James Earl Jones: a Voice in the Crowd

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  • Topic: James Earl Jones, Broadway theatre, Robert Earl Jones
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James Earl Jones: A Voice in the Crowd

March 19, 1996

People all around the world know the voice of James Earl Jones. From Star Wars fans listening to the voice of Darth Vader to news junkies who hear a voice that dramatically intones AThis is CNN@ just before all the cable network= s station breaks to children who hear the stately voice of the majestic Mufasa, the king of the jungle in Walt Disney Pictures= animated The Lion King - people know this deep harmonious voice belongs to this consummate actor of stage and screen.

James Earl Jones was born January 17th, 1931, in Arkabutala Township, Mississippi. His natural parents, Ruth and Robert Earl, moved away to the Mississippi Delta when he was an infant. Raised for the rest of his young life by his maternal grandparents, James Earl developed a close relationship with the Connollys. AMaggie and John Henry were always there, day by day, and they became for me, once and for all, my mama and my papa@ (18) .

Less than three years later, the Connollys moved to Dublin Michigan where James Earl and his >brother= Randy grew up in a remodelled chicken barn. His early school life had a great impact on his style of speech and diction. AOn my first day at school, I could not believe my ears,@ recalls Jones, AThey called me James Earrrrl instead of James Uhl, as it had sounded in the South@(40).

After the initial shock of hearing Northern dialect, Jones Aquickly absorbed this different rhythm and style@ and embarked on the first half of a long vocal journey leading to his distinctive speaking style. Until he was 14 years old, James Earl Jones rarely spoke mostly due to shyness, preferring silence to the sound of his own voice.

Around the age of 10, James Earl Jones witnessed his brother, Randy, having an epileptic seizure. His grandmother applied the only remedy she knew - a thimbleful of bluing dye - and told James Earl to run for help. After travelling a mile through a Michigan blizzard and recalling the sight of his brother on the floor with Ablue liquid spilled out of his mouth,@ Jones= epic battle with stuttering began. At a local store, Jones panicked and couldn=t speak. After a time, he Afinally calmed down and the words came. The doctor was called. Randy recovered. But the stuttering - that stayed.@(42)

The same year his brother almost died, Jones was sexually assaulted by the minister of a church he attended. The incident scarred him for life. Jones recalls, AI was afraid and very confused. I was on my guard from then on...I had no need for words@(54).

The Aturning point@ in Jones= ability to cope with stuttering came in Professor Donald Crouch=s English classroom in high school. After falling in love with Longfellow=s AThe Song of Hiawatha,@James Earl was inspired to write a poem about his love for grapefruit. He patterned his work after Longfellow=s cadence and rhyme scheme. When Professor Crouch accused Jones of plagiarism Jones was forced to recite his work from memory in front of the class (63).

Considering his honour of greater value than the teasing of his classmates James Earl approached the front of the room to avoid academic disgrace: AI was shaking as I stood up, cursing myself. I strained to get the words out, pushing from the bottom of my soul. I opened my mouth -- and to my astonishment, the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them. There was no stutter. All of us were amazed, not so much by the poem as by the performance@(66).

The voice of James Earl Jones was a new sound to himself and everyone around him. AMy voice had changed, almost without my awareness, so in addition to the novelty of being able to speak, I could now speak in a deep, strong voice@(67). Crouch and Jones became inseparable for the remaining three years of high school, resurrecting the powers of speech in the young lad through public speaking, debating, orating and acting.

The training he received from Crouch enabled Jones to...
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