Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ray Charles: Genius & Soul


by David Ritz

Nothing has prepared you for the encounter. The neighborhood, in the long shadow of downtown Los Angeles, is urban bleak: tire stores, upholstery outlets, taco stands, check-cashing services. The two-story building is perfectly innocuous; the second floor, where the man has worked and recorded for the past 35 years, is a windowless affair. The feeling is utilitarian, the decor unexciting. Except for the music biz magazines on the coffee table, you might be sitting in an insurance office. But when you're escorted down a short hallway into his private office, when the door opens and suddenly you encounter him face-to-face, when you shake his hand and feel the electricity coursing through his body, you're buzzed, you're amazed; you've never entered an energy field quite like his. This is the private world where Ray Charles rules.

"Ray Charles," said New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, "is a presence unlike any other." Gill understated his case. Ray Charles is a force of nature, a man who now seems incredibly simple, now incredibly complex. His confidence is rock solid, sturdy as a great oak. Almost 70, he appears indestructible, bouncing around the office with the gusto of a teenager. A beguiling mix of big-city savvy and back-country crude, Ray reacts to your visit with high-spirited hospitality. You've come to elicit from him an overview of his remarkable career, to play him the songs from this collection so you might hear his own reactions, glean his own insights.

In this arena Ray's blindness is beside the point. He moves around the office in fact, around the building with breakneck speed and unhampered efficiency. He knows every inch of this territory, commanding the space with an almost haughty sovereignty - He's the first to say, "I love being a big fish in a little pond." Ray's restrictions his small suite of offices, his compact recording studioafford him freedom. The walls are covered with every imaginable award. He sits in a high-back chair behind an expansive desk. His relationship to the chair reminds you of his relationship to the piano stool he occupies during concerts; in gracefully daring ways, he slips and slides, dips and nearly drops to the floor before catching himself. His body follows the surprising twists of his discourse. He can't sit still. His energy won't allow it. His enthusiasm for talking, for playing, for merely being alive has him moving in many directions at once. Mentally and physically, the man is all over the map.

His physical bearing is impressive. Broad shoulders, thick chest, taut waist, no sloppy body fat, he projects the pluck of a former welterweight ready to return to the ring at a moment's notice. He keeps his hair/now nearly white, close-cropped, the same style he's always worn. "I see cats my age dying their hair with black shoe polish," he says. "Wanna look younger. Gotta look younger. Well, I'm not putting that crap on my head. I've earned this white. I'm not changing. Been saying this for 40 years, and I'm still saying it: Sweetheart, I don't change."

His appearance is neat, his snug trousers of good fabric, his shoes mirror-polished. He shaves with a straight razor and does a super close job. Only a tuft of unruly hair, caused by his nervous manner of rubbing his scalp, gives the slightest impression of disorder. From certain angles, the tuft makes him look like a little boy.

Constancy is a virtue; Constancy is Ray's trademark. Constancy is Ray's security. His routine is his comfort. His comfort is his excitement. In a strange way, his blindness is another source of excitement, Ray is cocky about his ability to do what any sighted person can do and more. Rather than represent defeat, his blindness has come to symbolize triumph. His sightlessness is symbolized by the coolest object in his sartorial arsenal—his dark glasses. His glasses are fascinating, and you find yourself staring at them, thinking how they well may be the ultimate statement of hip. After Ray Charles, everyone wanted to wear shades.

His look hasn't changed in a half-century. Aside from Ray's voice, his shades are his most identifiable trademark. Their shape, the thick temples, the sleek, impenetrably dark lenses-suggest mystery. They seem to say, I can’t see, but man, I sure can feel. They both draw you to him and keep you at a distance. In the intimacy of his office and the immediacy of his own building, his blindness affords him extra power, gives him distinct advantage. You’re certain he’s viewing a deeper reality than your own seeing eyes will allow.

It’s his voice that hits you hardest. After all, his voice is the reason you’re here. As well as being a great singer, Ray Charles is a great talker, an extravagant teller of tales, a man who revels in straight-line relationship between thought and expression. He thinks it; he says it. He revels in his own vulgarity; he loves to curse, just as he loves to surprise you with an especially eloquent phrase.

Just as Ray enjoys his own singing, he enjoys the sound of his unselfconscious banter. His talk is musical. Or maybe it’s the other way around. His music is conversational. Either way, he’s making music with his mouth. You sit and look and listen to what is essentially a performance, a verbal tour de force.

When you question him, his body stays still. He turns his head towards you and listens with rapt attention. Before responding, he may wait several seconds. At times, searching for the right words, he’ll emit a long “hmmmmmmmmm.” Ray has a slight stutter. But once he gets on a roll, he’s gone. The texture and tone of his voice will change; he’ll exclaim in a high tenor or reflect in a low baritone. To a woman on the phone, he’s dripping molasses; to a business associate, he bellows with authority. Regardless of your gender, he calls you “honey” or “sweetheart.” His voice is porous, versatile, and so directly linked to his feelings that you never doubt his sincerity.

The variations in his voice being to mind the kind of country preachers he first heard as a boy. There is a decided rhythm, a seductive syncopation to his stories. Verbal excitement is part of his charm. Some words are whispered, attached, elongated, or chopped off at the knee.

In an era when many bemoan the absence of self-esteem, Ray has self-esteem to spare. One of his favorite expressions is, "Don't forget, honey, I love me." The remark doesn't seem egotistical, but purely factual. The man likes himself. The man respects himself. He's his own biggest fan, and isn't the least ashamed of saying so. "Whatever's happening in music," he says, "I know I can sing my ass off." As an artist in a world of critics, he displays little vulnerability and no apparent fear. "Sometimes I've clipped the nasty reviews I've gotten," Ray recalls, "and hung 'em on the wall. Just put 'em there to show myself they ain't gonna kill me. My music's
not about pleasing critics; it's about pleasing me."

Spread out between him and your seat by the side of his desk are the discs that compose this collection. At this point of his life you wonder what he thinks of his five-decade career. You wonder how he views the body of his work — the stylistic innovations, the remarkable diversity. Before you slip in the first disc to get his reaction, you think back to where he came from and the wonder of his unprecedented achievements.


The raw facts are startling: Born into abject poverty during the Great Depression in the viciously racist Deep South, blinded at age 6, orphaned at 15, Ray Charles was nonetheless a roaring success by the time he was 25. How he overcame such stringent obstacles is a study in hell-bent tenacity. How he changed the course of American music speaks to the nature of his peculiar genius.

He was born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, and grew up in northwest Florida in the tiny town of Greenville. He's quick to tell you he's a backwoods boy. Like a country lawyer who loves saying he's just a country lawyer, Ray can camouflage his sophistication behind the guise of a bumpkin. He can also confuse facts about his early life. When he and I were working on his autobiography, Brother Ray, for instance, in 1976, he spent many hours describing his mother, Aretha. In his memory, she emerged as a contradictory character, a woman who seemed to both indulge him and discipline him with equal fervor. Then one day Ray said, "I had two mothers. Aretha was the one who set down the rules. But Mary Jane was my father's first wife. I don't believe he married Aretha. I barely knew my father. He wasn't around. He'd left Mary Jane to work the railroads. And these two women raised me. These two women loved me and gave me everything I needed to get by."

Getting by became a lifelong art form. Ray's strategy for survival—emotional and practical—started early. In cruel succession, he faced what might have been devastating blows: At age five, he watched his only sibling, four-year-old George, drown in a washtub, despite Ray's effort to pull him out. Then months later, Ray slowly began losing his sight. By age six, he was blind. The cause remains a mystery The medical expertise was questionable, but Ray suspects glaucoma.

It should have been a tragedy, but wasn't. In fact, blindness and its aftermath set him up for eventual victory. Blindness challenged him, tested him, and finally served to strengthen his resolve. He credits Aretha.

"Looking back," he says, "I'm amazed by the wisdom of that little country woman. It was like she saw what was ahead of me, and she was dead set on making sure I could cope. Today they call it 'tough love.' When I got to feeling sorry for myself, she'd get tough and say, 'You're blind, you ain't dumb; you lost your sight, not your mind.' And she'd make me do my chores, make me clean house, make me see I could do almost anything anyone else could do. Didn't overprotect me until I was scared of the world. Showed me I didn't have to be scared of anything. I even wound up riding a borrowed bike around the woods, A friend would yell when I was about to crash into a tree, so I learned to avoid disaster. Learned to make my own way."

Ray's way led to the Red Wing Cafe and Mr. Wylie Pitman, the first real-life musician he encountered. "Called him Mr. Pit," Ray remembers. "He was the cat who set my soul on fire. Played him some mean boogie woogie piano. That was the style back then. I'd heard Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis coming out the jukebox, but Mr. Pit, who owned the cafe and this upright piano, man, Mr. Pit was live. He'd let me jump in his lap and fool with the keys myself. Couldn't play nothing, but Mr. Pit was beautiful, he'd say, 'Go on, Ray! Go on and mash those keys!' I love the man to this day 'cause he could have shooed me away. Instead he made me feel like the piano was my friend. Made me feel like me and the piano went together real good."

Together with the good-news gospel of the rural Shiloh Baptist Church and the songs of country bluesmen like Tampa Red and Washboard Sam, Mr. Pit's busy boogie woogie introduced the blind boy to the joyful complexities of African- American music.

By age seven, Ray was separated from the country village of his childhood on orders from Aretha. "Leaving Mama might have been tougher than going blind. I'd never been away, and here she was insisting I get on a train and ride something like 160 miles to St. Augustine, See, she found out about a state school for the blind. Found out I could go there for free. Most women would never let go of their only child like that. But Mama wasn't most women, Mama knew I needed the tools of education. She didn't have those tools, bless her heart, but she sure knew where to find them for me. Getting on that train and leaving Mama was the most miserable day of my life, but it also saved my life."

The school itself was segregated, as Ray puts it, "every goddamn which way you could imagine." That meant the blind from the deaf, girls from boys, and, most pointedly, black from white. "Imagine separating kids according to color when we couldn't even see each other," Ray exclaims. "Now ain't that a bitch!"

Somehow Ray adjusted. Educationally, Ray even thrived. He quickly learned Braille and developed a lifelong habit of reading. He remains a voracious reader to this day. He also learned to write well. (Recent e-mails from Ray remind me of his succinct and expressive prose.) His interest in all things mechanical. Which began as early as age three, was encouraged. He learned to repair radios and car engines. Most significantly, though, he benefited from formal instruction on piano. From some of the older boys playing jazz, and from teachers challenging him with pieces by Chopin and Strauss, he rapidly improved. He took to formal instruction and became a proficient reader and eventually writer of musical composition. He also picked up everything he heard on the airwaves. Then, as now, he was open to all styles.

"Take Artie Shaw," he says. "He was one of my first heroes. Didn't even know he was white. Didn't even care. Even more than Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw had the clarinet technique I loved. That perfect tone, that sweet sound. Plus he swung his ass off. Artie Shaw is the reason I took up the instrument myself.

"I'd say hero number two was Art Tatum. Tatum was God. Man did more to a piano than anyone who's ever lived. I wasn't good enough to carry Tatum's shit bucket, but that didn't stop me from trying. Tatum played modern, and I wanted to play modern; I wanted to sound like right now. Tatum showed me how far your imagination can carry you. Long as you got the chops."

Chops became a lifelong obsession—constructing chords, playing in all keys, playing in all tempos, switching styles at the drop of a hat. Individuality was not yet a concept. Like most kids, Ray was delighted to copy, thrilled to sound anything close to the original.

"My ears were sponges," he says. "Soaked it all up. There were radios around, and of course I'd listen to the big bands. The white ones, like the Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller, had a smooth kinda swing. But I felt like the black ones swung harder. I mean Lucky Millinder, Buddy Johnson, Ellington, and Basie. All the singers fascinated me. Didn't care if it was Vaughn Monroe or Dick Haymes. I liked Jo Stafford, and I loved Billie Holiday. The singers I dug most had the most personality; they put attitude into song. I even dug hillbilly attitude when it was done right, like Hank Williams and Hank Snow. I spent many a night listening to The Grand Ole Opry. But right after that, I might find someone who had a record player and stay up listening to the Golden Gate Quartet or the Wings Over Jordan, gospel groups who made me happy with those harmonies and shouting rhythms I'd heard as a baby back in Greenville."

Ray embraced the enormous variety of American popular culture of the 1930s and '40s. Somehow the prejudiced nature of his immediate environment did not embitter him. Later he would say, "I was more interested in getting ahead than getting back." Because he was both curious and smart, he learned in a variety of forms the same essential lesson: Music must entertain.

In 1945, not yet 15, Ray faced his most severe and painful challenge since going blind. The school informed him that Aretha had died in Greenville. She was barely 30. The news traumatized Ray. He went home for the funeral and found himself unable to cry, eat, or even talk. He stayed in a state of shock. "Everyone started worrying about me," he says. "They thought I'd gone nuts. I had. Mama was the world to me, and with Mama gone, I didn't wanna face the world. Didn't wanna face nothing."

It took the village matriarch, a woman named Ma Beck who had mothered 22 children, to reach Ray's suffering heart. “She took me and shook me and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself,” Ray remembers. "She said what Mama would have said, 'Boy, you gotta go on.' Ma Beck was the one who broke me down. Tears just poured out of me. For days, I cried like a baby."

In the aftermath of his near breakdown, Ray realized he was no longer a child. "Not having a mother," he says, "flipped everything around in my mind, I'd been lonely in school, but I got used to that kind of loneliness. That was different. This meant there was nothing and no one in the world to catch me when I fell." In practical terms, he faced the first crossroads of his young adult life: whether to return to school or go out in the world. He spent part of a summer in Greenville and then went to Tallahassee to stay with friends, all the while mulling over his next move.

"Maybe school made me feel safe," Ray reflects. "But school also fenced me in. I'd been in St. Augustine nearly eight years, and I knew the place, knew the teachers. Felt like they taught me what they had to teach. Got me some good basic instruction, but the school could only show me so much. In my own way—call it cockiness or whatever you like—I figured I was ready for the world."

Ray returned to Greenville to say goodbye to Mary Jane and the community that took a special interest in him. He remembers talk of a collective effort to buy him a seeing-eye dog. "Didn't like that idea," he states emphatically. "Three things I wouldn't have—no dog, no cane, no guitar. I associated those things with helplessness and begging. Mama had taught me to rely on my own brain. I appreciated people's kindness but didn't want people's sympathy. Sympathy for what? I was young and strong. Besides, I could play the piano and sing in tune. Watch out!"

A brave spirit and restless energy brought Ray to Jacksonville. "I knew it to be the biggest city in the state, and that's where I wanted to be. Wanted to see what it was like to play with working musicians. And naturally I wanted to make money. Had to make money. Had to see if I could make money playing music. That's one of the reasons I followed Charles Brown and Nat Cole so closely. They were popular, but also helluva musicians."

A word about the California piano trio style, embodied by Brown and Cole, that so deeply influenced young Ray: With roots in the great masters — Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Earl Hines — Nat Cole and Charles Brown were not only virtuosos but marvelously distinctive vocalists as well. Two notes out of their mouths and you knew who they were. Cole was the more sophisticated of the two. His drummerless instrumentation—piano, bass, and guitar—rendered a lighter, more liquid sound. During those frenetic war years when jazz was birthing bebop, Cole incorporated the new lexicon without losing a sense of easy-to-follow melody. He was a modernist, but he was always accessible.

"And naturally I noticed that white people liked Nat Cole as much as us," adds Ray. "No one had to tell me that white people had the money."

Black people adored Charles Brown. He, too, came out of the two-fisted, no-holds-barred school of heavyweight pianists in which Ray was such a serious student. Brown had first been featured with Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers, another popular guitar-bass-piano trio, before going out on his own. Unlike Cole though, Brown was primarily a blues singer, Texas-bred and deeply funky, who added a new dimension to the big-city blues. His blues were kicked-backed California cool.

"The thing about Nat Cole and Charles Brown," says Ray, "is that I could actually imitate them. I'm not talking about stealing a lick here and there, but flat-out copying. I'd sing their hits at little clubs, and people would close their eyes and hardly know the difference. See, I saw that as a way to get gigs. Remember now, I'm still this country kid trying to figure out how the world works. Well, it works by giving people what they wanted. And what they wanted was Nat Cole and Charles Brown. Someone asked me if I felt bad being a copycat for so long . Feel bad? I said, Honey, I feel good any time I can make good money making good music!"

Making money was the chief challenge of Ray's teen years as he bounced around Florida, moving from Jacksonville to Orlando to Tampa, living in flophouses, flopping at friends' houses, sometimes working, sometimes starving. The scuffle was intense. From big bands to solo piano gigs, Ray took what he could. His strategy was survival at any cost.

"Back then, man," he says with a smile, "I even worked in a hillbilly band called the Florida Playboys. It was a big group, couple of fiddlers, regular guitar and steel guitar both. Funny thing is that the band was all-white. But no one seemed to mind me being there, long as I played the right notes."

Ray's way of finding work in the maze of the American music scene, with its baffling twists and turns, is best seen in his recordings. Listening to those songs, Ray reflects on his long struggle for acceptance as he tells you the story of his singular approach to art and life.


The Florida music scene toughened Ray to the wider world of show business. From ages 15 through 18, he negotiated the emotions of small acceptance and large rejection. Ambitious to hook up with a national figure, Ray auditioned during this down period for Lucky Millinder, whose big band competed with Ellington's, Basie's, and Lunceford's. Lucky was not lucky for Ray.

"Told me I didn't have what it takes," remembers Ray. "Put it just like that. At the time I thought Lucky was cold-blooded. But Lucky was just honest. I had potential, but in the '40s, jazz musicians were right on it; they didn't want to hear about no potential. Motherfuckers would cut you up in a jam session and serve your ass for dinner."

While Ray's Florida adventures yielded few material rewards, they ultimately boosted his confidence. He saw he could survive; shuffling from city to city, he saw he could deal with the road. That revelation would sustain him for a lifetime. Florida also served to stimulate his curiosity about the world outside Florida. Ray had a live-in girlfriend who would eventually give birth to his first child. But no woman or child — and over the years, Ray would have many — would ever change the focus of Ray's career. He knew he had to get away and, less than three years out of school, he decided to go as far as he could without leaving the U.S. According to Ray, the crucial moment came when he asked guitarist Gosady McGee to get a map and point to the city farthest from Tampa. When the answer came back "Seattle," Ray said, "I'm gone."

In the late '40s Seattle was smoking. The military presence meant party time, and party time meant work for musicians. Ray soaked up the steamy brew of old I moved to Los Angeles. "Jack was an important player in my career,' says Ray. ' Jack was the first of many record men who never thought I needed a producer. He never told me what to sing or how to sing. I loved that. And I appreciated that. These guys saw fit to let me follow myself. Jack also knew I needed road work, so he hooked me up with Lowell Fulson, a guitarist in the T-Bone Walker mold. Lowell was a big name back then. I played piano in his band, wrote charts, and soon became his musical director. During his show, I'd do a couple of numbers of my own."

By 1952 Ray had been around the country several times with Lowell and was eager to go out on his own. He signed with the Shaw Agency, who booked him as a single, meaning Ray had to pick up whatever musicians were available wherever he happened to be. Around the same time, while Lauderdale's label was suffering financially, Ray was courted by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson of Atlantic, another independent R&B label, but one with unusual savvy about making and marketing black music.

"I knew Ray's early work," recalls Ertegun. "I recognized his talent and wanted him on Atlantic. We met him in a Harlem hotel, offered a contract, and that was it."

"I'd call it one of the happiest relationships of my life," says Ray. "Ahmet and Herb and, a little later, Jerry Wexler were cats who understood me completely. They gave me songs they thought fit me, but if I said they didn't, no one argued. No one forced me. Truth is, I forced myself to write a lot of the songs, 'cause I wasn't happy with the material. I don't consider myself a real writer. I write out of necessity. In those early sessions, though, other people were writing the arrangements, guys like Jesse Stone."

After making records that reflected the influence of Cole and Brown, Ray made a change. And in doing so, smack dab in the middle of the ultraconservative 1950s, Ray Charles changed American music. All the elements came together in a glorious and improbable synthesis of sound. With seven years of real-life arranging experience under his belt, Ray now commanded the voicings he had long sought; his aural vision came into sharp focus. Lean and clean, his septet became a single instrument capable of saying everything he wanted to say.

And his voice, around which his self-styled charts were molded, was finally his own. "Got tired of folks saying, 'Man, you sound just like Nat Cole; man, you sound just like Charles Brown," Ray freely admits. "I held on to those styles a long , long time, but after I was with Atlantic awhile, after I had me a few little hits, I figured I was my own man. So I sang in my own voice." That voice—raw, real, bluer than blue, and sanctified as Sunday morning—signaled a new direction. The voice was filled with confidence, pain, joy; the voice was flexible, funny, loose enough to slide up to falsetto, fall into baritone funk, scream, whisper, shout out the good news. The voice projected a natural grace and straight-up honesty that caught and held the attention and affection of music fans, first in America, then the world.

Beyond the beauty of the voice was the daring musical form. Ray tore down the chain-link fence separating the secular from the sacred. He took gospel songs, retained their rhythms, changed their words, and invented a form soon to be called soul.

The great separation felt by so many African American singers between the holy church and unholy world was merely an abstraction to Ray Charles. It meant nothing. Ray was beyond superstitions. He did not fear the God who, in the minds of generations of church singers, forbade the mingling of genres. Ray's God was the God of One, the God for whom all music, rooted in honest expression of heart and soul, is righteous and true. Besides, he wanted to survive; he needed money.

So the songs came pouring out of him, a startling series of gospel-fueled blues-based laments and celebrations, vignettes that spoke to the loss of love, the pang of loneliness, the glorification of women, the obsession of romance. Unlike contemporaries like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Ray's aesthetics were not aimed at teenagers. They were too heavy, too adult. "Sometimes I'm thrown in with the cats who started rock 'n' roll," says Ray, "but I don't see it that way. My things weren't for kids. Kids later picked up on them, but they had a different feeling than Chuck and Richard. Chuck and Richard had grooves that drove the teens nuts. Seems like my grooves drew an older crowd. My writing had a different slant."

Ray is especially candid and unusually humble in describing his early writing. "Looking back over my career, I didn't do that much writing. But if people think of me as a writer, that's because what little writing I did was successful. Still don't consider myself a writer, not like a Duke Ellington or a George Gershwin. My shit is simple. Say what you gotta say in two, three minutes. Now write the words first 'cause that's the hardest part for me. Once you got your little story line, it's nothing to find the right notes. Remember, though, my main thing is singing. I gear up everything—the song, the rhythm, the arrangement—to highlight my voice."

Forty-five years after Ray recorded "I've Got A Woman" with his first-ever brand-new band, the sound still pierces the soul. Ray Charles' little bands of the '50s remain among the most influential musical units in the history of pop, rock, soul—or whatever you name it. His early hits on Atlantic are a model of emotional efficiency, maximum impact in minimum time.

"My cats could really jam up," says Ray. "On 'I Got A Woman,' my first thing to hit #1 on the R&B chart, that's Donald Wilkerson on tenor. He was a man whose sax could make you cry, Wilkerson never got the recognition of a John Coltrane, but he had that kind of talent. There were beautiful cutting contests between Donald and Fathead. That's Fathead playing baritone, by the way, on 'Greenbacks.'"

"One of the astounding aspects of Ray's early recordings," says Jerry Wexler, who was at the Atlanta sessions, "was his flexibility. He could adjust to any circumstance. Even more striking was his complete proficiency at production. He had the total sound. We were the students, he was the teacher. We merely turned on the lights—which he didn't even heed."

"We cut 'A Fool For You' in Miami after I was up all night singing," says Ray. "Maybe it helped that my voice was hoarse. It's a serious song. I like it when I sing, 'Ever since I been five years old...way down in my soul.' I mean, that's saying something. I usually prefer other people's lyrics over mine, but this is one time when I came through. Sorry, man, but that song's pretty goddamn deep.

"I look at 'Hallelujah I Love Her So' as a breakthrough. Not that the song is any big deal. It's cute, but it caught on bigger than anything I'd ever done. That's when I started hearing the word crossover. Meaning what? Meaning whites were buying 'Hallelujah' in big numbers. White singers, like Peggy Lee, started singing cover versions. I took that as a compliment. Everyone could relate to the story."

Ray's recording career is a model of slow-but-steady momentum and expansion. A cautious producer by nature, he considered changes for months, even years, before executing them. "Take this idea of background vocals," he says. "I used a vocal trio behind me—Fathead, Wilkerson, and a girl called Mary Ann Fisher. As time went on, I thought it'd be hip to have all-girl voices behind. I liked the idea of being the only man with lots of women. Still like the idea today. Well, I heard a group called the Cookies and asked their leader, Margie Hendrix, if they'd sing with me. She said sure, and that was it."

The innovation would be adopted by everyone from Elvis to Prince. But where did Ray get the idea? "Church," he says. "People like James Cleveland and Albertina Walker and the Davis Sisters. Loved their background sounds, the way the girls echoed and built up the lead vocal. Loved the contrast."

When Ray wasn't writing his own songs, he was choosing gems written by others that sound as if they could have been written by him, classics like Doc Pomus' brilliant dirge "Lonely Avenue." In a similar style, "Drown In My Own Tears" and "(Night Time Is) The Right Time" are two other flawless diamonds.


Nineteen fifty-nine was the year. Before then, Ray Charles was a consistent hitmaker of a new-fangled rhythm & blues. He also won recognition as a jazz artist. In 1958, when he played the Newport Jazz Festival, his band surprised the devotees with their blistering brand of soul bop. His Soul Brothers collaboration with vibist Milt Jackson was a stunning meditation on pure-heart jazz in blue. In the summer of 1959, though, he exploded with the biggest record of his career. Ray tells the story:
"Hank Crawford had joined the band. Everyone knows Hank's a helluva alto man, but in those days he was playing baritone—I'd double up on alto—and Hank
was also writing. I'd dictate charts to him, and he soon learned my writing style. With Hank around, I was getting more arrangements done, but on this one particular night we'd run out of arrangements. Man, we'd run out of tunes. It was 1 a.m. and the owner said we needed to play another ten minutes, so I just started jamming and told everyone, including the Raeletts, to follow me. That jam became 'What'd I Say.' By the crowd reaction I knew we had something. The crowd went wild. We stormed into New York a few weeks later and cut it. Before then, everyone was laughing at me for playing electric piano. After 'What'd I Say,' those same cats were running out scrambling to buy electric pianos of their own."

"What'd I Say" became an anthem of playful sexuality; its call-and-response mocked the rhythms of lovemaking. Several stations went so far as to ban the song. "Pissed me off," says Ray, "because the ban was lifted when white singers sang my song. What were the stations saying—that black sex is dirty and white sex is clean? It was crazy, but I didn't care. More they played it, more royalties for me."

Atlantic's most extravagant Ray Charles production is an album titled The Genius Of Ray Charles. One side consists of ballads with lush strings; the flipside puts Ray in front of a big band. "I was in heaven in both situations," he says. "See, I wanted to sing pretty things with lots of fiddles around me, and I wanted to sing bright things with the brass kicking my ass." In the album's original liner notes, critic Nat Hentoff calls Ray "one of the most warmly personal and sensitive ballad singers of his generation."

The most moving ballad is included here: "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'." "The thrill for me," says Ray, "was having Ralph Burns write the arrangements. Coming up, I was a Woody Herman fan, and the name Ralph Burns was all over Woody's records." Ray's performances are heartbreakingly tender, a revelation that the rawness of his natural voice was as effective on slow standards as up-tempo R&B. If Nat Cole was the smoothest balladeer of his day, Ray would become the most soulful balladeer of his era.

Ironically, in the wake of Ray's greatest triumphs on Atlantic—"What'd I Say" as a single and The Genius Of Ray Charles as an album — he left them for ABC. "That was a big move for me," he comments, "because I loved Ahmet and Nesuhi and Jerry. But I was growing up. Learning business. And when ABC offered a big advance, a richer royalty rate plus ownership of my masters, I was sold. I was also lucky that Sam Clark, the man at ABC, was basically as cool as [Jack] Lauderdale or Wexler when it came to my music. He let me do what I wanted."

The first phase of Ray's ABC work is a continuation of his small band configurations begun at Atlantic. Two differences, though, are telling—first, the band was better because it had expanded to include Leroy "Hog" Cooper on baritone sax; and secondly, Ray's repertoire had been augmented by his relationship with Percy Mayfield.

"Must have been about 1959 when Leroy joined the band. I'd met him in his hometown, Dallas, when I was living there. The minute I felt I could add an eighth member to the band, I had Fathead call Hog to join us. See, Leroy is a pure baritone saxist. That's his instrument. He's a big man, and he gets over his ax like it's a toy. Cat plays fast, plays filthy blues, plays anything. He plays with body and balls, and he gave that little band a bottom it never had before. Hank switched to alto, his main horn, I mainly stayed at piano and we really started to cook."

The initial ABC R&B singles are among the most satisfying in Ray's career. His long keyboard solo on "Sticks And Stones" is riveting. And on "Them That Got," you hear the richness of Hog Cooper's fat baritone laying down a foundation that lifts the little band to new heights. Fathead's solo is another lyrical marvel. But perhaps the best of this series of singles are those composed by bluesman/singer/songwriter Percy Mayfield - "Hit The Road Jack," "But On The Other Hand Baby," "At The Club," and "Hide 'Nor Hair."

"I knew Percy as the singer and writer of ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love," Ray explains. "Don't wanna go off oh an ego trip but Percy really liked me, and he’d come by and play me songs. We worked out an arrangement without signing any contracts that if I'd record his songs, 1 could also publish them. See, I was learning more business. Percy was beautiful, not just 'cause his songs were poetry, but ‘cause he understood me. If his songs didn't fit me, he wouldn't take it personally He'd just go back and write me another And when they did fit, honey, the fit was perfect."

The happy Mayfield/Charles collaboration was marked by humor. A couple of years before he died in 1984, Percy told me, "I can make Ray laugh like no one else, I know what tickles the man, and I know how to put that tickle in the song so everyone gets a chuckle of it." The biggest chuckle was "Hit the Road Jack," a huge #1 hit in 1961 that turned heartbreak into a comedy skit. "At The Club" and "Hide ‘Nor Hair" (with its tongue-in-cheek reference to Ray’s real-life Dr. Foster) are also comic romps. Percy's — and Ray's — extraordinary versatility are also evident on the serious sides. "But On The Other Hand Baby" may be the purest blues Ray has ever enunciated, Phil Guilbeau's muted horn an exquisite counterpoint to the story of equivocal love.

Singles like "Unchain My Heart," another Top 10 hit in 1961, kept Ray's R&B train in motion. His spirit was still afire. The same spirit, though, sought artistic expansion. The Genius album on Atlantic whetted his appetite for new musical dishes:

"Started fooling with the idea of a whole album strung together by a single idea," says Ray. "Couldn't call my ideas great. Might even call ‘em jivey, but they were mine. They were little ideas and I liked them. The first one was an album of songs with names of the states. Corny? Hell, yes, but I'm a corny cat."

The album was called Genius Hits The Road and included "Georgia On My Mind," not only a towering hit but also a song with which he will always be associated. "Came about by accident," Ray recalls. "Had me a driver who'd always hear me humming 'Georgia On My Mind.' Cat said, 'You hum it so much, why don't you record it?' 'Can't record it,' I said, "cause I don't even know the words.' 'Well, the words are easier enough to find.' He was right. Man, he didn't know how right he was. There was other good shit on that Road album, but nobody played nothing but 'Georgia.'"

"Georgia On My Mind" altered the direction of Ray's career. He'd proved he could be equally successful singing a standard written outside his original genre of blues or rhythm & blues. Ray's ability to turn Hoagy Carmichael's 1930 piece of Southern nostalgia into a 1960 smash convinced him that the songbook was wide open; he could choose from a world of material, no matter what category, and personalize it to the point where fans felt he had actually written the song himself. This marks the virtual retirement of Ray the songwriter and the ascension of Ray the interpreter. He approaches the subject today with absolute clarity.

"Easier for me to find songs someone else wrote," he explains, "than to write them myself. Remember, I was writing when I had to. When I didn't, I could focus on singing. Besides, other writers can say things I can't express myself."

On his second ABC album, Ray came up with another "jivey" concept—songs with women's names. "I keep it simple," says the man. "I like lots of women, I like thinking of women when I'm singing, so I wanna cut a whole album of women's names." "Ruby," the follow-up ballad to "Georgia," was another strong pop seller.

Meanwhile, ABC was not unmindful of Ray's jazz side. In fact, they commissioned an album which mirrors his Genius sessions at Atlantic and, in some ways, surpasses them. Genius + Soul = Jazz is a milestone and still another Ray Charles masterpiece. Brought out on Impulse!, an ABC subsidiary label (where John Coltrane, who also switched from Atlantic in this same time slot, continued to expand his sound), Genius + Soul represents some of Ray's most inspired work. The big surprise—and delight—is that he's playing the Hammond B3 organ, long considered the funkiest of keyboards. What prompted the move?

Ray laughs at the question. "Sweetheart," he says, "wish I could give answers that sound reasonable and right, but the honest truth is that it's something I just wanted to do. I thought that an organ against the Basie big band might give me some drama. And the old man," he adds, referring to himself, "is always looking for drama."

The two tracks included here are killers, surefire candidates for a time capsule containing the most gripping 20th century art. "I've Got News For You" is a Ralph Burns chart custom-made for Ray and the Basie band (with the addition of Ray's trumpeter Phil Guilbeau). From the swamp fever of the organ intro to the blaring brass to the impassioned vocal and world-wise lyric, "News" is a barnstorming blues, magnificently constructed and faithful to the quirky persona of Mr. C. "You wore a diamond watch/Claimed it was from Uncle Joe/When I looked at the inscription/It said, 'Love, from Daddy-O'" are words no reasonable listener will ever forget. And Quincy Jones wrote the arrangements for "One Mint Julep," which became Ray's first Top 10 instrumental hit.

In the early '60s, before the rise of Motown and Stax/Volt, at a time when pop music seemed especially saccharine, Ray was turning out a masterwork a month. On the heels of "Georgia On My Mind," "Ruby," "One Mint Julep," "Hit The Road Jack," and "Unchain My Heart," he was finally financially secure.

"First thing I did when I saw the bread," he asserts, "was get my own big band. Dreamt of having a big band for years. Always got excited by big bands. The ultimate backup for a singer is a big band. I love when my voice bounces off a big band. My first one was a bitch. Naturally I kept the cats from the small band—Fathead, Leroy, Wilkerson, Belgrave. Guilbeau. Milt Turner, Edgar Willis - and just added on till I got the 17 pieces I wanted. Hank Crawford became musical director. Later Leroy Cooper would take over that role. Quincy gave me a bunch of charts, and Hank and I wrote a bunch of our own. Look out, I was in business!"

Since the summer of 1961, the business of Ray Charles' big band has been booming. He tours the world with the unit even if, on occasion, he will bring only a trio to a symphony date. "My first choice," he says, "is always the band. It's an extension of me, like the piano, like my voice."


Just when it seemed Ray had done all there was to do, he did more. He made a move that surprised everyone but himself. He moved as far as he could from R&B, jazz, and standard songbook ballads, while still remaining in the realm of pop. He did what no other blues-based black singer had done before; he not only recorded country & western music, but, by virtue of his unprecedented success in the genre, he single-handedly gave it a mass appeal it had never before known. "Ray took country music to the world," says Willie Nelson. "And in some way the rest of us country singers are riding on his coattails."

"Didn't have any of that in mind," says Ray. "Wasn't trying to change the world. Just wanted to sing songs I loved. Had always loved. Had always felt were part of my growing up. After all, I'm a country boy. Of course I knew ABC had signed me for R&B. But 'Georgia' and 'Ruby' were more than R&B hits. They took me somewhere else. So now I figured I could go where I wanted. When I told Sam Clark about the idea, he wasn't sure. He thought I'd lose my fan base. 'If I do it right, Sam,' I said, 'I'll gain more fans than I lose.' Well, I guess I did it right, 'cause I had some monster hits."

"I Can't Stop Loving You," for example, shot to #1 on the pop chart in 1962 and stayed there for five weeks. Some purists claimed the white background singers were too syrupy. But Ray's black fans didn't agree; they kept it at #1 on the R&B chart for 16 weeks, a record.

"Funny, I didn't put the record together by trying to please the public," Ray notes. "I never do. I'm looking to please me. Keep in mind, this was just another jivey concept, like the names of cities or women. This was Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. I had Sid Feller, my great friend and arranger, find me a mess of country songs. Sid researched the hell out of it and came up with 250 tunes.

"I went for the lyrics. Take 'You Don't Know Me.' I mean, here's a man telling I 'his woman something she needs to hear. And saying it in a poetry that brings a tear to your eye. I've been singing 'Take These Chains From My Heart' for 35 years now. and the goddamn thing still breaks me up. Brother, these are some sad songs.

"As a genuine fan of country music, there were other songs I knew and I associated, with certain singers I loved. But I was stupid enough to figure I could do [them] in my own way. Take Buck Owens' 'Crying Time.' Didn't sing the song out of disrespect for Buck. I'm crazy about Buck. But I heard something that fit my style. The key was keeping my style while watching my style work in different ways."

In spite of the shifting styles in pop music — Motown, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Stones - Ray's country material proved tremendously popular for most of the '60s. In 1962, after cutting Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Volume 2, he moved into the office building and studio he occupies today and headquartered himself in L.A. He would settle into a routine that would remain constant over the next four decades. Working a steady nine or ten months a year, gigging around the globe, he'd reserve the heavy winter months for TV appearances and recording, but, in truth, he would record all year long . He has been known to fly in from Paris, squeeze in a few hours of recording in his L.A. studio, then fly right back out to Rome. Like women, recording has remained his lifelong obsession. (Married twice, he has fathered nine children with seven women.)

In 1963 Ray reentered the kingdom of rhythm & blues with Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul. "Busted" was the big song from the album. Sid Feller, Ray's principal arranger in the '60s, produced the session. But Feller, like Wexler before him, gives production credit to Ray. "Ray always knew exactly what he wanted," says Feller, "and exactly how to get it. I was a facilitator. I could read him. I was honored to serve him. Things like 'Busted,' though, came out of Ray's guts. He created the ambience; he sold the song."

"Now that's a song," says Ray, "that takes me all the way back to Greenville. I got it off Johnny Cash, but put it in a blues bag. I know you're tired of me harping on lyrics, but lyrics are the key. Those lyrics hit me hard. No matter how much money I got, when I sing, 'My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes and I'm busted"

"Busted" was another big hit, rising to #4 on the pop chart. Like "Georgia" and "What’d I Say," "Busted" remains part of practically every Ray Charles show some 35 years after it was recorded.

As the '60s; wore on, it became clear that Ray saw his role as interpretive vocalist rather than original writer. His originality was — is, and forever will be — in interpretation. His willingness, even his bravery, in tackling old songs other singers might consider hackneyed became a trademark.

This is also the time when Ray’s self-medication came to an end. His heroin habit had him at odds with the law, and, after several busts, he checked into a hospital and kicked, cold turkey. The year of his rehabilitation, 1965, is the only one in his five-decade career when he did not tour.

In 1966 the freshly formed songwriting team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who would later enjoy great success at Motown and eventual solo stardom of their own, brought Ray two songs, both blues variations and both brilliant. In an age when pot was the crop of growing preference, "Let's Go Get Stoned" offered just the right twist.


The rock rebellion that swept the pop world coincided with the Golden Age of Soul. Looking back at both movements—the dominance of The Beatles and Stones and ascension of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin—it is clear that Ray Charles had become a beacon for both camps. Few would argue that he was the most influential voice of the past quarter-century. And just as Louis Armstrong had taught the world that the jazz aesthetic was applicable to any song, Ray showed that soul was every bit as universal. Legions of spirited white singers, from Steve Winwood to Joe Cocker to Rod Stewart, would build careers on the essential Ray Charles style. And he was equally as important in the world of black music. "Everyone at Motown idolized Ray," said Marvin Gaye. "He had both the commercial success and raw feeling we were all looking for. He was the man."

As the '60s grew more intense, as politics infused the music and protests hit the streets, Ray kept a steady course. His initial stylistic innovations—his gospel-soul-jazz-country synthesis—was a historical fact. Major innovations no longer interested him. But songs did. Songs always would.

"Like everyone else, I listened to The Beatles," he remembers. "At first they didn't kill me. But I saw soon they could write. Their ballads started speaking to me. Their ballads were serious. So I sang 'Yesterday,' and I'm gonna keep singing it."


In the early '70s Ray cut an album with a political theme, A Message From The People. In the age of dissent, the selections have something of an edge, but the big surprise—and the enduring interpretation—is "America The Beautiful." Asked whether it was his idea to sing the song, Ray replies, "Yes, darling, who else's idea would it be?" He goes on to tell the story: "Some of the verses were just too white for me, so I cut them out and sang the verses about the beauty of the country and the bravery of the soldiers. Then I put a little country church backbeat on it and turned it my way."

The result is another Ray Charles classic, another reformulated piece of Americana that he has sung hundreds of times since its initial release. Some hear irony in his interpretation, but Ray claims to be playing it straight. "I'm the first to say this country is racist to the bone," he states plainly, "but that doesn't mean I can't be patriotic. For all the bullshit about America, I still work and live here in comfort."

In the '80s Ray switched gears by signing with CBS Nashville and producer Billy Sherrill. "When I first sang country music in the '60s," says Ray, "I had lots of string and a chorus of singers. This time I wanted to do more downhome country, with the real Nashville cats in the studio. Wanted to hear those crying steel guitars. Was looking for a purer approach."

From Friendship, an album of duets, and the pairing with Willie Nelson came "Seven Spanish Angels," Ray's first major hit in over a decade. "Went down to Willie's ranch in Texas," Ray remembers, "and cut it right there in his studio. Singing with Willie is just as easy as talking with Willie. Hung out for a couple of days, just to play chess with [him]. If he'll only admit I'm the better chess player, we'd be all right."

Ray has a knack for high visibility, no matter what his chart action. Later in the '80s he recorded "I'll Be Good To You," a Johnson Brothers hit from an earlier era, as a Quincy Jones - produced duet with Chaka Khan. Just like that, he was back on the charts.

Ray is a man of absolute routine; his life is a matter of touring and recording. He's been doing so for 50 years and, in his own words, "I'll be doing it till I drop." Today has been different. Today he willingly answered questions, listened to old recordings, and reflected on his past. Now he has tired of doing so. "Not that I don't like my old records," he says. "I already told you that I love me. That means that I love my music. But the music I love the most is the music I'm in the middle of doing. See, I gotta get back there to the studio."

In the rear of his building, Ray's studio, were it not equipped with a state-of-the-art 48-track board, could compete with Sun Studio in Memphis or the West Grand Motown studio in Detroit as a monument of recording history. It feels like living history. The decor is absolutely plain; the vibe is early '60s. The small room on the engineering side of the glass, where Ray has spent God only knows how many hours for the past 35 years, is charged with his electricity. He loves the mechanics of his music as much as the soul of his songs. He starts turning switches, pushing buttons, adjusting levels. He plays some recent stuff, songs he performed at a Ferragamo fashion show in Milan, songs he's preparing for a new record—R&B songs, country songs, standards he wants to include on a jazz album he's been planning for years.

"So you see," he says, indicating it's time for you to leave, time for him to get back to doing what he does best, "I've still got a lifetime of music ahead of me."

— David Ritz
David Ritz co-wrote Brother Ray with Ray Charles in addition to writing biographies of B.B. King, Marvin Gave, Etta James, Smokey Robinson, and Jerry Wexler. Ritz is currently working with Aretha Franklin and the Neville Brothers on their memoirs.
[This is an edited, updated version of the liner note essay that first appeared in Rhino's 1997 Ray Charles: Genius & Soul—The 50th Anniversary Collection box set]

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