DEATH,” RAY CHARLES TOLD ME when he first learned that cancer was devouring his body, “is the one motherfucker that ain’t ever going away.”
I met Ray Charles in 1975, when he agreed to let me ghostwrite his autobiography. He was vulgar, refined, funny, sexy, spontaneous, outlandish, brave, brutal, tender, blue, ecstatic. He would wrap his arms around his torso, hugging himself in a grand gesture of self-affirmation. In normal conversation, he preached and howled and fell the floor laughing. He was, in his own words, “raw-ass country.”
Because my job was to take the material of our dialogues and weave them into a first-person narrative, I had to make sure the dialogues were deep. I began tentatively by saying. “Now if this question is too tough…”
“How the fuck can a question be too tough? The truth is the truth.”
The truth – at least Ray’s truth – came pouring out: that his life had been rough; that his life had been blessed; that he had followed his musical muse wherever it led; that he had been a junkie; that he had given up junk only when faced with prison; that every day he still drank lots of gin and smoked lots of pot and worked just as tirelessly; that he had a huge appetite for women; that he wasn’t even certain how many children he had fathered; that he was unrepentant about it all.
“When my mother died, I didn’t understand death,” he told me. “Couldn’t feature it. What do you mean, she’s gone forever? I was fifteen, living at a school for the blind 160 miles away from home. She was all I had in the world. No, she couldn’t be dead. Can’t make it without her.
“That’s when I saw what everyone sees: You can’t make a deal with death. No, sir. And you can’t make a deal with God. Death is coldblooded, and maybe God is, too. So I’m alone, and I’m going crazy, until a righteous Christian lady from the little country town where I grew up wakes me and shakes me and says, ‘Boy, stop feeling sorry for yourself. You gotta carry on.”‘
I wondered if the experience made him more religious.
“Made me realize I had to depend on me,” he shot back. “No one was going to do shit for me. You hear me? No one. I could praise Jesus till I’m blue in the face. Pray till the cows come home. But Mama ain’t coming back. So if Mama gave me religion, the religion said, ‘Believe in yourself.”‘
Early the next morning I was eager to continue the conversation.
“Ray, I just want to ask you another question about death….”
“Look, man,” he said, irritated and tired, “I wouldn’t talk to my mama now if she came out the grave.” And with that, he fell asleep.
BROTHER RAY: RAY CHARLES’ OWN Story” came out in 1978. Ray liked the book because, as he said, “it’s me — and I like me.”
When he turned sixty, in 1990, I asked him if he had regrets.
“Paternity suits from women who claimed they had your babies, complaints from musicians who claim you owe them money…”
“Motherfuck it,” he spat. “I paid what was due. Fact is, no one’s paid dues like me. If someone can prove I owe him, I’ll pay. If they can’t, I won’t.”
When he turned seventy, in 2000, I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on a sequel to his autobiography. “All the facts are in Brother Ray. What would we talk about?”
“The changes you’ve been through since 1978.”
“I don’t see no changes, baby. I’m still me. Still kicking plenty ass.”
Then, in the summer of 2003, everything changed.
I heard he was having hip problems and was canceling his U.S. tour. Ray never cancels tours. I knew something was deeply wrong.
When I called Ray, he didn’t sound himself. “My liver’s not right,” he said. “I’m not putting out no press release, but I heard them use the word cancer.”
A month later, my phone rang shortly after midnight. “I’m thingking,” he said, “that we need to add some stuff to the book. But right now I’m tired. I’ll call you when I can.”
Weeks passed before he called. “Someone said,” he told me, “that if you picture yourself well, you get well. If you can conceive it, you achieve it. I’m focusing on the future. But I got to say, man, that the past keeps coming up.”
“What part of the past?” I ask.
“Some of it is funny shit. Like this one time from the early days. I was fucking someone’s old lady when Mr. Someone came home. I didn’t even know there was a Mr. Someone. But there we were, screwing like rabbits, when we hear the door opening, and she’s whispering, ‘Oh, my God, it’s my husband.’
“‘What husband?’ I want to know.
“‘The one who’s crazy jealous and carries a razor.’
“So she hides my naked ass in the closet, where I’m praying to God for the guy to leave in a hurry. Man, I’m shivering. If I cough, I’m dead. But God delivers me. The man splits. I’m saved. Now am I supposed to believe that the good Lord spared me so I could have me some hit records, make me some money and get me some more pussy? Well, that don’t make sense, because God sure didn’t save Sam Cooke. Sam was fucking the wrong girl in the wrong place at the wrong girl time, and he got shot dead. Why Sam and not me? Church folks said ’cause Sam traded in gospel for the devil’s music. Well, I did the same. No, man, you got to believe that God works in mysterious ways. I’ve been blessed.
“I’m getting stronger,” he said the next time he called. “I can feel it.”
“Great. Heard you talked to Mable.” Mable John, the great rhythm & blues artist for Motown and Stax/Volt, is a former lead Raelett and one of Ray’s closest confidantes. Now she is a minister.
“Man, I been talking to Mable for forty years. For forty years she’s been trying to save my sorry ass.”
“How about you?” he asked.
“I’ve been reading the Bible.” “
I got my Braille copy. Always keep it with me.”
“What’s it telling you?”
“When we were writing my book, I remember telling you that I’m not really looking at Jesus, I’m looking at God. Well, I’m looking at it differently now.”
“I think about stories. Songs are stories. And if you’re going to write a good song, you’re going to have to praise a woman. That’s the key. And if you’re writing a book about God, you’re going to have to praise God. That’s what Jesus did. Praised the Father. Taught us about praise. I used to think all that church praise, all that hooting and hollering, was overdone. Stop shouting. Be cool. Besides, if God is God, why does he need all this praise? Now I’m thinking it ain’t God who needs the praise — it’s use who needs to do the praising. The praise makes us stronger. That’s why I’m getting stronger.”
“What’s the source of the strength?”
“Used to think it was me. But now I see my strength has limits. I used to think that I’m in control of this whole motherfucking operation – my music, my band, my life, my ladies. But soon as you start thinking that way, brother, run for cover. ‘Cause someone’s about to kick your ass.”
“Is God kicking your ass?”
“God’s teaching me to depend on something I can’t see. I’ve always seen ahead of myself — how to buy a car or buy a building. how to start a publishing company or a record label, how to make more bread this year than last. They call that foresight, don’t they? Well, I’ve been blessed with foresight. Thank you, Jesus. But now it ain’t serving me. Now I need another kind of sight.”
A PART OF ME WANTED TO SEE him; a part of me didn’t. But when Ray called and said I could come by the studio, I dropped everything and ran.
He was seated behind the control board. He looked smaller, thinner, certainly diminished but far from defeated. I thought of the thousands of hours he had spent here recording his voice. That voice, once an instrument of unprecedented power, was reduced to a whisper.
He was thinking about other musicians, now gone.
“Did I mention Erroll Garner in my book?” he asked, referring to the great jazz pianist.
“Can’t remember. I think so.”
“I think I talked too much about my own playing. Too much about myself.”
“That’s the nature of autobiography.”
“I never came up with that ‘genius’ tag. I’m a utility man. I can do a lot of little things well. But I copied.”
“And then innovated.”
“The innovation was copying. Good copying. Great copying. But I wouldn’t put me up there with Bird and Diz.”
“And when they say you invented soul music, you’re going to argue?”
“Maybe I put together two things that hadn’t been put together before, but, hell, give credit to the church singers and the bluesmen who I got it from. I got enough credit. Let people know that it didn’t come from me. It came from before me.”
“And didn’t the singers before you get it from someone else?”
“But they didn’t get no money for it, and I did.”
“And you regret that?”
“I love that, man,” he said, his voice growing a bit more animated. “Be lying if I said I didn’t. Got bread to leave behind. Bread for charities. Bread for my kids. But for every musician out there who’s made a name, there’s a dozen cats back in Jacksonville or Dallas twice as bad as them.”
“What else do you want to mention?”
“That I hurt some musicians.”
“Being too much in a hurry. Too impatient. Looking for everything to be perfect. Lost my head. Said some nasty shit to guys who didn’t deserve it. You know me, man. I’m always fucking with the drummers. If they don’t get my time, I pitch a bitch. Treat them bad. I feel like I hurt people. I know I hurt people. Well, tell them I’m not an asshole. Tell them I have feelings, too. I can feel their feelings, man. Tell them I appreciate them. Tell them…just tell them Brother Ray loves them.”
THE LAST TIME I SAW HIM, WE didn’t speak. He could hardly speak at all. His deterioration was dramatic. I hadn’t been able to reach him for six or seven weeks. His people told me he was talking to no one. Minister Mable John said otherwise.
“I was there the other day,” she told me. “He’s still going to his building every day. He’s still goes into his studio. He’s maintaining his routine. Routine is Ray’s life. He’ll never give up his routine. So they set up a bed for him where he used to work. He has all the nurses he needs. He says he has all he needs to get through. And I believe him.”
“Is he peaceful?” I asked.
“He’s determined. He can’t be any other way. He’s determined to come outside today for the ceremony.”
The outdoor ceremony was to commemorate Ray’s beloved professional home, 2107 West Washington Boulevard, in Los Angeles, as a historical landmark. Mable and I arrived early and sat in the front row. The speeches droned on. And then the door to his building opened.
Seated in a wheelchair, Ray appeared in a crisply pressed pinstripe suit. He was in obvious pain. Slowly, carefully, he was lifted from the chair and brought to the podium, where his longtime manager Joe Adams brought the microphone to Ray’s mouth. The sound of the singer’s voice was slight, distorted, slurred, his words barely audible. He thanked the city and then paused. I felt him struggling for energy, for a single stream of breath. Finally the breath came:
“I’m weak,” he said, “but I’m getting stronger.”
The news came six weeks later. Ray was gone. My reaction was immediate: I had to hear him sing. I put on his live versions of “Drown in My Own Tears” and “Tell the Truth.” Those are the songs that bonded his heart to mine as a boy. After a good, long cry, I called Mable.
“I know he’s all right,” she said. “I know he’s found his strength.”