Scheiber family, the versatile J.J. Pattishall, Eric Deggans of NPR and Dr. Lillian Dunlap, with a special guest appears from the soul singer Latimore, who once recorded the “St. Pete Florida Blues.”
That song may be a hidden treasure of the city. I would argue that in spite of its reputation as one of the most creative cities in America, St. Pete’s musical heritage has been under-appreciated. It’s our hope that this celebration of Ray Charles will inspire musicians and other artists young and old to find their voice, to express their soul for many years to come.
Info and tickets available here.