LOS ANGELES — On what would have been his 80th birthday, Ray Charles has joined the likes of past presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan with his own namesake library in Southern California.
The Ray Charles Memorial Library officially opened its doors Thursday night. Housed in the studio and office building Charles built in South Los Angeles in the early 1960s, the library features interactive exhibits about the musician's life and career.
Charles' friends and colleagues – including Quincy Jones, B.B. King, producer Jimmy Jam and filmmaker Taylor Hackford – welcome visitors via video to each section of the library, which is more like an interactive museum. Touch screens invite guests to explore Charles' most memorable recordings, while exhibits feature some of his Grammy awards, stage costumes, old contracts and ever-present sunglasses.
Charles' fans can see his personal piano and saxophone, his collection of microphones and letters he received from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Johnny Cash. The library also includes a mixing station, where visitors can compose their own mixes of Charles' classic rhythms and melodies, and a karaoke room, where they can sing along with Charles and the Raelettes.
"Ray spent more time in this building than any other in the world," said Tony Gumina, head of the Ray Charles Marketing Group. "In this building, Ray Charles had 20-20 vision."
His recording studio and a closet full of his clothes remain on the second floor of the building, which was declared a cultural and historic landmark by the city in 2004.
When Charles lost his sight as a child, his ears became his eyes, he said, and he dedicated himself to music, eventually blending genres and breaking down barriers both social and musical.
Willie Nelson said Charles "caused country music to leap ahead – maybe 50 years – because he'd done the impossible: He'd crossed over the other way."
A collection of previously unreleased Charles recordings, including a country collaboration with Cash, is due out next month.
Hackford, who directed the 2004 biopic "Ray," called Charles "one of the greatest musicians this country has ever produced."
Hackford and former Raelette Mable John were among those celebrating the library's grand opening.
The facility is a product of Charles' charitable foundation, which he established in 1986 to serve the hearing impaired. Though Charles was blind, he felt that not being able to hear music would be a true handicap. When he died in 2004 at age 73, he left all of his intellectual property and $50 million in cash to continue the foundation's efforts.
The Ray Charles Foundation also provides grants to support hearing disorder and educational causes. The library's main aim is to educate and inspire disenfranchised children who have seen arts education cut from their school curricula, said library and foundation president Valerie Ervin.
The library will be open exclusively to school children by invitation only. Officials plan to extend access to the general public sometime next year.