Behind the Shades
Written by Sheila Jean Robinson and Glenn Swanson
Book Review by Dennis Moore
In an aborted attempt to get the daughter of the late musical legend Ray Charles, Sheila Jean Robinson, to attend the 7th Annual Diamond Literary Festival "Authors Dinner Cruise" in San Diego, I have been provided a fascinating look into an icon, through Robinson's book, "Behind the Shades." Robinson was to participate in a book signing and to sing one of her father's classics, "Hit the Road Jack." Although not this year, we have been assured that Robinson will attend next year's Diamond Literary Festival in San Diego.
"Behind the Shades" is really a story within a story, for it chronicles the author's estrangement from her father, and it includes a manuscript of her mother's, Sandra Betts' turbulent life with the musical icon, Ray Charles. Robinson writes candidly about her own drug addiction, life in a federal prison, her five children being taken from her, and her road to redemption. She also writes of her attempts at a musical career, and her father's role in shaping her career.
The author would go into candid, and at times, heartbreaking detail as to how she would lead a life of drug addiction, incarceration, estrangement from her family and friends, and her finding Christ. Her story seems so implausible, especially considering all she had to overcome. But she did it!
Robinson gives a vivid picture of her time in and out of prison, in one particular instance stating: "Everybody wanted to be my friend, to hang out, seeking answers to a world I knew nothing about. They didn't understand, unable to imagine my life had been similar to their own, running and hiding from pain and poverty. Drugs. Dope. I could tell stories about seeing Dad for a couple days, or a day, or a couple of hours. A splash and a flash was all I knew of him and that was it." Reading her book, one can even sense a bit of mis-placed anger towards her father.
The author states something very profound in her book, that perhaps explains her overall life, and this while in prison: "I was already down and out. I didn't want to talk about how I made the rest of my family feel. I made it back to my room and walled myself off. If trying to escape the pain of my past life led me to prison, then even prison offered no freedom from the root of my pain. Were I a psychologist in the research field, I would, like Freud, use myself as a subject to explore a heretofore undisclosed, psychological malady which I term, 'The Ray Charles Syndrome.' It's deeper than one might imagine - relationships predicated on the celebrity of Ray Charles. In my case, he was my father; in my mother's case, a man she loved. Inside the privacy of myself, I retrieved my mother's manuscript from underneath my mattress. I found them there, both staring me right in the face." How poetic!
Friends and family weigh in on this story, with many offering pertinent observations and insight into the genius of a man, Ray Charles, and what he spawned. In a letter to the author(s) from a Nancy Logan, long time friend of Sandra Betts, it states: "(people assumed) Sandy was a little girl from the country overwhelmed by Ray Charles' celebrity. From what I heard and saw between them, Ray was the one overwhelmed. I believe (Sandy) dwarfed any personality I know. Forget Oprah Winfrey. My memory of (Sheila) as a little girl and teenager was quiet, shy, and standing in the background. She was the invisible child. I suppose they both had to pass before she could come out from their shadows."
It is fascinating how Robinson weaves in and out of her story in the book, with that of her mother's, in one particular instance her Mom stating in regard to Ray Charles: "You were in France at a restaurant your promoter owned. You had promised him that you would come to dinner at his restaurant. Throwing on a sweater and dress pants, you reluctantly went. Sitting down, a man walks over to you, speaking with a heavy French accent saying, 'Monsieur, Monsieur. You cannot be here without a suit and tie.' At the same time another waiter with the same heavy French accent is rushing over saying, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute. That's Mr. Charles. We're so sorry, Mr. Charles. He did not know it was you. Please sit down and enjoy your dinner.'" The author shares many intimate such details of the relationship of her mother and father in "Behind the Shade," as well as her own, though in some instances, painful and full of despair.
I actually cried, when I read "Epilogue-Beyond My Father's Funeral," in the author's book, when she described her first meeting with her sister, Raenee, just prior to their father's funeral. In a poignant moment in the book, the author stated: "I was thinking about meeting Raenee for the first time. I knew nothing about her. It was kept from me, just one of many secrets, and I was filled with a wondrous anticipation as the flight attendant asked if we wanted breakfast." For some reason, what the author has revealed in this book, resonates so much with me, and thoughts of my own family. As a matter of fact, the author reminds me so much of my sister, Calestine, absent the incarceration and loss of her children.
The author further stated in the Epilogue of her book, which is significant in understanding and appreciating the current relationship between these long lost sisters, Sheila and Raenee; "Raenee had spent more time with Dad than I, a reality that had more to do with geography and where my mother was coming from. It was Mom's decision not to live in California. I was pleased to learn Raenee was on the same page with me when it came to play down the fact Ray Charles was our father."
I recall the author leading me and her sister Raenee in prayer over the phone, after I had indicated to them that I had recently returned to San Diego from Chicago, after attending the funeral of a brother. That, in and of itself, is a testament of the transformation of this remarkable woman that we read about in her book, "Behind the Shades."
This book is a must read, especially for those wanting to get a closer look into the life of the musical icon, Ray Charles, the man "Behind the Shades," from the vantage point of his daughter.