Ray Charles museum opens to schoolchildren in L.A.

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Youngsters in Los Angeles will soon have Ray Charles on their mind now that a museum has opened in the music legend’s inner-city office building.

Singer Ray Charles, performing in this April 9, 2003 file photograph. REUTERS/Jeff Christensen/Files

The Ray Charles Memorial Library, officially launched on the 80th anniversary of his birth on September 23, is initially open to school groups by appointment only. The general public is expected to be admitted next year.

The museum is run by a nonprofit foundation that Charles established in 1986 to focus on needy and underprivileged children, especially those with hearing difficulties. Charles, who was blind, considered deafness a greater handicap.

Seeking to fill a void left by the decline of arts and music programs in public schools, the museum’s curators hope the exhibits will open up a world of possibilities to youngsters after they see how the soul icon transcended socioeconomic, musical and racial boundaries during a career spanning more than 50 years.

The museum contains seven galleries on the ground floor of a two-story building that Charles had built in 1964. Located in the historic Harvard Heights neighborhood, it not only houses his offices and archive of master tapes and memorabilia, but also a recording studio. The first album he made there was his 1965 disc “Country & Western Meets Rhythm and Blues.”

Alongside educational interactive displays and plenty of film and audio footage, the museum contains mementos such as costumes, gold records, a selection of Charles’ dark glasses and one of the customized chess boards on which he regularly slaughtered his sighted opponents.

Charles started what is now known as the Ray Charles Foundation with a $50 million grant, and its assets currently are valued at close to $100 million, foundation president Valerie Ervin said in an interview. His entire estate was turned over to the foundation after he died of cancer in 2004, aged 73.

Ervin’s main roles are to increase the value of the foundation’s investments -- a task she aced by ensuring that it was not affected by the 2008 share market crash -- and to give away on average about $5 million annually.

The foundation’s reach has broadened to education in general, including grants totaling $5 million to Morehouse College, a university for black men, in Atlanta.

Ervin demands quarterly reports from beneficiaries, and makes surprise visits to see how the funds are being spent. A board of directors provides an extra level of oversight. The foundation’s overhead is low with five employees.

The foundation has a licensing arm, the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles Charles’ post-1960 recordings. Through its joint venture with Concord Records, it will release an album of rarities, “Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters,” on October 26. Among the tracks is a duet with Johnny Cash on Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?”

“We own everything,” said Ervin, who ran Charles’ business operations during the last decade of his life. “It’s not like we have to go out and ask for (licenses). Mr Charles was very adamant that he own everything that was related to him.”

(Atlantic Records owns Charles’ 1950s recordings, but the foundation controls their usage.)

None of Charles’ 12 adult children are involved with the foundation. A few years before he died, Charles advised that he would bequeath $500,000 to each of them, and warned them not to challenge his wishes. One of the children did sue the foundation in 2008 to wrest control of Charles’ intellectual property rights, but was rebuffed in court.

The marketing group, which is based in Cleveland, Ohio, is evaluating various merchandising possibilities, but Ervin seems to favor a conservative approach guided by the notion “What would Mr. Charles do?”

“As long as we are sustaining the foundation, and we are in good standing it’s not that we have to go out and make this big deal or make that big deal,” she said.

“Our focus is getting about doing our business, which is making donations and fitting into the community and helping children every which way that we can. That’s what Ray wanted.”

Editing by Jill Serjeant