Ray Charles And The Florida Playboys, A Short Adventure
Ray Charles loved to reminisce about his earliest endeavors in country music. Shortly after his seventreenth birthday, in 1947, he landed a gig with the Florida Playboys. In Michael Lydon’s biography, Ray Charles – Man And Music, the story is that “[o]ne audition convinced the Playboys that RC could play country music with a genuine flavor, and they hired him, no questions asked about race. For several months he gigged with the band, playing current country hits like Kentucky Waltz in white honky-tonks in and around Tampa, learning to yodel, and singing Waiting For You as his featured number. […]. RC’s interlude with the Playboys, though brief, planted a seed in Ray Charles’ music that would lie dormant for a decade before sprouting. Yet this important event has left barely a trace in any but Charles’ own memory. Gossie McKee and Manzy Harris […] nor Ray remembered any names. […]. The histories of some bands, however, are written on the wind, and the other Playboys may have forgotten the nights with RC […].”
Up until recently, all efforts to corroborate Ray’s vague memories with contemporary sources have failed (including mine, miserably). But in 2013 Marshal Rowland, a former steel guitar player and an owner of radio stations in Georgia and Florida, published his memoirs, Fertilizer ‘tween my toes, a true story about a country boy finding his success and happiness in country music and owning radio stations.*
Rowland remembers how he was a fan of “Tiny Grier and the Florida Playboys on the radio on a station [WJHP] out of Jacksonville. […] They came on [live] twelve thirty every day”. After finishing highschool, he decided to contact Grier. “The band had hired a young black fellow named Ray Charles […]. He had tried out and played with them for a few days and then abruptly left. About the same time he left, two others, PeeWee Jenkins and Cliff Austin, also left. [Grier] told me he needed musicians to keep his band going and the radio program alive and well.”
“A few days” is a better match with Ray’s early career timeline than the “several months”-reconstruction by Lydon. Obviously, his adventures with the Playboys were limited to a part of October 1947.
In this interview Ray shared a few more memories.
The daily Playboys radio show on Jacksonville’s WJHP is a new detail in Brother Ray’s Playboys legend. It’s highly probable that Ray participated in at least a few of these broadcasts.
Rowland described the show’s format as it was during his membership of the band: “In a typical thirty-minute program, usually the leader Sleepy Gibbs would sing two or three songs and Marvin Phillips, Tiny Griers son-in-law, would also sing two or three songs. The steel-guitar player and the fiddle player, Luther Moore, would each play one or two numbers […]”.
*Many thanks to Joël Dufour for sharing this information.