Ray Charles' Bell Auditorium Performance (The True Story)
History can distort any narrative, but the ultra-iconic are especially susceptible to being misrepresented. Take, for instance, a 2004 biopic on the musician Ray Charles. This film depicts one of the most famous incidents at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia, which is situated three blocks from the original Route 1. One of the movie’s most famous scenes shows throngs of protesting students and a lifetime ban on Ray Charles from performing in his home state, after he refused to play a segregated concert at Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. The real story is more nuanced, as is Ray Charles’ connection to Route 1. Here’s the real scoop on what really happened that famous day at the Bell Auditorium, and another less-known, but just as formative, experience that Charles had along this famous highway.
The Bell Auditorium Incident
The Bell Auditorium was built in the spring of 1940, and commemorated its opening with a blowout ceremony that featured varied musical performances: a 45-voice a cappella group, a full band performance, and two hymns led by African American choirs. But this culturally-inclusive bill neglected to reflect the two different realities experienced by attendees. Main floor seating was for white patrons; African Americans were confined to the balcony. Segregation was a de-facto arrangement at that time—one that one of its most famous performers, Ray Charles, would prove instrumental in changing.
At that time, however, the performer was a ten-year boy at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind on Route 1 in Saint Augustine, Florida, reckoning with the realities of his race and blindness. Charles had arrived at the school in 1937. Glaucoma had begun impairing his vision when he was four or five, and by the time Charles turned seven, he was essentially blind. His parents, who lived in Greenville, Florida, sent him to the nearby school, which was one of the only institutions that accepted African Americans. That being said, it operated within strict gender and race lines; namely that Black students receive a lower quality education, enabled by the cast-offs of their white counterparts. Charles would learn to read braille on heavily used second-hand books, eat leftover meals from chipped tableware, and rely upon worn-down furniture to form his environmental awareness. As a Black student, Charles also had the extra responsibility of performing chores to support the school: his particular task was to sew bands onto straw brooms.
Charles seemed acutely aware of the divisions between him and the rest of the world, as well as his ability to stand up against norms. The same year he had his eye removed due to intense pain, he learned to read braille music. He also protested the traditional pairing of blind African Americans with the guitar, and opted to learn piano instead. Charles also refused to use a cane, saying when he grew older, “There were three things I never wanted to own when I was a kid: a dog, a cane, and a guitar. In my brain, they each meant blindness and helplessness.”
Charles’ Canceled Performance at the Bell Auditorium
Charles left the school in 1945. He spent the next five years gigging his way around Florida, before attracting the music industry’s attention and getting signed. By the time that Charles played the Bell Auditorium in March of 1961, he was a mainstream success. The venue, meanwhile, had continued hosting events that would become legendary, such as those put on by evangelical preacher Billy Graham the debut of singer Brenda Lee. But Ray Charles had the distinction of being a prolific African American entertainer, who was also a public supporter of the Civil Rights movements.
When students at Augusta’s Paine College heard that Charles was to play at the segregated Bell Auditorium, it was too late to cancel the booking. Instead, they sent a telegram to Charles’ hotel room. The message filled him in on the segregated seating, and asked him not to play as an act of protest. Charles agreed and canceled his performance: an action that was considered a breach of contract and resulted in the promoter suing him for a $757 fine. There were, however, no protests, nor any banning of Charles from the state of Georgia. The Bell Auditorium was desegregated a year later, thanks in large part to Charles’ actions. Charles, meanwhile, played at various venues throughout Georgia after that night. His most famous performance arrived in 1979, when he performed “Georgia on My Mind” for state legislatures to commemorate it as the state’s official song.
Today, the Bell Auditorium has undertaken considerable measures to revamp its once-segregated history. It’s now a part of the “James Brown Arena:” a multi-purpose complex named after the legendary African American musician that houses an exhibit hall, as well as an arena that connects to the historic auditorium. The arena has hosted numerous shows that allow its audience to choose seats based upon audience preference, and not skin color. Charles, meanwhile, continued to play and shape history as a performer who was willing to stand up for what he believed in—expectations notwithstanding.
Elisia Guerena Dec 11, 2020 Music
Elisia Guerena Dec 11, 2020
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