In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra tagged Ray Charles "Genius," an appropriate nickname for one of American music's most innovative figures. Charles brought a sophistication to rhythm and blues that made the music--and the man--wildly popular.
His intuition in merging gospel rhythms with blues raunch set the foundation for soul music, while his progressive arrangements on 1962's Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music revolutionized that genre. His effect on the contemporary scene is evident in the diverse careers of two of his protégés, producers Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin) and Tom Dowd (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd), and his influence has been cited by a number of musicians including James Brown, the Righteous Brothers, Stevie Wonder and Steve Winwood.
Born into poverty in rural Georgia, Ray Charles contracted glaucoma at age 5 and soon lost his sight. At a Florida school for the blind, he studied composition and learned to play several instruments, including trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and organ. Orphaned at 15, he moved to Seattle--as far from his home, he once said, as the bus could take him. Within a short time, he had a successful club act, performing in the smooth style of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown. He was also arranging material and recording with other bands. Atlantic Records signed him in 1954, and he established himself the next year with the song 'I've Got A Woman,' a then-shocking mix of the religious vernacular and sexual innuendo. (Soon they'd just call it rock and roll.)
He closed the decade with his frenzied 'What'd I Say,' started the '60s with 'Georgia On My Mind' and went on to have hits with 'Hit The Road, Jack,' 'I Can't Stop Loving You' and 'Let's Go Get Stoned' among others. If the '70s found Charles less in the limelight, he reestablished himself in 1980 through his role in the film, The Blues Brothers, and has reached a whole new generation with his successful TV commercials for Pepsi Cola.
At 61, he has slowed his hectic schedule, but not by much. A recent engagement found him in Las Vegas on stage at the MGM Grand with his 17-piece band, plus five female vocalists, the Raelets. Last year, Atlantic issued a retrospective of his career under their auspices. Sharp, witty and energetic, Charles still is — like the Pepsi commercials say — the right one, baby.
You've been a different person to different generations. Recently, a friend's kid saw you on TV and said, "There's the Pepsi Cola man." How does that make you feel?
You must remember, I've been doing this sort of thing, making a living at it professionally, since I was fifteen. I've gotten the Grammys and I've gotten the Man Of The Year awards and I've gotten the Kennedy Center thing. The state song of Georgia is officially my version. The name of the game, man, is keeping people into you in whatever you do. Right now the Pepsi thing is very, very popular. You say just kids, but the old folks dig it too. But these youngsters, when they get to be 20, and God knows if I'll be around, they'll be saying, "Mr. Charles, I remember that Pepsi commercial. My mama had all your records, I've been hearing you all my life."
There was a period in the '70s when you didn't have hits and were somewhat out of the spotlight.
My career is steady. I don't know nothing about slow or fast, because I don't look at it that way. My career is not built on what you read in the paper. When I make records, I have constant sellers. How do you know that, Ray? Because I keep getting the royalties, that's how I know. I'm very fortunate. Everywhere I go in the world, people are very, very familiar with my music. Look at my name like a household word. You mention Ray Charles anywhere in the world, people gonna know who the hell you talking about. I hope you don't think that the only reason I can still go out and fill houses is because I do Pepsi commercials. [Laughs.] I was doing that long before the commercial ever came out.
There's a rough side to your vocals and also a smooth, crooning side. Which comes to you first?
I just do it, man. Without sounding too egotistical, I just call myself a singer. What comes to me is what I'm trying to portray. Think of me as an actor that is doing it with notes as opposed to talking. I'm supposed to be good enough to make it convincing to you as a listener. I do what I feel fits the song, and that's what comes out.
At what point in your life did you know you would be a musician?
Oh, well, I'm not even sure I ever thought about it like that. When I was three years old I didn't even know the word "musician," but I did know I wanted to try to play piano.
That's right. This fellow Wiley Pitman was my neighbor, and he had a piano. Whenever he would start to play this boogie woogie I would go sit on the stool next to him and bang away. He would stop me and try to show me how to play little melodies with one finger.
Is Wiley Pitman's boogie woogie the first music that you recall?
Well, I would say that that was the first music that I recall that would stop me from my playing outdoors with other children. But I heard other music. We lived not far from a cafe that had a jukebox and I heard records. Even the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, when my mom would let me stay up on Saturday night. But it was Mr. Pitman's piano playing that was attractive because that was right there on the spot, it was live!
Other than Nat Cole, Charles Brown and your neighbor Wiley Pitman, who else influenced your playing?
I liked music that sounded good to me. I didn't know nothing about all these styles and names. As a kid, all I knew is that it either sounded good or it didn't.
Does that still apply to you today?
Damn near true today too. [Laughs] For me it was always a matter of just what kind of music caught my brain and made me jump up and down and say "Wow, oh!"
When you heard these things that got you excited, were you able to apply them to your work?
I think that in music--or in any form of artistry, whether it's writing or painting or sculpture or what--we learn from a variety of sources. If you're very interested in someone else's work, it doesn't mean that you are copying them, but you can incorporate what you see that works for you. I'm sure one particular painter was not the first to put white and black together and get gray. You learn from people that make you sit up and take notice--that's what it's all about, man. And that's one of the things that bothers me about some of the music today. It doesn't have--at least for me--I know this is a terrible thing to say--but I can't see how I can get anything out of rap music. I really can't. I've been talking ever since I was two! People say well look at it from a poetic point of view. The poetry--for me--ain't that great. So, I know I sound like sour grapes or something, but I'm just saying that what I've always liked is something musical, a tone. Like you could take a triangle and hit it with a piece of steel and get a tone. Music, that's what I've always been into.
Have you heard any talent coming up that particularly impresses you?
I haven't heard anybody in the modern field that I would say has blown my head off. Partly that might be my own fault, because I don't get around to hear maybe as much stuff as I could, and you ain't gonna discover nobody that's going to blow your head off listening to the radio. The radio is dead. Most of what you hear on the radio and the records is very, very simple. It seems like the record companies want everybody to sound the same. And that's another thing, when I was coming up, you could have artists sang two notes and you know who they were. When Count Basie's Band played two notes you knew it was Basie's band. You don't see that, now. Maybe I saw an awful lot in my life, but what bothers me is that I don't see anything coming through to replace it.
What was the last thing you heard that blew your head off?
Some of the last stuff that I listened to that made me sit up and still makes me sit up and take notice, that's Charlie Parker or the old Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie duet thing. How accurate the stuff that they used to do together is. It was done maybe forty years ago and even today it's still the most fantastic thing you ever want to hear in your life.
Is there any point in your career, a recording or an incident, when you realized that you were doing your own thing and not playing like someone else?
I got with Atlantic Records because they heard the version of 'Kiss Me, Baby' that I did on the old Swing Time Label, the first label I was on. That was strictly me, not trying to imitate anybody. I was still a little scared because I could get work sounding like Nat Cole or I could get work sounding like Charles Brown. I could get jobs, and I wanted to make some money, but there came a point once I was with Atlantic, I just said to myself, hey, if I'm gonna make it in this world and be accepted, I had better be accepted the way I sound, so I dropped all the imitations and stuff. Completely.
You were with Atlantic most of the '50s, and that was a period of growth for both of you.
That's right. Here I was a youngster, but they felt I was talented. There was no pressure on me that the first record be a hit. They just kept saying, 'Hey man, you just come on in and keep recording the music.' That was their attitude, which is something you don't find today. I mean, you go into a company and you make a couple of records and if it don't hit you're out, finished. Another thing about the people at Atlantic, they can tap their feet to the music, they can snap their fingers on the two and four beat. Which is something else you hardly don't see today. Record executives can't keep time, but they control all the money, they control all of everything.
Tell me about when you started having hits, when you played gospel songs in a blues vernacular? Were you at all hesitant about blending the two?
I didn't make no decision to combine nothing. I was just being myself. You got a choice in this world, you either gonna be yourself, or you ain't. We did 'I've Got A Woman,' and of course it created a lot of static from a lot of people. But then, on the other hand, it was a hit. It was a hit in the black community and the white community. So what can I tell you, brother?
Weren't some of those songs pretty close adaptations of straight gospel numbers?
It's like saying my music sounds like a lot of the old blues. If you say my music sounds like a lot of the old gospel songs, yeah, well, you're right. But, so what? I was raised in a Baptist church. What you talking about? I went to revival meetings, I went to BYPU [Baptist Young People's Union] meetings on Sunday as a kid. And on Sunday you went to church in the morning, you stayed there all day, you went to church on Sunday night, and if there was a revival you went to all those things. I was around religious music, just like I was around the blues. Both had an effect on me.
But putting out an album of country songs seems like a leap to me. You had established yourself in R&B, and had not previously recorded any country, and then all of a sudden there was a whole album. That seems like a more conscious decision on your part.
Like I've always said, man, all my life I've always liked different kinds of music. If you like different kinds of things, you want to do different kinds of things. If you're a sportsman you like baseball, you like a little football, you like a little basketball, you like a little hockey, you might even care for golf...know what I mean? I'm a musician, man. I like different kinds of music. I like classical music, I can play Beethoven, I can play Rachmaninov, I can play Chopin. Every now and then when I do dates with symphony orchestras I play these things and I shock the hell out of people.
Do you have any tips for upcoming pianists or arrangers--not so much for surviving the business but as an approach to music.
I think the first thing you must do is be honest with yourself. Do you really genuinely feel you have talent, do you have something to offer or something that you have a feeling about? And if you do, the only thing I would say is don't get the idea that you're supposed to get it done in one night or one shot or one record or one anything. Even the Good Lord didn't make the world in one day. And he could have done anything he wanted to do. What that means is practicing. A lot of people don't like or enjoy doing that, but I really feel that if you're gonna be good, you gotta practice. I've never met anybody that was genuinely good that didn't practice. Practice whatever the hell you do.
You could have quit touring a long time ago. Why do you stay on the road?
I do what I do because it is part of me. That's the best way I can put it. If you been breathing ever since you've come into the world, why do you still want to keep breathing? To keep living. And I'm saying music is a part of me, so I'm going to just keep doing it until the Good Lord pulls the curtain down on me, and that's the way that goes.
You've had a very successful career that has allowed you many freedoms. Is there anything you haven't done that you'd like to do?
I have to be honest and tell you no, really and truly. Because I've been a very, very fortunate and blessed human being. The things that I genuinely wanted to do in my career I've been able to do. Now, my only desire is to be able to remain healthy, and--I can't teach because I don't have the patience for it, but what I can do is coach. If somebody's got the raw talent and he needs to sharpen the edges, I can do that. If they come to me and say, 'Hey Ray, can you show me the fingering on this' or 'What do you think about this,' well, I can do that. I just want to stay healthy and play my music, make people happy. That's what it seems to do, and as it makes people happy, it makes me happy.
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- Ray Charles