Florence LaRue: Not only does God give us grace, we have to give grace to others and to ourselves. If you really want something and work hard, you can find a way to have your dreams come true.
A Legacy of Making Music That Matters: Florence LaRue & Michael Ray – Episode #294
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. We all hope that when we look back on our lives, we can consider them well lived. And what signifies a life well lived? Is it how much money we made or to what heights of fame we climbed? Not according to our guests this week—both who have achieved fame and recognition for their musical talent, but who have also realized that real meaning comes from through their music when it makes a difference in other people’s lives and that God gives them the words and the platform to spread His message of love. We’re talking with Florence LaRue, a singer with the iconic music group The Fifth Dimension, and country music artist Michael Ray.
Let’s start with Florence’s story.
Florence: I’m Florence LaRue. I’m an Afro-American mother, grandmother, and woman who loves the Lord.
God Leads Florence to Music
I grew up in a small town called Glenside, Pennsylvania, which is a beautiful suburb of Philadelphia. I had many challenges growing up. My family lived in a town where the white community and the Black communities were separated by a road, and our house happened to be on the side of the road where the white community lived. So I ended up going to an all-white—except for me—school. I was in the middle. I wasn’t truly accepted by either race.
So I always tended to try and excel in whatever I did in sports. At my height of 5’2, I played varsity basketball. I excelled in field hockey. I played in the orchestra and sang in all of the vocal groups, the choirs, and was very, very active, which was good for me. My mother kept me busy with those things. I also studied ballet and violin, so I had quite a busy childhood, although I was really quite a loner.
I’ve always loved music and all types of music. As a matter of fact, my favorite type of music was classical music because I played the violin. And every once in a while, my mother could afford a ticket for me to sit up in the nosebleed section and attend the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting. That was such a thrill for me.
I had no intentions of becoming a singer at all. That was strictly God. I had two things I wanted to do in life: one was to teach, because I had a wonderful fifth-grade teacher, and the other was to be a movie star.
“I had no intentions of becoming a singer at all. That was strictly God.” – Florence LaRue
Florence and the Fifth Dimension
When I graduated from high school, my family moved to California, and I went to college there to get my degree. I did get my degree in elementary education, but I also wanted to be in the movies. I didn’t know how to go about, you know, meeting producers or how one gets into the movies. Well, friends introduced me to entering beauty contests, hoping to be discovered. As it was, I was blessed to win quite a few titles: Miss Coppertone, Miss this, Miss Val Verde, and Miss that. And one year I entered the Miss Bronze California contest, and as God would have it, I won the talent.
Now let me tell you, I say “as God would have it” because there were girls who could sing circles around me. But I won the contest, and a gentleman who was a photographer for the contest approached me and he said, “You know, I am in a group, and nothing is happening with the group, so one of the girls left and we need to replace her. Would you be willing to join us?”
I said, “Oh, no, no, no. First of all, I don’t have time. I am taking fifteen and a half units each semester, I’m working full time, I can’t come to rehearsals. And I’m not a singer. I’m an actress.”
The first years with The Fifth Dimension were really challenging for me. I married the manager, and we had a child, and I was blessed to be able to afford to take him on the road with me all over the world. I took him to Japan. I nursed him on trains, buses, and planes. It was wonderful because I could take someone with me to watch him while I was on stage.
However, when he started school, that’s when my sadness began, because I would have to leave him. And it was very hard, not only for me but also for my son. As a matter of fact, we went through some difficult times until he became old enough to understand the reason why I was gone was not that I liked my career more, but because I wanted to give him a better life than I had. I didn’t realize that it’s not things that children need. It’s your time, your presence. And even though I knew the Lord at that time, I wasn’t as close to the Lord as I am now. I know that I would have prayed more and asked the Lord for His direction.
I did enjoy performing when I was on stage. Really, that was my alter ego. I might say, “That was Miss LaRue, not Florence.” I totally enjoyed being on stage and performing. The funny thing is I was always very shy and didn’t like crowds. However, Miss LaRue enjoyed being on stage. I was very shy and I used to wear glasses, and I liked the fact that I couldn’t see the audience because I could be Miss LaRue on stage. However, when I started wearing contact lenses and I could see the audience, my whole perception changed, and I enjoyed communicating with people. I enjoyed the exchange of singing songs and making people feel things, making people happy.
“I enjoy communicating with people. I enjoy the exchange of singing songs and making people feel things, making people happy.” – Florence LaRue
The Amazing Power of Music
I got into show business for fame and fortune, but then the Lord said to me, “What are you doing with what I’ve given you? How are you spreading the gospel? Who are you mentoring? Who are you teaching? What are you doing with your lyrics?”
A very big song for The Fifth Dimension was a song called “Aquarius.” Many people thought we performed the song because of astrology. It had nothing to do with astrology. We performed the song because it spoke of harmony and positiveness. So ever since then, I’m very careful about the lyrics of songs that I sing, even when I sing “Let the Sunshine In.” To me, it also means that the S-O-N shine in. I just think that we have to act with love and not just always condemn young people, but to teach them and show them with love.
God has shown me the importance of music. And also, my responsibility as a musician. One of them was when The Fifth Dimension was chosen to represent the United States in a State Department-sponsored tour to Eastern Europe, which at that time was communist, and we performed. And at the end of the show, the people rushed the stage, and it was scary. We didn’t know what was going to happen. They wanted to touch us. We were their connection to freedom. And there were armed guards backstage with dogs to make sure that there wouldn’t be any confusion. They ended up asking us for autographs, and they were very friendly, and it really showed me the importance of music. You know, in the Bible, the musicians were even sent out before the warriors, and the Lord showed me the importance of my music, it’s a responsibility, the lyrics that I sing. These things are very important because they’re a big influence, especially on our young people.
The “Real” Florence
I really, really enjoy performing live now. Now it’s Florence LaRue on stage, and they are seeing the real me. When I sing a sad song, there are actually tears, and I’ve had people come up and say, “Oh, you’re such a good actress.” No, I’m not acting. I’m experiencing what I’m singing. I want my audience to experience something when I sing a song. It’s not my alter ego anymore. It’s me that they’re getting. They’re getting the real Florence.
“You can be eighty and still live and not just exist, if you take care of yourself.” – Florence LaRue
Then I noticed a lot of senior ladies in particular who were single because of either not having been married or the death of a spouse, and once they become mature, let’s say, oh, sixty or older, they stopped living and they just existed. They felt like their lives were over. I began to have that communication and that being true, being honest on stage, that’s when I began to really enjoy it the most. I even tell people on stage how old I am because I want them to know that you can be eighty and still live and not just exist if you take care of yourself.
You are not alone. God is with you always. He loves you more than you know, more than you can understand, more than anyone else could ever love you. Sometimes it’s hard to believe when you’re sitting at home alone, you say, “Oh Lord, I know you’re there, but I want someone here to talk to and someone to be with.” That’s all right, it’s all right to go through those times, but they just need to know that, as I said, they’re not alone.
“You are not alone. God is with you always. He loves you more than you know, more than you can understand, more than anyone else could ever love you.” – Florence LaRue
Starting the Day with Scripture and Song
My son gave me something very interesting that I do every morning for five minutes. We sing “I love you, Jesus.” You make up your own melody. But that’s how I start my day. It’s different every day. I might say, “I love you, Jesus, I love you, Jesus. Jesus, I love you. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I love you.”
Whatever you feel, basically is, “I love you, Jesus,” but let Him know that you love Him. And He says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” So it’s a good reminder. And I start the day with my scripture readings, Jesus Calling, and prayer.
As a matter of fact, I was part of the homeless group at my church where we would help the homeless and the pastor there—he and his wife gave it to me. I’m looking at this: “From Joe and Kathy, Christmas 2012.” And since then I’ve been reading it every day and I’ve given it to many people.
I do read the Proverbs every day since there are thirty-one proverbs, so I read that. But I also the other scriptures, and just sometimes during the day I may be driving down the street, praying: “Oh, thank you, Lord, there was parking space. Thank you, Lord, for getting me through this Los Angeles traffic.” You know, a prayer doesn’t have to be eloquent. It can just be “help” or “thank you.” I can’t tell you how grateful I am, God has done so many “little” things for me that are not little at all.
“You know, a prayer doesn’t have to be eloquent. It can just be ‘help’ or ‘thank you.’” – Florence LaRue
As a matter of fact, when COVID became so big, I started a telephone line for senior ladies who were alone. And the only rules were we cannot discuss or disagree about religion or politics. This is something for you to come together with other women and to discuss whatever is bothering you. Perhaps you just want to share a recipe? Just someone for you to talk to so that you know that you’re not alone. We met once a week each Wednesday. And it was just wonderful to have these ladies from all across the country just be able to call in and say, “Oh, today I feel like I’m alone. My children haven’t called,” or whatever, or, “Oh, I have a recipe. It’s really great. I think it’s very easy. I want to share it with you.” It was wonderful to have that.
You have a heavenly Father who loves you more than anyone could ever love you. And He is always with you. You are not alone.
Narrator: You can find Florence’s book, Grace in Your Second Act: A Guide to Aging Gracefully, wherever books are sold.
We’ll be back with Michael Ray’s story after this brief message.
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Narrator: Michael Ray is a country music artist who came to Nashville after growing up in Florida. Raised in a family where music was played as a regular routine, Michael learned his first chords on the guitar from his grandfather, a military veteran who wanted his children and grandchildren to know the joy of music in their lives—and could bring that joy to others as well. That musical spark prompted Michael to chase music as a full-time career. As he began to make a name for himself on the country music scene, Michael never forgot the man who showed him what the power of music could do in people’s lives.
Music was such a part of our family that everybody in Central Florida for the longest time knew our family as people that played music. They got the family band, they play all around here.
Following in Grandpa’s Footsteps
My grandpa served in the Army in Anchorage, Alaska, and I don’t know if it was there that he started to learn. I don’t know if anybody before him in our family played an instrument or had any interest in music. I know my great grandmother always sang in the kitchen, always sang around the house. I don’t know, maybe that was it. But he met a buddy of his, and they started playing guitar, and he just fell in love with it.
He was an unbelievable lead guitar player, and he just wanted everybody to have an instrument. He wanted everybody to have a chance to play music and to see his passion behind it for his entire life was unbelievable.
He would put instruments on my dad and my uncle and the cousins of that generation and put instruments in their hands and teach them how to sing harmonies like the Gatlin Brothers and Oak Ridge Boys and try to teach them harmonies. That would later become our family’s band. And then when I came around, the grandkids of that generation, I was the first grandson at the time. We joke, we always say my grandpa went through a process of elimination. I think my sister Ryan came, nope, she didn’t get it. Christina came and he was like, “You, you’re getting it.” And I came along, he put it in my hand, he just knew when I needed it.
My parents got divorced when I was eight, and he started teaching me my first set of chords around that time. I think in a lot of ways it probably saved my life—who knows what paths I would have maybe gone down. When something like that happens to you as a kid, you don’t really understand it. But luckily I had him and his family members around. I just started learning how to play guitar. I was tired of being the kid who was playing the Kermit the Frog fake guitar at five years old. I was like, “Man, I really wanna learn how to do this.” He taught me my first three chords, and after that, it just started rolling and I was playing every weekend with him.
So about this time, I’m playing some songs with my grandpa and his band and kind of, you know, being able to accompany myself a little bit. But it was right at the time that I got bit by the bug. Garth Brooks was my first concert ever at ten years old in Orlando, Florida. And my two older sisters, my dad, and a few other people were with us. And Garth comes out and does what Garth does and just blows the roof off the place. But it was when he played “The Dance” and he did it acoustic, and I saw him hold this arena of people in the palm of his hand with just an acoustic set. I mean, I got chills as a kid, you know, I didn’t even know what “The Dance” really meant at the time. I just know it was a great song, and I watched that and I was like, I don’t know what that is, but I want to do that. That’s what I want to do.
“I don’t know what that is, but I want to do that.” – Michael Ray, on seeing Garth Brooks perform “The Dance” live in concert
Michael Lives His Music Dream
To me, The Opry is the pinnacle. It doesn’t get any bigger. I grew up watching every VHS. I grew up studying with my grandpa, you know, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Marty Stuart, Jeannie Seely, Porter Wagoner, you name it. And that’s what I grew up watching.
It’s where people came and saw artists they listened to on the radio for the first time live back in the day, and they never saw these artists come out on stage until the Opry and WSM gave them that stage.
My grandpa passed away a couple of months before I was able to make my Opry debut, and it was just a big moment. The whole deal was supposed to be me and him, we were gonna play the Opry one day. And then a month after he passed, I got an email. Two months after he passed, here I am to make my Opry debut. I got to bring his guitar with me, and I debuted with Porter Wagoner’s version of “Green Green Grass of Home” I played with my grandpa a lot. But it was just a moment I’ll never forget, man, to be able to step in the circle for the first time with my dad, who was the lead singer of my family’s band, and my uncle who was a bass player. It was a moment, man. I get a little choked up thinking about it just because my grandma’s gone now, my uncle’s gone. And that moment of standing on stage and then looking over and seeing my grandmother sitting in her wheelchair, my uncle who’s standing there, my dad, and then Ricky Skaggs is just standing behind my grandma—I remember the whole time going, “ I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience,” because it was something I’ve always dreamt of doing.
“Real Men Love Jesus”
My grandfather was such a loving, big-hearted person. “Real Men Love Jesus” was a song that when I heard it, it just made me think of him. It made me think of who he was as a man, not only just who he was, but who his brothers are, all the men in my hometown. Nobody’s perfect, but they’re always striving to be and trying to do the best they can, like everybody else is. And I think that’s all you can do in this life, is try to make the next twenty-four better than the last. And that’s kind of what they did, what they always did with God as the focal point of trying to be better every day and try to grow closer to Him. And you know, my grandfather was a God-fearing man and my dad. And like I said, nobody’s perfect, but that’s the foundation that they built everything about our family on.
“I think that’s all you can do in this life, is try to make the next twenty-four better than the last.” – Michael Ray
And so when I heard that song for the first time, I felt like it was just a perfect song that really paid tribute to him, but also was kind of a reminder for me. When I hear it, I get to sing it to not forget, to continue to try to be like that, to be like them. And you know, ways of living my grandfather’s legacy still and what he taught us. And I think that’s why this song just really embodied all that. I’m just fortunate that I had all the years with him that I did, and that he was able to teach me country music and to see some of the success that we had.
Narrator: We close out our time with Michael as he reads a favorite passage from Jesus Calling.
LEAVE OUTCOMES UP TO ME. Follow Me wherever I lead, without worrying about how it will all turn out. Think of your life as an adventure, with Me as your Guide and Companion. Live in the now, concentrating on staying in step with Me. When our path leads to a cliff, be willing to climb it with My help. When we come to a resting place, take time to be refreshed in My Presence. Enjoy the rhythm of life lived close to Me. You already know the ultimate destination of your journey: your entrance into heaven. So keep your focus on the path just before you, leaving outcomes up to Me.
Narrator: To learn more about Michael Ray, where to get his music, and his concert dates, please visit www.michaelraymusic.com.
If you’d like to hear more stories about creating a legacy through music, check out our interview with Patti LaBelle.
Next Week on the Podcast: Michelle Hord
Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we speak with media executive and author Michelle Hord, who suffered an unimaginable loss when her ex-husband murdered her beautiful daughter, Gabrielle. Michelle clung to Christ in the thick of the worst crisis she’d ever faced, and she emerged as a survivor on the other side of grief.
Michelle Hord: When you are the victim of a violent crime, when you find yourself in a special victim’s unit’s office with a D.A., you literally feel like your life is in jeopardy. And so being able to hide and feel shielded in God’s love and God’s protection have been incredibly important to me in different parts of my journey.