In 1946, the late, great, legendary Ray Charles heard “Lucky” Millinder’s band was coming to town. Charles worked miracles to arrange an audition, and he was sure this was his chance to get noticed–if he could connect and play with Millinder, that would almost guarantee a ticket to the big time.
When his opportunity came, the young Ray played the piano and sang for all he was worth. Being blind, Ray couldn’t see Millinder’s reaction to his performance, so when he was finished, Charles waited patiently for his response. Finally he heard the band leader sigh and say, “Ain’t good enough, kid.” Charles went back to his room defeated and in tears.
Ray’s own words (with a slight edit):
“Lucky Millinder is a big name in the music business in 1946. And one day he and his big band happen to blow into Orlando for a gig. Some cat suggests that I go over and audition for him. Baby, I’m ready. I’ve been listening to Lucky for years, and I like his sound. His band’s got a real snap. I also like Sister Rosetta Tharpe who’s singing with him back then. “That’s All,” I remember, is a smash hit. I decide to give it a shot… It’s my first attempt to go with a national outfit, and I’m pretty confident… After all, everyone’s been telling me how good I am… I go over to the club. And there he is, just sitting in a chair and waiting for me to play. So I do, I sing a couple of songs, I play a couple of tunes. I give it all I got. And when I’m through, I just sit there, waiting for the verdict. Lucky is straight with me; he doesn’t mince words: “Ain’t good enough, kid.” “W-w-w-what?” I stammer. “You heard me. You don’t got what it takes.” No one… had ever said that to me before. And for a self-assured little mother#$%^ like me, that was a very heavy blow. I just wasn’t prepared for out-and-out cold rejection… I met Lucky again years later, after I had done some things on my own, and talked about what had happened. He explained his feelings to me in a way which made sense, particularly considering the times.” (David Ritz and Ray Charles, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story (New York, 2003), p. 90-92.)
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Charles later recalled. “After I got over feeling sorry for myself, I went back and started practicing so nobody would ever say that to me again.” AND–No one ever did.
I guess it goes something like this–you can claim to be surprised once; after that, you’re simply just unprepared. Charles’s preparation paid him dividends for more than half a century, and he played with some of the most talented musicians in the world–just check out the video clip.
Friends and fellow musicians said Charles preferred being called “Brother Ray.” He was often referred to as “The Genius.” Imagine if Brother Ray decided he was done–simply not good enough–after Millinder’s review–we would have never heard “Georgia on my Mind,” Ray pioneered the soul music genre during the 1950s–combining blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel. He contributed to the integration of country music, rhythm and blues, and pop music during the 1960s. Charles became one of the first black musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company.
Ray’s impact went on to ripple throughout decades in the music industry–Frank Sinatra called Ray Charles “the only true genius in show business,” but of course, Charles downplayed the notion. Billy Joel said, “This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley“.
What every became of “Lucky” Millinder? Lucky’s showmanship and musical taste made his bands successful. His group was said to have been the greatest big band to play rhythm and blues, and gave work to a number of musicians who later became influential at the dawn of the rock and roll era. He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986–so Lucky was successful by all measures, but who do we remember more–Ray or Lucky?