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Q&A: Ray Charles

The Genius on rap, traveling and his alternate career choice

Ray Charles

Ray CHARLES, The Hague, North Sea Jazz Festival, October 10th, 1997.

Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty

ALTHOUGH HE SHRUGS IT OFF, Ray Charles deserves his unofficial title – he really is a genius. In a recording career that stretches back to 1948, he’s truly done it all. His R&B hits (beginning with “I Got a Woman,” in 1954) defined soul music, blending bluesy grit and gospel fire in a volcanic eruption. His excursions into pop (“Georgia on My Mind”) and country (“I Can’t Stop Loving You”) are classics in their own right, elegant crossovers achieved without a trace of compromise. Charles can put his passionate stamp on any song, from “My Bonnie” to “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah.” Proof of this lies in Rhino’s recently released five-CD box set, Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection. The 67-year old genius is currently on the road, as always – with his piano, orchestra and backup singers, the Raelettes.

On some of your old R&B sides, you jive-talk against the beat, and it’s very funky – but I don’t want to accuse you of inventing rap.
[Laughs] You don’t have to worry about it, babe. I’ll never be accused of inventing rap. The truth of the matter is, all rap is is talking to the beat. I did that years ago on “It Could’ve Been Me.” But rap doesn’t grab my attention in the same way as when I hear Oscar Peterson play the piano. Name me a rap that you can hum!

When you first recorded Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, your record company labeled it Ray’s Folly.
I understood why. They felt it was going to ruin my career. At that time, I was into R&B – “What’d I Say.” I said to the president of ABC Records, “You may have a point. But I think I’ll gain more fans than I lose.” Since they wanted to sign me to another contract, they let me have my way, so to speak.

Did you sit down one day and think, “I’m going to invent soul music by mixing gospel and blues”?
It was not a conscious thing to sit down and mix nothin’. It was a conscious thing to sit down and be myself. See, before I started being myself, I tried 1,000 percent to sound like Nat “King” Cole. I could get hired, but nobody knew what my name was. So one day I decided to be myself. And, naturally, I grew up in the church. Naturally, I grew up with the blues. So, naturally, the flavors came together, ’cause that’s what I grew up with.

If you were starting out today, could you be yourself?
I would not make it if I were starting today. When I came up, the record-company guys could snap their fingers to the music. They could feel the groove. Now you’ve got guys at the record companies, they couldn’t keep time to a march. When I was on Atlantic, I made four or five records before I had a hit. I wouldn’t get that in today’s market. They’d put my ass out, and after two records, I’d be over.

What would you be if you were not a musician?
I could probably be an excellent lawyer. I think I have a good sense of rationality and judgment. But I have no interest in that, man. All my life, I’ve never wanted to do anything but music. I can do other things – I can type 60 words a minute, but I don’t plan to being a secretary.

How did it feel to be labeled the Genius?
I ignored it. I’m not a genius. Art Tatum – that man was a genius. Charlie Parker was a genius. Where I’m coming from is, I do a lot of things well. That’s the key to my survival.

In the ’60s, you had trouble with drugs. Did the bad publicity hurt your career?
No. That’s why I don’t talk to people about drugs, because I don’t say the things that I’m expected to say. They want me to blame somebody else. I don’t blame nobody but me. The man wasn’t at my door; I hunted him down. That’s another one of my problems with the world today: Don’t nobody want to be responsible.

What do you look for in a Raelette?
A girl that has a voice she can control. I don’t like singers to holler, OK? I like singers who can sing in their range and do it well.

Aren’t hotels a drag – all the traveling?
Whatever you do in your life, there is a price you have to pay. In order to get my music to the public, that requires taking buses, airplanes, sleeping in hotels. But the reason I don’t worry about that is, see, they pay me a lot of money. I sing and play the piano for nothin’. But I get paid for all this opposite stuff I have to go through.

Do you have advice for young musicians?
Practice, You’ve got to keep your fingers loose. You’ve got to keep your vocal cords loose – you’ve got to practice all the time. And a lot of youngsters don’t want to do that. They just want to learn one or two chords, especially in today’s age, with computers. I mean, you can use these things. I don’t knock a calculator. But I need to know how to add myself. I need to know how to do it. S’pose I ain’t got a calculator? S’pose the electricity go off?

Any plans to slow down?
[Laughs] Tell me, what would I retire to? Music is my life. I’m not going to sit on somebody’s beach or on some porch in a rocking chair, I mean, what the hell is that?

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