With George FordIllustrator of Ray Charles
With the release of the movie Ray by Universal Studios in 2004, the legend of Ray Charles is more alive then ever. In 1973 T.Y. Crowell published Ray Charles, written by Sharon Bell Mathis and illustrated by George Ford. The book went on to win the 1974 Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Award, and was the first book to win both awards. In 2001, LEE & LOW BOOKS reissued the book with a new foreward, redesigned cover and interior and a new afterward by the author. Sadly, Ray Charles passed away in June, 2004. To help remember him, LEE & LOW BOOKS asked George Ford to share some of his memories about creating the artwork for Ray Charles.
George Ford says that Sharon Bell Mathis had written Ray Charles in response to the need for high-interest material on popular celebrities. She knew Ford, and remembering that he had an interest in African American subjects and jazz, suggested his name to the publisher. T.Y. Crowell contacted Ford and asked him to illustrate the book. "I loved Ray Charles, and Sharon Bell Mathis' text swings and moves the way Ray Charles and his music swing and move," the illustrator comments. "I think that the pictures do too." Though the book went out of print, it wasn't destined to stay that way. "The original edition of Ray Charles was out of print for several years when LEE & LOW BOOKS contacted me about reissuing it," says Ford. "I was delighted for them to do it, and they did a fabulous job on a complete redesign of the book!"
The illustrations are rendered in acrylic and India ink. Ford comments that the research for the project was surprisingly easy. "At that time it was far easier to contact Ray Charles and his management team than it would have been in this day and age. I simply called Los Angeles and they were kind enough to send me photographs of Ray and the original Raelettes, as well as catalogs showing some of his appearances." The illustrator says he also had Ray Charles' album covers to work with, as well as a photograph from Life magazine of Ray Charles performing at Carnegie Hall. When he wasn't working from old photographs or album covers, Ford worked from the heart to bring the drawings of Ray Charles to life. "Since there were no childhood photographs of Ray Charles available, I remember reaching deep inside myself to conceive the image of Ray as a blind child in painful circumstances." Reactions to the book were favorable, but Ford recalls one reaction in particular, "When the finished book was sent to Ray Charles, his manager at the time, Joe Adams, sent me a return letter of thanks, stating (half seriously, as a tribute to Ray's legendary extra-sensory perception): Mr. Charles was very glad to 'see' the book!"
1974 marked the first year an illustrator was honored with the Coretta Scott King Award, which went to Ford for Ray Charles. What was it like to win the award? "It was totally unexpected," says Ford. "I was honored, and so happy that my parents and sister were able to be there to see me receive the award." Ford continues, "Although the award was a recognition of artistic excellence, I was most proud of the fact that it was a reward specifically intended as a source of inspiration and encouragement to African American children."
More than thirty years after the original release of the book, George Ford is happy to see it in print and thriving. "What I want readers to take away from this book is the same thing Ray Charles' mother wanted him to take away from her. I want all readers to identify with Ray Charles, take pride in themselves, and thus gain the strength to persevere in the face of all obstacles."
George Ford has illustrated more than thirty books for children, including Paul Robeson, winner of the Jane Addams Peace Award. Ford lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife Bernette.
Learn more about Ray Charles