May hopes his story will inspire, encourage others
When he was a young man growing up in Conyers, Charlie May wondered what it would feel like to walk around with a pair of gold shoes on his feet. With help from a can of spray paint, the curious 12-year-old soon found out.
“My grandfather was my idol and one of the best people I’ve ever known, but he passed away when I was 12. I went to live with my granny full time (after that),” May remembered. “My cousin had given me a pair of imitation alligator skin shoes and, one day, I found a can of gold spray paint in one of my grandfather’s cabinets. I painted the shoes with that spray paint and wore ‘em to school. I’d never seen anything like that before.”
How the gold shoes came to be is one of the true-life stories May tells in his latest book, “The Music Note.” The 62-year-old Ellijay resident says the collection of whimsical and heartbreaking short stories comprise his autobiography, a project that grew from May’s time as a touring gospel singer/songwriter.
“I traveled as a gospel musician for about 15 years. I performed in churches and would share my testimony of how I became a songwriter. A lady in Pennsylvania said to me one time, ‘I wish my son could hear your story. Could you write it out?’ So I made up a little pamphlet to give out and people kept wanting to know more,” he said. “I did the first draft about 10 years ago and I first sat down to get it where it is now about a year ago.”
A few things qualify “The Music Note” as an inspirational read. The most obvious is May’s religious faith, but his determination to explore new creative avenues and overcome numerous health problems are just as enlightening.
“I grew up in an abusive family where nobody showed love or anything like that. We were all just on our own,” said May about the difficult relationship with his mother and father recounted in the book. “I got shot when I was 11. I’ve suffered a head injury that bruised my brain and brain stem. Part of the book is my testimony about how I grew up.”
May actually shot himself in the leg with a pistol he found in his parents bedroom. In 1980, the 27-year-old carpenter fell off a roof and wound up in a coma for weeks.
“I fell off the top of a house and landed on the concrete. It was about a year before I could get around. They never did convince me I’d be paralyzed,” he said.
Before that, May worked five years as an Ellijay police officer.
“I was a patrolman and eventually became a lieutenant investigator,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of different stuff. I ran a cattle farm over in Cohutta for about five years. I was at a cowboy church in Texas and was featured (as a singer) at the Little George Havens Cowboy Camp. He was a cowboy movie star in the ‘40s and ‘50s and later became a circuit riding preacher.”
After surviving two strokes, May began to concentrate on writing and performing his songs.
“I really thought I was dying (when I was having the second stroke) and I had a vision. I saw something coming across the room and it looked just like a music note,” said May in reference to a life-changing event that inspired the title of his book. “It was like it just disappeared in me. I never did understand it, but I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”
He didn’t write a song of his own till age 43 and was almost 50 when he started singing at churches and events. May is thankful for support shown by other gospel artists, like Larry Barrett and Doug Hudson, who have inspired him to continue writing.
“I wrote my first song in 1996 and I’ve done it ever since,” he said. “I always loved music and loved to sing, but I always thought it was way beyond my reach. After about two weeks (of going to church), I became the choir director and I wrote my first song after that. From there, it kind of snowballed. I kept writing songs and began getting invitations to come other places and sing.”
“The Music Note” also includes the lyrics to 18 songs written by May, a six-time winner of the Country Gospel Music Association’s Eastern U.S. Songwriter of the Year award.
“All my songs tell stories abouts certain people, places or things. I’ve got one called ‘Then I’ll Sing for Mama’ and one called ‘Old Men With Broken Hearts.’ Probably the biggest song I’m known for is ‘House of Prayer,’” he said.
That song, about how one’s faith can transform even the most run-down home into a “house of prayer,” was recorded by another Ellijay singer/songwriter, Dwight Sanford, for his gospel-themed album Jesus Called.
“I’ve known Charlie forever. He’s got very impressive writing abilities and that song was right up my alley,” said Sanford. “We worked together at Galaxy Carpet Mills way back and both of us were police officers here at different times. He’s a real trooper and he just writes good songs.”
May was working on a song one night when he had another “vision,” this time about barnyard animals having a party. That was the seed for his first venture as an author, the illustrated children’s book “Dooley The Rooster: Pigs Can’t Dance?”
“Five years ago, I had surgery to remove a cyst from my vocal chords and it got to where I couldn’t sing. I went through a major depression and just wanted to give up,” he said. “I’d been working on what I felt was a couple of good songs, though, so I sat down one night and started typing. That’s when I started having a vision of a rooster and a barn dance. It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
May called on some of his Nashville connections to help him find out how to get the book published and to line up the services of Mike Sofka, an accomplished illustrator whose credits include the popular Veggie Tales cartoons.
“He lives in Nashville and a friend of mine named Kat Koral, who also lives there, contacted him. We didn’t think we could afford him, but he really got into the book and said he’d do it,” said May, who moved back to Ellijay four years ago to be closer to his daughter and grandson.
The singing, storytelling granddad hopes reading “The Music Note” will help others in some way – whether it’s inspiring them to follow their dreams or to change their lives for the better.
“My whole life, I’ve had a desire to help people, to try and make them feel better about themselves and (encourage them) not to give up. The part about not giving up is the main thing,” he said. “I ask people who’ve read the book what they got out of it and a lot of them say, ‘Now I know I can make it through anything.”’