Ray Charles' style formed in South Dallas home

David Flick
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)
The home that the late singer, Ray Charles, lived in during the early 1950's, a formative time in his career, in Dallas, Texas, February 23, 2007. (Melanie Burford/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

DALLAS - On a threadbare street in South Dallas, a relic of a musical legend sits virtually unknown and unprotected.

The gray and white bungalow at 2642 Eugene St., where Ray Charles lived, practiced and composed for three years in the mid-1950s, was for a while boarded up and uninhabited.

A few years ago, it was repainted and resold as rental property, but it still has no historic status that would ensure its survival.

Some local preservationists are only vaguely aware of its existence.

"I guess I was generally aware of it - that is to say I heard rumors that he lived there. But to my knowledge, there haven't been any moves to give it protection," said Katherine Seale, interim executive director of Preservation Dallas.

The current owners, listed on the appraisal rolls as Kura Properties LLC, could not be reached for comment. The property is appraised at $23,000.

Though there have been brief mentions of the South Dallas house in the local media over the years, interest was revived only recently. Sam Childers of the Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture researched its history for a Parade magazine contest on "America's Hidden History."

His entry received only an honorable mention. Still, Childers was excited about discovering such a little-remembered part of the city's past.

"It's a historic gem that not many people know about," Childers said.

The late Charles rented the house in 1955 at a time when he was trying to settle down with his family and develop the distinctive style that would make him famous.

"It was an important moment in his life," said David Ritz, a Los Angeles writer who with Charles co-authored the 1978 autobiographical "Brother Ray, Ray Charles' Own Story."

"Dallas at that time was very rich in R&B. He was able to replenish the roots of his artistry there."

Charles, who had been based in Seattle, moved to Dallas just as he was beginning to attract notice.

His career kept him on the road where, he acknowledged, he was vulnerable to the temptations of drugs and women.

"Being a musician ... meant that I was exposed to girls every night. That was all right, but I was beginning to want something better - a sweeter, more sensible life," Charles wrote in his autobiography.

He chose Dallas, where his girlfriend, Della Beatrice Howard, was living in the Green Acres Motel, pregnant with their first child. He told Ritz that he also moved to the city for practical reasons.

"I asked him one time, `Why Dallas?' and he said he was traveling all the time and it was right in the middle of the country," Ritz said.

Charles married Howard, his second wife, in April 1955 and moved to Eugene Street a week later. Their son, Ray Jr., was born soon after.

The couple found the house through David "Fathead" Newman, who had attended Lincoln High School and later became Charles' saxophonist and one of his best friends.

"It was a house that was big enough and comfortable and was in a pretty nice neighborhood," said Newman, who now lives in Woodstock, N.Y.

Newman said he, Charles and a bass player would practice in the living room of the Eugene Street home. Charles kept an electric piano there, which he used to practice and to compose music.

If Eugene Street was familiar to Dallas residents of that era, it was as the site of a racially motivated bombing in 1951 - four blocks from Charles' future home. The area was transitioning into an African-American neighborhood, said Dallas historian Darwin Payne.

By the mid-1950s, it had become a neighborhood sprinkled with some of the nation's best musicians.

"The importance of that home is where it was," said John Bryant, a drummer in Charles' band in the mid-1970s. "Fathead Newman lived in the neighborhood, Leroy Cooper lived there, James Clay lived there.

"Literally within walking distance were Woodman Hall and the Arandas Club, places that were famous for their jam sessions."

In Seattle, Charles had patterned his music after the more mainstream Nat King Cole. In Dallas, according to Ritz, he was influenced by local rhythm and blues artists such as T-Bone Walker, whom Charles greatly admired.

"He was just getting started on his own," Newman said. "He was in the midst of developing his own style."

When he was not on the road, Charles would play with pick-up bands in Dallas. He joined the jam sessions at Woodman Hall and performed in the Empire Room.

But in those years, he was nearly always on the road.

"I would say that during Ray's years in Dallas, he was the king in waiting," Ritz said. "He had some midlevel hits like `I Got a Woman' and `Hallelujah I Love Her So,' but he was still struggling."

And whatever Charles' behavior on tour, he settled down when he returned home, Newman said.

"When he was here in Dallas, he would spend the time with his wife and family. That's usually all he would do," he said.

Newman was an occasional visitor at the Eugene Street home.

"I was over there to dinner a few times," he said. "Della was a pretty good cook. She did Southern cooking mostly, traditional things."

Although Charles did not have a crossover hit until `What'd I Say' in 1959, his success on the R&B charts yielded enough money that he and Della moved to a bigger home in Los Angeles in 1958.

The memory of Charles, who died in 2004, was enhanced by the movie "Ray," which was released that year. But the film ignored Dallas and may have contributed to the obscurity of the Eugene Street house.

"Part of the problem is the movie," Bryant said. "It made it look like his base in Texas was Houston, and that was not the case."

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